Dennis Cassinelli: Empire City

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The Comstock silver and gold discovery in 1859 attracted thousands of people to Nevada following the California Gold Rush of 1849. One of the pioneers who participated in the rush to the Comstock was an interesting character named Nicholas Ambrose, also known as Dutch Nick. Ambrose had started a business in what later became Nevada’s first ghost town, named Johntown in the 1850s. This consisted of a boarding house and saloon called Dutch Nick's that catered to miners and prospectors in Gold Canyon.
After the discovery of silver and gold at the Comstock mines, Nicholas Ambrose moved his business operations to a place along the Carson River that became known as Empire City. He selected this site due to the proximity to other mining and milling opportunities available. In addition, he already owned a ranch there and realized that there was going to be a tremendous demand for lumber and timbers for building construction in the cities in and around the Comstock. Ambrose built a sawmill and arranged to secure pine logs from the Tahoe Basin floated down the Carson River to his sawmill at Empire City.
Many of these logs had originally been sent down the “V Flume” from Glenbrook to Dutch Nick’s sawmill at Empire City. After the lumber and timbers were cut, they were shipped by the V&T Railroad to the Comstock cities. There was another sawmill at the present site of the Nevada State Railroad Museum where timber was processed to keep up with the demand.
Several silver milling operations sprang up along the Carson River, including the Atchison and Harrington, upstream from Empire City, The Brunswick, The Yellowjacket, The Mexican, Merrimack, Blue Canyon, Yerington Smelter, Morgan Mill and Santiago Canyon. Several years ago, there was a significant flood along the Carson River that uncovered some of the 76-pound mercury flasks that had held mercury for processing the silver ore at the mills along the Carson River.
My son-in-law and I gathered some of these up and have them in our yard as yard art. One time, a man who lived along the Carson River near Mound House showed me some broken pieces of an arastra he had found along the Carson River. Arastras were primitive mills for grinding and pulverizing gold and silver ore in a circular pit with horses or mules.
In August 1861, the population in the area of Empire City, including the Sullivan Mining District, and the inhabitants for ten miles along the river totaled 285. In later years the population increased as more mine and mill workers settled there. A letter to the Sacramento Daily Union published Sept. 3, 1861, stated: “Journeying onward from Carson City, the first stretch of three miles over a sage plain, (mostly a deep sand) brings us to Empire City, a hamlet, recently sprung up on the banks of the Carson River.” Camels, which were referred to as “Nevada’s ships of the deserts,” were imported to Nevada to carry salt to the area’s mines and mills. In September 1861, several camels were reported to have been seen “in the vicinity of Empire City” on their way to Washoe Lake. Where I live in Dayton, there is a still standing camel barn once used for keeping the camels.
At the east end of Empire City is a hill and atop the hill sits the “Empire Cemetery” which has also been called the “New Empire Cemetery” and “New Brunswick Cemetery.” This site was chosen to be the cemetery because of its elevated location. The hill would prevent the flood water from damaging the graves when the Carson River overflowed its banks in the spring. This is probably why pioneer cemeteries were sometimes called Boot Hill. It also was a safe distance from the heavy traffic which ran through the town, often carrying heavy loads of ores and supplies to and from the Comstock mines in nearby Virginia City and other towns along the way. Many members of the Ambrose family are buried in the Empire City Cemetery. The Empire Ranch Golf Course is located on the former Ambrose Ranch.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at


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