Capital may not have been Carson City
August 21, 2014
When you drive by Nevada’s distinctive silver domed State Capitol in Carson City try to imagine how it would look in Winnemucca or American Flat or Boise, Idaho.
Several times in Nevada’s history there have been attempts to locate the state capital in some other location. Even before Nevada became a state, there was debate over where to place the seat of power.
For instance, Genoa was the site of the original discussions about forming a Nevada Territory in 1857. Later, the town served as the home of the first territorial convention, which formed a kind of renegade provisional government (at the time most of Nevada was part of the Utah Territory).
Two years later, however, Congress finally authorized creation of an official Nevada Territory. As part of that act, the seat of the territorial government was moved from Genoa to Carson City.
Historian Russell Elliott notes that Carson City’s selection was aided by influential Carson City attorney William M. Stewart (later selected one of Nevada’s first two U.S. Senators), who cleverly traded county seats to potential rival communities in return for their support.
Additionally, Abraham Curry, one of Carson City’s founders, offered free land for a state capital.
But since the State Capitol building wasn’t constructed until 1870-71, there was still plenty of time for other pretenders to steal away the throne.
Opposition to authorizing funds to build a capital in Carson City came from Lander County officials, who thought booming Austin might be a better site. Lander’s State Senator D.W. Welty went so far as to describe Carson City as “a swamp” and a “mud hole.”
Virginia City also made a few half-hearted tries at snagging the capital. Territorial Enterprise owner Joseph Goodman once wrote — with tongue in cheek — of an 1864 attempt to claim the capital for Virginia City:
“It is easy enough to obey a gypsy impulse to go anywhere or everywhere, but when you have arrived at your destination without any purpose a feeling of stultification is liable to confront you and ask what it all means. And so, when we deployed ourselves in the blaze of the capital, and anxious denizens inquired what this sudden irruption of the dignitaries of Virginia City signified, we were confounded and unable to reply satisfactorily.
But their insistence speedily begot a purpose. The capital could not be permanently fixed under the Territorial act; its location was at the will of the Legislature, and we determined to remove it to Virginia City.”
Goodman counted heads and found that while the Assembly would go along with the move, there was a tie vote in the Senate. He decided to focus his attention on persuading “Uncle Abe Curry” to switch his vote in favor of Virginia City but was, in turn, convinced to drop his effort by a tearful Curry.
“The jig was up, I honored the old man’s sentiment, though it swept away our brilliant dream of empire,” he concluded.
Of a more serious nature was a handsome financial bid for the capital made that same year by the small mining town of American City (later known as American Flat), which was located a mile west of Gold Hill.
American City’s boosters were so certain of their camp’s future that they offered $50,000 to the territorial government it would relocate there. Despite support from Virginia City newspapers, the offer was rejected. American City faded away within a few years.
Ironically, the same man who helped to locate the capital in Carson City, Senator William Stewart, later tried to move it to Winnemucca. In the late 1880s, Stewart saw that due to depleted mining resources Nevada’s economy was experiencing a severe depression.
His solution was to annex portions of politically weaker territories such as Idaho and Utah in order to expand Nevada’s population and economic base. In 1888, Stewart proposed adding northern Idaho to Washington and southern Idaho to Nevada and suggested Winnemucca as the new capital of the expanded Nevada because of its location in the center of the new state.
The proposal was shelved after opposition surfaced from President Grover Cleveland and, not surprisingly, residents of the Idaho Territory.
Not willing to drop the matter, Stewart made another attempt at annexation in the summer of 1888. Reasoning that most of southern Idaho’s opposition came from the citizens of Boise, he suggested dual capitals of Nevada in Boise and Carson City.
Idahoans, however, still preferred statehood and Stewart’s proposals died in Congress. In 1890, Idaho was finally admitted as the 43rd state.
In the 1980s, there was some discussion about moving the capital to Las Vegas, home of most of the state’s population. The state Legislature responded by scheduling more hearings in Las Vegas during its biannual sessions.
Perhaps that’s why Las Vegas lost interest.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.