The Nevada Territorial Legislature created Washoe County on November 25, 1861 as one of the original ten counties in the northwest corner of the Nevada Territory. The County later combined with Roop County to its current size of 6,302 square miles bordering Oregon on the north, California on the west, Carson City, Storey
, and Lyon
Counties on the south and Humboldt, Pershing, and Churchill Counties on the east. Washoe County stretches from Incline Village and Crystal Bay near Lake Tahoe, north past Gerlach near the playas of the Black Rock Desert and west to Wadsworth
, Nixon, Sutcliff and the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation near Pyramid Lake. The name Washoe comes from the Wassau (Washo or Washoe) Indians who lived at Lake Tahoe in the summer and Carson Valley, Douglas Valley, and Washoe Valley in the winter and spring. Washoe County is part of the Great Basin, a high dry desert with mountain ranges and valleys, grasses and sagebrush, and large empty spaces. The County began as an agricultural and logging county supplying food and timber to the mines and miners in Storey County.
Native Americans in Washoe County
The Northern Paiutes and Washo Indians
were the first to live in the area. The Northern Paiutes lived north of Pyramid Lake to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in eastern California, western Nevada, and southern Oregon. Washo lived in the valleys of the Sierra Nevada fishing and hunting at Lake Tahoe in the summer. Land for the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation was set aside in 1859 and President Grant signed an executive order in 1874 establishing the Reservation. The Reno Sparks Indian Colony was founded in 1936.
The area that was to become Washoe County was part of the Mexican Territory when it was claimed by the Spanish in 1822 then became part of Utah Territory in 1850 and then part of the Nevada Territory in 1861. Trappers and explorers came to the County as early as 1831 or 1832. John Bidwell and John C. Fremont were the first to write about their travels in 1841 and 1844 respectively. Fremont named Pyramid Lake after camping near the Lake on January 10, 1844 and a few days later discovered the mouth of the Truckee River. Elisha Stevens led emigrants to California on the Stevens-Donner or Truckee route in 1844. Travelers used the Applegate Trail through northwestern Nevada in 1846 and the Applegate-Lassen Trail through the Black Rock Desert in 1848. The ill-fated Donner Party
came through in 1846 before being stranded in the Sierra Nevada in 1846 and 1847. The Nobles Route in Northern Washoe County and the Beckwourth Route in the Truckee Meadows were used by 1851.
The first white settlers were emigrants passing through on their way to California. Seeing the lush Truckee Meadows, some stayed to build trading posts, homes, schools, and churches. Trading posts supplied provisions to those going to the California Gold Rush
. William H. Anderson settled near Moana Springs around 1850 to build the early trading post named Junction House. H. H. Jamison sold cattle to emigrants at his trading post, Jamison’s Station, near Steamboat Creek three miles southeast of present day Sparks in 1852. The Clark family settled in Washoe Valley in 1852 naming their homestead “the Garden of Eden”. John Owens and Edward Ing built a trading post near Glendale (Sparks)
, Bill Gregory built one in Drytown (Wadsworth), and James O’Neil built one in Crystal Peak (Verdi) in 1854. John F. Stone and Charles C. Gates built a bridge across the Truckee River and opened a trading post at in 1857 near Jamison’s Station. Grenville Huffaker brought 500 cattle from Salt Lake City in 1858 or 1859 to settle south of Reno establishing a trading post named Huffakers.
Pioneer Towns and Settlements
Pioneer towns in Washoe County often began as trading posts then went on to supply lumber
, timber, cordwood, and agricultural products to the Comstock mines
and miners in Storey County after 1859. The towns in Washoe Valley grew the fastest because of their access to the water from Washoe Lake and timber in the Carson Range of the Sierra Nevada. Washoe City, the largest town in the county, had four quartz mills and 18 saw mills. The Territorial Legislature made Washoe City the county seat in 1861. Ophir, three miles from Washoe City and one mile from Franktown, was the second largest town with residents working at the Ophir Reduction Works. Franktown was laid out by Mormon Elder Orson Hyde in 1852. Washoe City, Ophir, and Franktown had newspapers, hotels, boarding houses, saloons, churches and schools.
Galena, located on Galena Creek at Galena Flat became a lumber town supplying timber for the Virginia City
mines. Incline (Village) began as a company town of the Sierra Wood and Lumber Company to supply lumber to Washoe Valley, Reno
, and Virginia City. Verdi started as a lumber town that made railroad ties for the Central Pacific Railroad in 1867.
