Historian Susan James to write history, develop programs for Fourth Ward

VIRGINIA CITY -- Historian and writer Susan James is continuing her quest to remember the character and characters of Virginia City's Fourth Ward school.

She will become scholar-in-residence at the Fourth Ward School beginning Tuesday.

No stranger to the Fourth Ward restoration project, she coordinated and wrote the historical text for "A Comstock Lesson," the interpretive center that opened on the school's first floor, in 1986.

"The school needed a lot of structural work at that time, but in the following years it received a number of grants from the Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs," she said. "Restoration of the interpretive center on the third floor gave the school a real shot in the arm and now it's on its way to being the community facility it once was."

James' new position was created when the school received a $10,000 grant from the Nevada Humanities Committee. The committee created the scholar-in-residence program as a means of reaching out to local communities, to engage people with subjects like history.

Through the program, the Fourth Ward will create a design for a three-dimensional traveling exhibit of the school, publish a booklet on the history of the building and write a guide for docents, James said.

"I hope to have the exhibit completed by July and the booklet by this fall," she said. "Right now, the way the grant is structured, the position will continue through December of 2002."

James has published historical articles in Nevada Magazine and is co-authoring a book with husband and State Historic Preservation officer, Ron James, about millionaire recluse George Whittell, Jr.

Originally from Los Angeles, James moved to Reno with her family in 1967 when she was 15. Following graduation from Reno High School, she attended the University of Nevada, Reno, where she earned her master's degree in history.

She spent 15 years teaching European history at the University of Nevada, Reno and said she loves teaching but historical research is her passion.

"I love history and I love researching historical questions," she said. "One of the big challenges, though, is making sure all the bases are covered. It's a problem with any historical topic and that's why we're asking those who attended the Fourth Ward School to share their memories. I can do the reading, but the people who lived the experience add a wonderful dimension."

Built in 1876, the four-story, 16-room school was designed to honor the nation's centennial and was given to the state of Nevada in celebration of the nation's 100th birthday. Hard economic times plagued the Comstock for years before the school's closure in 1936 and it sat vacant for 60 years.

"The Fourth Ward is important to the history of Nevada and America. The facility and its architecture were state-of-the-art when it was built," James said. "The school is an example of what this mining community offered its children."

Efforts to save the school as a monument to the history of the Comstock has been a struggle that has included the selfless efforts and dedication of many over the years.

In 1950, the Reno Painters Union gave the sagging exterior a new coat of paint and in 1965, the state legislature gave $15,000 to once again take care of exterior repairs. That didn't cover costs, so a local contractors corporation donated the labor and materials to shore up the old building from 1966 to 1969.

The first floor was reopened as a museum in 1986 and since then, the project has been gaining momentum.

Listed on the National Register of Historic places, the building has been recognized as the number-one preservation project by the Nevada Commission for Cultural Affairs and was one of 62 projects in 24 states to receive a grant award from the new millennium initiative, "Save America's Treasures."

Restoration of the school is administered by the Fourth ward School Board of Trustees under the auspices of the Storey County Board of Commissioners, which holds the title to the property.


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