Star of Washoe Valley: Bowers Mansion
Bowers Mansion, sturdy, stately, and majestic, is the sentinel of Washoe Valley. Its presence and longevity reflect Comstock earnings invested in Nevada not lost at the bar or spirited away to California. In 1856 Eilley Orrum purchased 320 acres surrounding a hot spring on what is now Bowers Mansion. She did not leave when Brigham Young recalled all Mormons to Utah in 1857 but stayed to make her life in Washoe Valley. When she and Sandy Bowers struck it rich, their earnings were invested in Bowers Mansion. The Mansion was built in 1863, when the Comstock seemed to promise unlimited wealth. By the 1880s the promised riches were gone and Virginia City, Bowers Mansion and Washoe Valley slowly became the memory of those glorious days - is not forgotten. Bowers Mansion is now a beacon for preserving land in Washoe Valley and a model for how additional land might be preserved.
Washoe Valley lies between the merging cities of Reno and Carson. Bowers Mansion, the first public investment in Washoe Valley, has been followed by a series of acquisitions to maintain the scenic values, recreation opportunities, historical, cultural and wildlife sites.. These preservation efforts are ongoing but would benefit from a more concentrated public effort to forestall creeping suburbanization.
The Bowers Mansion acquisition demonstrates the criteria essential to transferring private property into public ownership. These critical elements include a willing seller, public support, a receiver for that property, and, of course, funding. Acquisition may also require a facilitator. In Washoe Valley, Nevada Land Trust in recent years has facilitated several major acquisitions.
The purchase of Bowers Mansion in 1946 has all these factors. Owners of Bowers Mansion, Edna and Henry Ritter, loved children and, as they aged and had to part with the property, they wanted children to continue enjoying the swimming pools. (There were two at that time, a hot pool and a cooler pool). The Reno Women’s Civic Club, reflecting public interest, sought to raise the $75,000 the Ritters were asking. Unable to raise the amount requested, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners offered $50,000 as well as willingness to own the property. Finally, the Ritters were willing to reduce the price by $25,000 (a real gift). Bowers Mansion continues to welcome families with picnic grounds, a swimming pool and programs like Civil War Re-enactments, tours of the Mansion, history presentations, and a blue grass festival.
Bowers Mansion is ideal in its central location. The mansion backs up to the Carson Range. Once stripped of all its trees to build the Comstock infrastructure, the pine forest has regrown providing a backdrop of dark green for the white mansion. It’s sweeping front faces extensive green pasture, probably leveled by early ranchers. The view includes Washoe Lake, in a good water year, and the reddish mountains of the Virginia Range which border the valley to the east. In fact, the old causeway which once crossed the lake to enter the Jumbo trail is visible, that once carried ore into Washoe Valley to be processed at the Ophir stamp mill and which Eilley Orrum traversed with miners’ dirty laundry. Later the V&T train which ran from Reno to Carson might stop to let out party goers who would then walk to the Mansion.
While private property still exists in the Carson Range, most of the land is now administered by the US Forest Service, Nevada State Parks and UNR. And the Virginia Range, once covered in private ownership claims by hopeful prospectors, was transferred into public ownership, facilitated by the American Land Conservancy and placed under BLM management.
The valley floor and the Lake have been the focus of acquisition. Courtesy of Nevada Land Trust, and their local, state, and federal partners including The Conservation Fund, almost 2,000 acres of the historic Winters Ranch (the Winter’s Mansion still exists), including the pasture in front of Bowers Mansion, have been acquired by the BLM, USFS, and Washoe County. The state of Nevada purchased land on the south end of Washoe Lake to create the Washoe Lake State Park in 1977. The Scripps Wildlife Management Area at the north end of Washoe Lake was mostly a gift in 1955 to the now Nevada Department of Wildlife. Smaller public parks have been acquired, include Davis Creek in 1969, Wilson Commons in 1986, as well as subsequent additions to those parks. Several landowners who own homes in the valley but want the rest of their land to remain open, have donated or sold the development rights on their agricultural land to create conservation easements with Nevada Land Trust.
As someone who grew up in Washoe Valley, I was on the last run of the V&T train in May1950, and helped to relocate the wooden crossbars to our fireplace. I hope the V&T track will one day be part of a trail across the valley. And as someone who explored the decaying remains of the Longabough home, now among the many structures completely disappeared on Winter’s Ranch, and climbed up the remains of the Ophir Mill, I would like to see more tribute to that brief but exciting time called the Comstock, as well as other important eras in the Valley’s history. Maybe even a gallery for artifacts, photographs, and paintings, like the one by Ada Ducker, who lived in Washoe Valley, of horses in the pasture with the Virginia Range behind; Ada died in 1943.
Washoe Valley is part of the ancestral homeland of the Washoe Tribe, and more recognition and understanding of the Tribe's vital connection to the Valley is long overdue. Tribal ancestors relied on the Valley's bountiful tules, abundant bird life, and other hunting opportunities in their rich seasonal home for thousands of years prior to the arrival of early settlers. Their history must be included in any effort to tell the story of this remarkable place."
Marshes once covered the shallow lake. Duck Hill is so named because at one time flocks of waterfowl flew over the hill into the lake, encountering duck hunters. In 1926, a goose that Aldo and Mardy Murie banded in Alaska was taken at Washoe Lake. Washoe Lake, even with mitigated wetlands and Scripps WMA, are minimal remains of that former marsh.(2).
This past November I watched a paddle boarder pulling up to the ramp at the Park. On a good water year, Washoe Lake is glorious with what are relatively new sports of parasailing, wind surfing, and kite surfing. “On a good day Washoe Lake is the best place for 200 miles”, one enthusiast told me. “
The foundation is being built now by acquiring land and water from willing landowners for all of us to enjoy the now, the past and the future. Thank you to all who have cared and invested in the valley; may there be many more. Thank you Eilley Orrum and Sandy Bowers.
1, Ratay, Myra Sauer. Pioneers of the Ponderosa, 1973 Western Printing and Publishing Company
2. Murie, Margaret E. Two in the Far North, 1979 West Margin Press
3. Clark, Walter Van. City of Trembling Leaves 1945 Random House Edition