Carson City, Nevada (a 30 minute drive from Reno) is the state capitol of Nevada, and has been the Nevada capital since the Nevada Territory was established in 1861. While it doesn't have the size or reputation of Reno, Carson City does provides interest and enjoyment to visitors by virtue of its frontier architecture and historical attractions. Adults and children are easy to keep busy here.
By 1851, Eagle Valley had been settled by ranchers and farmers. A few years later a group of 4 well-connected attorneys whose names still decorate street signs (Proctor, Musser, Green and Curry) bought the richest part of the valley for $500 and a herd of horses. They planted a community on the land and named it in honor of John C. Fremont's most celebrated scouting trip, where in 1844 he named the river flowing through the valley, the Carson River, after his scout, Kit Carson. In the spring of the next year, to their astonishment and delight, the discovery of the Comstock Lode brought their community to life as a freight and transportation center. One of the junior partners, Abe Curry, then built the crude Warm Springs Hotel a mile to the east, and when Carson City was selected as the territorial capital in 1861, leased it to the Legislature as a meeting hall. The legislature established Carson City as the seat of Ormsby County (named for one of the dead "heroes" at the Battle of Pyramid Lake).
The legislators also leased the Warm Springs Hotel to serve as the Territorial Prison, and named their hospitable host and landlord, as its first warden. The property was eventually purchased by the state and is still a part of the state prison system.
Carson City was confirmed as Nevada's permanent capital with statehood in 1864, and development subsequently was no longer completely dependent on the health of the Comstock mines. Until they began to decline in the 1880s, these mines provided Carson City with most of its economic importance as a cargo and staging center, and as a gathering point for much of the timber harvest in the Lake Tahoe basin.
Long shallow flumes, capable of carrying enormous pine logs in its spill of fast water, swooped down the steep eastern slope of the Sierra from Spooner Summit to Carson City. Scorched and smoldering where they had rubbed against the flume's sides in their dashing descent, the logs were fed into sawmills where they became timbers for the underground mines, and planed boards for the surface cities. The finished lumber was then loaded onto flatcars and rolled off to Silver City, Gold Hill and Virginia City via the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.
The V&T was completed between Carson City and Virginia City in 1869, with the railroad's shops and main offices in Carson City. The V&T rails were extended north to connect with the transcontinental railroad at Reno in 1872. By 1874, when the Comstock mines were reaching their peak production, 36 trains a day passed through Carson City. The huge sandstone V&T engine house and roundtable dominated the northeast corner of the city for well over a century.
Carson City is its own best attraction, and a leisurely walk through its historic neighborhoods is the best way to get acquainted with this pleasant little city at the base of the Sierra Nevada.
In 1861, the writer Mark Twain added to the notoriety of Carson City by publishing the following description:
"It nestled in the edge of a great plain and was a sufficient number of miles away to look like an assemblage of mere white spots. The mountain summits overlooking it seemed lifted clear out of companionship and consciousness of earthly things."
Although Mark Twain visited Carson City Nevada almost 150 years ago in 1861, the city is still considered a town that is dominated by its spectacular setting. The town maintains the charm of its 1860s gold and silver town roots. This is a town that was made to be explored and enjoyed by foot.
Some of what you will see in Carson City's historic district:
Nevada State Museum
Northeast corner of Carson and Robinson Street. Open daily 8:30-4:30 daily. Admission $1.50; under 18 free.
The immense production of gold and silver from the Comstock mines prompted the establishment of a branch U.S. Mint in Carson City in 1866. The handsome structure on the northeast corner of Carson Street and Robinson was built of prison-quarried sandstone and produced nearly $50 million in coin of the realm until it closed down in 1933. The old coin stamps are still inside (and still put to use to make commemorative coins for special occasions) along with fascinating exhibits of natural and social history. Exhibits range from stuffed animals in glass cases through a life-sized wax-figured diorama of Paiute Indian home life to the unique facsimile of a silver mine down in the basement. Dat-So-La-Lee's woven baskets are a national treasure. The mineral exhibits are exceptional, and guns abound.
