“Go It, Washoe!”


Early in November a storm struck the Sierra, covering it with snow and ice such as had already brought tragedy to many California-bound emigrants in previous years. But this deterred only the faint-hearted and the sane. While commercial traffic was halted, the most frantic rainbow-hunters floundered upward in the snow, resting at the highest outposts until the weather cleared enough for them to push over the summit. One storm after another raked the Sierra in one of the fiercest winters on record. Snow drifted as deep as sixty feet in the upper canyons. Numberless animals and a few men met death in blizzards and avalanches, but still the most daring pressed on, driven by visions of Washoe silver.

As the spring thaw approached, all of California seemed to rally at the foot of the Sierra. The winter’s isolation had left the Comstock so short of supplies that prices were soaring, and between rival freight-packers there was a breakneck race to be first across with whiskey and other “necessities.” As early as February they were laying blankets in the snow for their animals to walk on, taking them up behind the train as it advanced and spreading them on the path ahead. Imaginative freighters tried sleighs, but these were stalled at the frequent patches of wind-swept granite. Mule trains were the only resort—taking not only merchandise, but offering to deliver passengers in Washoe at thirty dollars per head. By early March even the stages were running again, but passengers had to walk much of the way, holding the coach to keep it from rolling down the mountainside. Above Strawberry Flat they trudged onward on foot, braving fierce winds and shoveling a path before them across the summit.

With the first days of spring the Washoe trail was a continuous scar of slush and mud through the Sierra snow. A traveler called it “nothing but one trough of mire from two to three feet deep …” Adding further obstructions were the broken wagons, abandoned boxes, and dead animals that literally lined the trail for the entire hundred miles across the mountains.

Worse hazards stalked the other Sierra routes opened to accommodate the tide. From California’s Northern Mines the adventurers stormed up the tempestuous Yuba River, joined a mule train at Downieville, and bent onward along narrow trails that hung hundreds of feet above the foaming river. From the Southern Mines they ventured through giant redwood groves, over Ebbet Pass, to the Carson River. Near the summit of this remote passage the stampeders encountered more than rough trail. Two of them stayed up all night waving firebrands to protect a load of bacon from three grizzly bears that, as one man recalled, “were grumbling and gnashing their teeth.”

By April, 1860, some 150 Californians were arriving in the Washoe country every day. Estimates of its population reached as high as 10,000 that spring, with thousands more on the way. Those remaining in California were investing every spare cent in Washoe mining stocks. “The Washoe mania has operated very much against us here,” wrote one San Francisco merchant, “diverting men and money from the legitimate channels.”

The Mormon settlement at Salt Lake sent its own contingent, despite an apparent effort by the church elders to silence the news from Washoe lest their colonists go packing off in quest of silver. The city’s Deseret News ran scarcely a line on the subject through the height of the frenzy. But there were others in the Great Basin who were unprotected from Washoe’s call. In 1859 the gold rush to Pike's Peak, in what was then western Kansas, proved a disappointment to many stampeders. Swinging farther westward. they swelled the annual tide of emigration to California. But having arrived in Carson Valley by late summer of ’59, many families were caught in the rising silver fever. Forgetting California, they cast their lot with Washoe.

But most of the rush came from California—not only its drifters and schemers, who were ready to join each new excitement, but the very flower of its population. Nevada would soon boast that the best of America came to California, and the best of California came to Washoe.

First to arrive were the mining men—the Walshes and the Hearsts—who knew ore and who hoped to buy promising leads with their own or someone else’s money. Marching after them was the whole lusty crew that made up frontier society: promoters and speculators, traders and gamblers. Among them were followers of the oldest profession, for not even Sierra snowstorms could bar Washoe to the fair but frail. Usually dressed in men’s clothing, they suffered exposure and hunger with the rest. One was Julia Bulette, said to be the second woman to reach the Comstock. She brought to the Lode a subtle refinement compounded of French descent and a New Orleans past. In her parlor the rough manners of the mining camp were taboo. And when an epidemic of influenza struck the Lode, Julia ministered to the stricken. No wonder the boys would soon be toasting her as queen of Washoe.