The Nevada Traveler: Eastern Sierra’s zephyrs have long fascinated Nevadans

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The strong winds found in Western Nevada, particularly in Reno and Carson City, have long captivated, and irritated, people, including several of the region’s frontier journalists. Known as “zephyrs,” the winds are named after Zephyrus, the Greek god of the west wind.

Technically, the zephyr or Washoe Zephyr, as it is often called, is a seasonal wind that sweeps across western Nevada, just east of the Sierra Nevada range. Generally, they occur in the summer months, typically from mid-afternoon until late in the evening. And they are quite gusty.

In 1943, historian Richard G. Lillard wrote an article titled “Evolution of the ‘Washoe Zephyr” in which he said the winds made an immediate impact on the state’s earliest residents. With the arrival of the frontier journalists, who began to write about the phenomena, he said, “the wind blew itself into literary proportions.”

One of the first mentions of the Washoe Zephyr was J. Ross Browne, author of several magazine articles and small booklets about early Nevada including “A Peep at Washoe.” In 1860, Browne called the zephyr “a perfect hurricane which swept through the canon from Gold Hill, sometimes in gusts so sudden and violent that it was utterly impossible to make an inch of headway.”

About a year later, journalist Dan DeQuille, who worked at Virginia City’s legendary “Territorial Enterprise” newspaper, wrote of a man stepping out of a saloon and into a particularly stiff wind. Addressing himself to his creator, the man cursed the winds, saying, “You can’t hurt nothing!”

According to DeQuille, “the words were hardly out of his mouth before his house, a large adobe building, lay in a pile of ruins, while not another house, even tent, in the town was damaged in the least. Verdict of the citizens, ‘served him right.’”

Years later, DeQuille wrote a book about his Virginia City experiences, “History of the Big Bonanza,” and offered another anecdote: “There is a tradition in Virginia City, that in the spring of 1863, a donkey was caught up from the side of Mount Davidson far up on the northern side, near the summit of the mountain and carried eastward over the city, at a height of five or six hundred feet above the houses, finally landing near the Sugar Loaf Mountain nearly five miles away.

“Those who witnessed this remarkable instance of the force of the zephyr, say that as the poor beast was hurried away over the town, his neck was stretched out to its greatest length, and he was shrieking in the most despairing and heart-rending tones ever heard from any living creature.”

Of course, the most famous account about the zephyrs appeared in a book written by DeQuille’s good friend and contemporary at the “Territorial Enterprise,” Mark Twain, who lived in Western Nevada from 1861-64.

In his classic work, “Roughing It,” about his time in the Silver State, Twain noted, “a Washoe wind is by no means a trifling matter. It blows flimsy houses down, lifts shingle roofs occasionally, rolls up tine ones like sheet music, now and then blows a stagecoach over and spills the passengers; and tradition says the reason there are so many bald people there is, that the wind blows the hair off their heads while they are looking skyward after their hats.”

Not much to be said after that.

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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