Carson City, Nevada

October 12, 2005
Filed under Travel

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Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln were products of a frontier democracy. Virtually everything
from our country’s European past had either withered away or been declared useless by both
of them. Neither looked across the Atlantic for inspiration or replenishment, but rather to
the Mississippi Valley and beyond. Just as Lincoln in the late 1800s gave America a
political identity, Mark Twain’s writing in those years answered the question of the day –
who, then, is this new man, the American? If you visit Carson City, the capital of Nevada,
you will see portraits in state buildings and museums of each of them, and for good
reasons. It was Lincoln who, in 1864, signed the order making Nevada the 36th member of the
Union. And it was Mark Twain (real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens) who, during that time,
became the state’s most celebrated resident and advocate. Traveling by overland stage,
accompanying his brother, Orion, Mark Twain arrived in Carson City from St. Joseph,
Missouri, in 1861. His brother had been appointed Secretary of State of the new Nevada
Territory, and Mark, to the “sublime position of private secretary under him.” In his book
Roughing It — which he calls “a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing” –
Mark Twain writes of that 12-day journey and his six years in Carson Valley, Virginia City
and nearby Lake Tahoe. Originally a derelict piece of the Utah Territory, Nevada was called
Carson County, and a huge county it was — 110,500 square miles. Empty, desolate land, it
was the last, and often a deadly, obstacle for those traveling to California from the east.
Here on its western edge, however, between the looming Sierra Nevada and the vast desert,
are lush meadows that attracted colonies of Mormon stock raisers and farmers. In 1858, the
transformation began to churn: Gold prospectors discovered silver in the hills near here –
the Comstock Lode, which turned out to be the largest silver find in the world.
Californians poured in over the mountains. They were the leftovers, the unlucky of the
49ers, mostly. For a while, the Johnson Cutoff over the Sierra became the most heavily
traveled highway in the West. Congress quickly got on the bandwagon — discoveries of gold
and silver always seemed to get Washington’s attention — proclaiming Utah’s Carson County
a new territory and dispatching the senior Clemens as its first state secretary. Now on the
fast track, Nevada passed from territory to statehood in four short years, a new speed
record. The Comstock Lode, which was to yield $145 million in gold and silver between 1858
and 1870, was paying most of the nation’s bills during the Civil War from 1861-1865.
Needless to say, President Lincoln was appreciative. Lincoln also believed that he needed
Nevada’s electoral votes to assure his reelection. There was, however, the matter of a
federal population requirement for statehood. The territory was roughly 25,000 short of the
mandated 60,000-people figure. But they found some small print, something about “consistent
with the general interest of the confederacy, such admission shall be allowed at an earlier
period.” And so it was, on October 31 — Halloween — 1864, Nevada became a state. In
retrospect, Lincoln didn’t need Nevada’s three electoral votes, as he won by a landslide.
(Nevada, in spite of today’s spirited growth of Las Vegas, appears not to have grown that
much in relative terms. It ranks 38th among the 50 states in population and now has a scant
five electoral votes.) For the next 40 years, the Comstock Lode at Virginia City dominated
the affairs of the state. To make silver dollars meant that the heavy silver bars had to be
hauled 250 miles to the San Francisco Mint. That quickly became a security nightmare, hence
the creation of the mint in Carson City. There the “CC” silver dollars were stamped from
1870 to 1893. A bag full of those in mint-condition today would buy you an early
retirement. The mint, in a stately stone building on Carson Street, is now the Nevada State
Museum. There the original six-ton coin press still operates, now stamping out
commemorative coins rather than “CC” dollars. Also, displayed there is the massive
silver-service set that was given by the state to USS Nevada, when that battleship was
commissioned in 1916. Decommissioned after WWII, she was the only battleship to get under
way during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Our Navy now has a ballast missile submarine named
for that battleship. The museum/mint is on the city’s walking tour, called the “Kit Carson
Trail.” It tours one of the largest historic residential districts in the West, and
features 24 “talking” houses. Stand in front of a house with your portable radio turned to
a designated frequency and you hear its story. Following the blue line on the sidewalk
makes it impossible to get lost or miss anything. I walked part of the 2.5-mile tour the
week before Halloween. Because it’s also the state’s birthday — they call it Nevada Day –
Halloween is celebrated here in a big way. Houses were decorated with ingenious creativity,
especially the governor’s mansion. Halloween night, the governor answers the door and hands
out candy. Actually, I’m told, there are always so many trick-or-treating kids that the
front door never closes. They also have a Nevada Day parade here in Carson City. The
schools are even closed statewide. If there is a better place to be a kid on Halloween, I
don’t know where it is. Bill’s e-mail address: roadscribe@aol.com

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