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Carson City, Nevada’s State Capitol
Way out at the fringes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, some 865 acres of desert were destined to become Nevada’s state capitol. A man named Abraham Curry deemed it so when he bought 10 acres in 1858, before Nevada was even a territory, and designated it for a state capitol building.
When U.S. 395 descends from open desert into downtown Carson City, the scenery changes dramatically.
State buildings line Carson Street, among them an elegant 1871 capitol building with Corinthian columns and shaded by a forest of trees.
A sprawling legislature building, its Senate on one side and its Assembly on the other, is flanked by a leafy park. (The legislature meets here every other year.) On the corner of Carson and Robinson streets sits the old U.S. Mint, now an enormous Nevada State Museum.
Tucked along the way are a few casinos and first-rate restaurants, including The Basil (outstanding Thai food); the charming, historic Adele’s (excellent continental fare); the High Sierra Brewing Company (BBQ and fine food), and on South Carson Street, Red’s Old 395 Grill (barbecue) with some 20 or so antique carriages hanging from the ceiling.
Even with the impressive government buildings, the town is small, quiet, and clean, with sleepy, tree-lined residential streets. But spend time here and you'll quickly learn that beneath this calm veneer is a long and celebrated, wild-west history, heavily shaped by mining and railroads. Friendly locals love to tell about it.
Destined to be the capitol
Carson City began as a simple trading post for Eagle Valley ranchers and a stop-off at the edge of the Sierra Nevada Mountains for travelers and prospectors headed for California.
Abraham Curry and three speculating friends bought 865 acres of the valley for $500 and a herd of horses. They organized a town and named it after the Carson River, which had been named for legendary frontier scout Kit Carson.
In a stroke of, build-it-and-they-will-come foresight, Curry bought 10 acres himself in 1858 and designated it for a capitol building.
At that time, the town lay in the barren hinterland of western Utah territories. In 1859, however, when nearby Comstock mines offered up the biggest silver lode in the world, prospectors came running.
Political wrangling turned Utah’s western region into Nevada Territories and then quickly into Nevada state in 1864. Just in time to relect Abraham Lincoln. Carson City became the capitol.
The town grew quickly as a staging center for nearby mines. Timber was milled here for housing and to shore up hundreds of miles of underground mines. When the Comstock Lode was at its peak, the Virginia and Truckee (V&T) railroad made some 36 runs a day between Carson City and Virginia City—it has recently been restored.
According to Mark Twain’s 1863 travel book Roughing It, Carson City was a “wooden town… with two thousand souls … in a desert walled in by barren snow-clad mountains … not a tree in sight, no vegetation, just endless sagebrush and greasewood.”
And of the powerful Washoe Zephyr, an afternoon wind that blows through town, he wrote: “Things living and dead flitted hither and thither, going and coming, appearing and disappearing among the rolling billows of dust-hats-chickens and parasols, sailing in the remote heavens.”
Today’s trees and paved streets have tamed the zephyr. But when residents hear the wind in the leaves, they fasten down their picnic tablecloths.
Disappearing mines and railroads reshape Carson City.
By 1880, the mines were declining. The new Southern Pacific Railroad branch bypassed the V&T completely and brought traffic through Carson City to a standstill. By the 1930s, the city’s population was only 1,800. Residents boasted the smallest capitol in the U.S. In 1960, the state merged Carson City with Ormsby County. Today, with a 50,000-plus population, Carson City is no longer the smallest capitol, and residents are bringing its history back to life.
It’s fair to say that without Abraham Curry’s foresight—making Carson City the capitol of Nevada—the town may not have survived the decline of silver mining. Current owners of the Comstock say there’s more silver to be had in their mines, and they plan to start mining again. This may reshape Carson City once more.
Suggestions for an up close glimpse into Carson City history:
Kit Carson “Blue Line” Trail
Learn the history of state buildings and of homes along residential streets, including the Orion Clemens house (Mark Twain’s brother), the Abraham Curry house, and the Kreps-Peterson house where John Wayne filmed The Shootes (In fact, Clint Eastwood, Larry Hagman, Tom Berenger, Tom Selleck, Bernadette Peters, Kathy Bates, Tommy Lee Jones and other luminaries have all filmed scenes in Carson City). Pick a map up at the visitors center, 1900 S. Carson Street.
The Nevada State Museum, Carson City
This former U.S. Mint building houses over two million artifacts, among them a fully reconstructed, underground 19th century mine shaft, a ghost town, the skeleton of an enormous Columbian mammoth, the silver service from the USS Nevada Battleship, and the antique coin press, used when the building was a U.S. mint in the 1870s.
The museum has on display nearly every coin they made. Limited production and high quality have made coins with Mint Mark “CC” highly prized among collectors.
Nevada State Railroad Museum, Carson City
Learn the history of Nevada’s railroad system as you view restored locomotives and RR cars, most built before 1900, including some from the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. Many were brought from Hollywood studios, where they were made famous in movies and television shows.
Visitors can take short train and hand-car rides and watch a train history video. The Railroad Museum gift store offers a large choice of books on trains.
Restored V&T Railroad
Ride the restored Virginia & Truckee Railroad from Carson City to Virginia City. The conductor spins tales of local history while the 90-minute ride snakes 1,900 feet up through tunnels and barren hills where wild horses still roam and scores of old and a few working mines still exist.
A fun note: V&T’s 90-ton steam engine #18 was shipped to Los Angeles on the back of a flatbed truck to be featured in the 2010 film Water for Elephants.
Carson City Ghost Walk
Join a tour guide dressed in 18th century garb to learn of suicide and prostitution at the St. Charles Hotel, quirky ghosts that haunt a number of homes, including a bride at George Ferris’s house (Ferris invented the Ferris Wheel), and a baby ghost and haunted grandfather’s clock at the Governor’s mansion. The Carson City Ghost Walk Facebook page contains more information.
Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada
Kids can play in a grocery store, a sheriff’s office (finger printing, jail and all), a bank, a doctor’s office, an Asian restaurant and even climb a rock wall at the Children’s Museum.
Casino Gaming in Carson City
While the rough and tumble saloons and gambling houses of early Carson City are gone a much more civilized version, know known as gaming, is available at a number of casinos including the Silver Dollar, Nugget, Cactus Jack’s and Fandango.
Nine golf courses with a total of 171 holes are available in Carson City and Carson Valley. They are known as the Divine 9.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson