I felt punished when I pulled up the curtains that morning. “Damn this weather! When does it get cold in California, if not in February?” I asked rhetorically. Although a snow storm was in the forecast, it had been nothing but rain for the past four days. The thick blanket of snow that was covering the streets of Lake Tahoe earlier that week was beginning to melt under the heavy showers, while up in the mountains the winds were blowing fiercely. Conditions were so bad that ski resorts had to close for the past few days.This was supposed to be our ski vacation, but the weather didn’t seem to care. “I think we should go visit Carson City. It may be sunny on the Nevada side of the mountain,” my husband suggested. I wasn’t very convinced, but the perspective of spending another day behind the foggy windows made me say ‘yes’ right away. So we hopped in the car and headed down the mountain.
As the road kept winding toward the valley I couldn’t help asking myself: why would anyone want to visit Carson City, other than running from bad weather? After seeing Reno a few years earlier, I didn’t expect Nevada’s State Capital would impress me much more. By the time we reached Carson Valley the rain lifted and the sun was wiggling its way out of the clouds. At last we’ve got a beak from the rain!
Carson Valley is of one of the most scenic and historic areas in the country. This agricultural area along the east fork of the Carson River in Nevada is best visited from May through October, when it offers a variety of special events and outdoor activities. But the valley doesn’t loose its charm winter, when fishing, golfing and hiking are replaced by the winter sports. The neighboring towns scattered in the valley include Carson City, Minden, Gardnerville and Genoa, Nevada’s oldest community. Lake Tahoe lies just a little higher up in the Sierras, to the west.
Carson City started its history as a waystation for white settlers seeking their fortune in the Gold Rush. But instead of gold, in 1859 the gold prospectors hit silver in the hills east of Carson City. A lot of silver! The Comstock Lode, as it was called, became the largest silver find in world history. Tens of thousands of miners rushed into the small community of Carson City, founded just one year earlier and named for the famous frontiersman and scout Christopher “Kit” Carson.
Over the next few years Carson City became a thriving commercial and transportation center. In 1861, to the delight of its citizens, the city was selected as the capital and the seat of Nevada Territory. One year later Carson City become a station on the Pony Express and in 1864 when Nevada became a state, Carson City was confirmed as its permanent capital. Although the silver mines provided the city’s economic importance in the beginning, Carson City continued to develop as a freight and staging center for the timber harvest in the Lake Tahoe basin as well. Carson City also had a mint which processed the rich ore found in nearby mines. Today the mint is the site of the Nevada State Museum.
During those early years, Nevada’s legislative business was marked by fistfights and and political corruption. Many of those who gained their wealth during the mining boom settled in Carson City and were now trying to maneuver the law to their advantage. In 1862, commissioners purchased the Great Basin Hotel from Abraham Curry and began using it as the county courthouse. The building was rather primitive looking, but despite its humble appearance the courthouse remained in use for almost 60 years. The monumental two-story limestone building that you see today was designed in the 1920s by Frederick DeLongchamps, Nevada’s State architect at the time.
Although Nevada obtained statehood status in 1864, it wasn’t until 1870 that construction on the state capitol began. The large stone structure with its silver-painted cupola was completed in 1872 and is today one of Carson City’s historic landmarks. That same year a 52-mile railroad linking Carson City to Virginia City was constructed.
Toward the end of the 19th century the nearby mines began to decline. At the same time, the Southern Pacific Railroad built a rail line that bypassed Carson City entirely. With the miners moving out and the traffic through the city coming to a halt, Carson City began settling down into a quiet community again. After World War I the city’s economy continued to deteriorate, culminating with the worldwide economic plunge of the Great Depression. By 1930, Carson City’s population was only about 1,500 citizens, about a quarter of what it had been 50 years earlier. Then in 1931 the State of Nevada enacted a law that permitted gambling in the area and, later in the year, divorce. Nevada was now famous for its speedy divorce and simple marriage procedures, so people began flocking back into Carson City. In 1933 the highway was paved through town, but the locals didn’t have to worry about too much about traffic on it. In those days Carson City was considered America’s smallest state capital.
Todays Carson City thrives as a manufacturing center, with a population of over 55,000 people. The best way to get acquainted with the charming Nevada State capital is to take a stroll through its historic neighborhoods. The Visitors Bureau provides an illustrated map with details and locations of many of the historic homes. Some of them are equipped with small transmitters that tell their stories. You can also take a horse-drawn carriage tour of the old neighborhoods originating at the Railroad Museum.You can walk by the Capitol Building, Courthouse and the Governor’s Mansion, take a stroll along the promenade between the Supreme Court Building and the Capitol Building and admire the beautiful statues that populate the green spaces. If you happen to visit Carson City in winter, you can drop by the Carson City Eastgate Depot and hop on the Polar Express, a train that recreates the one made famous by the children’s book.
There are several museums in Carson City, like the Nevada State Museum, Virginia & Truckee Railroad Museum and the Children’s Museum. And if you need even more insight into Carson City’s history, you could visit the Lone Mountain Cemetery, a forty-acre site that contains tombs of every denomination and ethnic background. According to the available records, there were originally seven separate cemeteries which were incorporated into one cemetery known as Lone Mountain in 1971. There is an entire section that dates back to the 1860s which is dedicated to the Carson City pioneers. The epitaphs engraved on some of these grave markers provide insight into the lives and deaths of those laid to rest there.
There is no shortage of eateries in Carson City, everything from fast food to fine dining, as well as a few good bakeries. There are many options, from Mexican to American, from Chinese to Italian, from Indian to Thai. There are even a couple of traditional Basque restaurants featuring cuisine from Europe’s Pyrenees Mountains.
Exploring Carson City will most likely take you about a day if you plan to visit all the museums, the historic area and the cemetery. There are a few souvenir shops and art galleries where you could spend a little time, but otherwise shopping is not out of the ordinary. Just the usual chain stores.
Trivia: Carson City was home to many interesting figures including George Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris Wheel. The Ferris Wheel was inspired by a water wheel at Cradlebaugh Bridge on the Carson River.
Towards evening heavy clouds began to gather above the valley and thunder roared louder and louder. “We should head back,” my husband said. As we rode up toward the mountain It became very dark, the rain fell, and then it began to snow. A fresh, white carpet of snow was laid down ahead of us as if the weather was trying to make up for those lost days of ski. “At last, the spell is broken and tomorrow is going to be a great day” I told myself, but didn’t let the words come out for fear I would jinx it.