The Nevada State Capitol
Carson Street, at the center of town. Open during office hours; no admission charge. This solemn old sandstone monument to the 19th century has been earthquake-proofed and renovated throughout, but its Alaskan marbled halls are still decorated with elaborate friezes, and hung with the portraits of former governors, back to "Broadhorn" Bradley and James Nye, the New Yorker whose loyalty to the Union Abraham Lincoln rewarded with the governorship of the Nevada Territory in 1861. The present governor and other top state officials continue to do the state's business here, but the original Senate, Assembly and Supreme Court Chambers upstairs are most often used for exhibit space and usually open to visitors. The octagonal afterthought out the back door of the capitol building was added in 1908 when the burst of economic and political activity at Tonopah prompted an expansion of state government.
That oddity was the last benign addition in the neighborhood of the capitol; now a gallery of architectural eyesores presses in closer and closer around the old silver-domed building of the pioneers.
The promenade between the Capitol building and the modern growth of the Legislative Building (presently being retrofitted with a new and presumably more agreeable facade) to the south has lately become populated with sculpture. Kit Carson, life-sized and personal, is studying the trail from horseback, his rifle ready in his hand. Adolph Sutro, larger than life-size, is poised to drive his pick into the famous four-mile tunnel he dug to drain the Comstock mines. And Abe Curry, pioneer real estate developer and city builder, stands earnestly in a badly cut coat, clutching a bronze wad of blueprints like a club.
Warren Engine Company Museum
111 N. Curry. Open 1-5 pm weekdays; admission free. A block west of the Capitol this colorful and intriguing museum is devoted to this pioneer volunteer fire company. The Warrens are the oldest established volunteer fire brigade in the U.S. and understandably proud of it. It's only open in the afternoon, but unless everybody is busy with a fire, you'll get a personal tour from one of the paid firemen or a from an available volunteer. The treasures displayed here range from a 1912 Seagrave Fire Truck (how did they get that thing up to the second floor?) to memorabilia such as antique uniforms, alarm systems and redwood water mains.
Lone Mountain Cemetery
Corner N. Roop Street and Beverley Drive. Open daily. No admission charge for brief visits. Stagecoach driver Hank Monk is probably better remembered than the pillars of local society who are buried around him here. It was Hank Monk who bounced Horace Greeley up the mountainside to California, lashing the horses over the rocky road and yelling down into the coach, "Keep your seat, Horace, I'll get you there on time!" As one of his contemporaries remarked, "He drank so much hard spirits that he often forgot what he was doing when it came to the incidental tasks connected with staging, and fed whiskey to his horses and watered himself on numerous occasions, thus becoming accidentally sober enough to handle the inebriated team."
Many pioneer families are represented here, some beneath or within elaborate burial monuments, others quite modest. The cast-iron civil war soldier pictured above keeps endless vigil.
Virginia & Truckee Railroad Museum
South Carson Street at Fairview. Open 8:30-4:30 Wednesday through Sunday. Admission, $1; under 18 free. This small but satisfying museum is a showplace for what remains of railroading in Carson City. The locomotives, coaches and cars inside the museum building are like jewelry, and the steamers that carry passengers back and forth across the grounds are the real thing.
Inside the big windowed barn are two locomotives, a flatcar, a passenger car, and a caboose and one of the best take a present home for the kids (or grand-kids) gift shops in Nevada. It's railroad oriented, which means there's something here for everyone (does anyone have too many striped engineer's caps?), but with a strong emphasis on delighting the kids.
The Children’s Museum
813 N. Carson Street. Open Tuesday through Thursday, 11-4. Admission: Adults, $4; under 12, $2; under 2 free. This venerable building was once Carson City's library, but there's no shushing inside these days, as toddlers through pre-teens find their way through this agreeable environment. A friendly hands-on entertainment for kids.
Great Basin Art Gallery
Nevada artists are showcased in this former stagecoach station behind the old Supreme Court Building at Second and Curry Streets. Besides the brilliant Nevada landscapes of co-proprietor Jeff Nicholson, the gallery exhibits the work of many fine contemporary Nevada painters, sculptors and photographers.
Stewart Indian Cultural Center
5366 Snyder Ave. 775-882-1808. Home to the Cassinelli arrowhead collection, E.S. Curtis photogravures, traditional basketry, Indian School memorabilia, grinding rocks and unique Great Basin artifacts. Open 9-5:30 Mon-Sat; 9-4 Sun, admission free. Gift shop with a wide variety of Native American art and goods. Pow-wows in March and June.