Washoe Valley was the most productive and fertile valley in the county with large farms and ranches. Andrew Sauer had a large ranch south of Washoe City growing hay and grain. Theodore Winters, another large land owner, had racehorses and a racetrack. Pleasant Valley, located two miles north of Washoe Valley, had large farms with orchards and vegetable gardens. Steamboat Springs
was discovered by Felix Monet in the 1860s and later James Cameroon opened a health resort. Farms in Spanish Springs Valley, six miles southeast of Reno, were well known for their hay and alfalfa crops and large sheep ranches. The valleys and mountains in northern Washoe County near Wadsworth and Gerlach
provided grazing for large herds of sheep and cattle. Sheep and cattle were raised on the ranches owned by Louis Gerlach in northern Washoe County near Gerlach and Wadsworth. The town of Gerlach was named for Louis Gerlach in 1906.
Mining camps sprang up in Washoe County when prospectors began looking for gold, silver, lead, and copper. Jumbo on the west side of Mount Davidson was an active mining site from the 1860s to the 1920s with miners prospecting for gold, silver, and tungsten. The mining camp of Peavine, also known as Poeville, Podunk, and Poe City, was discovered by John Poe in 1874. Bill Williams discovered gold in Olinghouse Canyon in 1874 with active mining there from the 1890s through the 1920s. Leadville, a mining community 40 miles north of Gerlach, was settled from 1910 to 1927.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Transportation brought changes to Washoe County. The Central Pacific Railroad completed through Washoe County on June 19, 1868 had stations in Verdi, Reno, and Wadsworth. Myron C. Lake of Lake’s Crossing deeded land to the railroad in exchange for a station that became Reno. By 1871 Reno had most of the population in Washoe County and became the new Washoe County seat replacing Washoe City. Wadsworth in northern Washoe County became the headquarters for the Truckee Division of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1868 and until 1904 was one of the largest towns in Washoe County with residents working in railroading, mining, freighting, and ranching. When the Southern Pacific Railroad bought the Central Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s, the company decided to move the outdated maintenance shops from Wadsworth to a ranch east of Reno that was first named East Reno than Harriman and then Sparks in 1905. The Southern Pacific Railroad deeded its railroad workers lots that were 50 x 140 feet to erect houses in Sparks by September 10, 1904. Workers moved 70 houses from Wadsworth to Sparks leaving Wadsworth deserted with few houses and saloons.
In 1869 the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built from Virginia City to Carson City and then in 1872 through Washoe Valley connecting to the Central Pacific Railroad in Reno. Now it was cheaper to haul ore to the ore mills along the Carson River rather than to haul ore to the Washoe Valley towns of Washoe City, Ophir, and Franktown. People eventually moved out of these towns to other places in the County. Stops through Washoe Valley were at Lakeview, Mill Station, Franktown, Washoe City, Steamboat Springs, Browns and Huffakers.
The Western Pacific Railroad had a stop in Gerlach in northern Washoe County in 1909 and the Pacific Portland Cement Company opened a plant five miles from Gerlach in the company town of Empire in 1922.
Highways and roads were built through the county and the state during the 1910s and 1920s bringing tourists and residents to the county. The Victory Highway (U.S. 40) and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 50) were transcendental highways linking Washoe County with the rest of the country. Tourists came to the County when Nevada passed the gambling law and the six-week residency divorce law in 1931. Dude ranches or divorce ranches were built for those seeking a quick divorce
and casinos and hotels were built for those wishing to gamble. Tourism and gaming became the major industries in the County after 1931. Washoe County had the largest population in the State of Nevada from 1890 through 1950.
Blanchfield Field, the U.S. Airmail Service Airport, located on Urban and Arlington Streets was the first airport in Washoe County in 1920. Hubbard Field which is now part of the Reno Tahoe International Airport was built to accommodate larger freight and passenger planes.
Life in Washoe County has changed since its founding in 1861. The population in 1861 was approximately 1,613 with most of the population in the towns of Washoe City, Ophir, and Franktown in Washoe Valley. The 2010 population was 421,407 with the population hubs in the two incorporated cities of Reno and Sparks. The small towns of Washoe City, Franktown, Ophir, Jumbo, Galena, Olinghouse, Vya, Flanigan, Leadville, and Poeville have all disappeared. The small unincorporated towns are Gerlach, Empire, Wadsworth, Incline Village and Crystal Bay. Lumber mills and ore mills are no longer a part of the economy. Sand, gravel, and dimension stone are mined rather than gold and silver. The largest employers are education and health services, casinos and hotels, manufacturing, and warehousing. The University of Nevada Reno and Truckee Meadows Community College provide higher education to students in Nevada and the world. Outdoor activities include hunting, fishing, water skiing, snow skiing and snowboarding, kayaking, hiking, and golfing. Annual events include the National Championship Air Races, Greater Reno Balloon Races, Hot August Nights, Reno Tahoe Open, Reno Rodeo, Street Vibrations, Burning Man
, and Nugget Best in the West Rib Cook-off. The Reno Art Museum, Nevada Historical Society Museum, Terry Lee Wells Discovery Museum, and National Automobile Museum
provide a wide array of exhibits and educational activities for residents and tourists.