No one knew the value of water better than turn-of-the-century farmers and ranchers in the Dayton Valley. There were 25 to 30 ranches in the 1890s and early 1900s owned or operated by Italian immigrant families between Dayton and Fort Churchill.
These ranches existed on the edge of the Great American Desert. They relied entirely on irrigation water from the Carson River for their success. Much of the hay, grain, livestock, and vegetable crops produced by these farms and ranches was shipped to the Comstock communities of Silver City, Gold Hill, Sutro and Virginia City.
One of these enterprising ranchers was my great-grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli. He had acquired the old Fish Ranch across the river south of downtown Dayton, where the Ricci Ranch is now located.
Pietro and his family, including some of his 12 children, developed the property and constructed the Cassinelli Dam and ditch for irrigation purposes. The dam was constructed of boulders set across the river to divert water into a large canal, or ditch, that served to irrigate not only the Cassinelli ranch, but several other ranches located downstream. There was a series of diversion dams set into the ditch to regulate the amount of water that was allowed to go to each ranch. The amount allowed was determined by the complicated system of water rights. The oldest properties had the first rights to the water from the river. A water master was assigned to assure the water rights were observed.
On a good year, when there was plenty of water flowing down the river, the system worked pretty well. On a dry year, the system failed simply because there wasn’t enough water flowing to serve even the oldest holders of water rights. The problem was compounded by the upstream use of water in Carson Valley, Carson City and the many silver mills located along the Carson River Canyon.
It was during one of those dry years when all the ranchers were struggling to get enough water to irrigate their crops. Many bitter disputes broke out over water rights and how to divide the limited resource fairly. Downstream from the Cassinelli Ranch, Lorenzo and Carmelinda Venturi were operating another ranch that was fed from the same ditch. In their desperation to get enough water, they suspected Pietro was taking more than his share of water from the ditch. Lorenzo told his wife he would talk to Pietro about the dispute. Carmelinda wasn’t satisfied with merely discussing the issue with the neighbors, so she decided to take care of the matter her own way.
The irate Carmelinda hid near the diversion dams and waited to see if she could catch her neighbor in the act of stealing water by taking boards out of the diversion dam. When Pietro came by to check the water flow and to do some work on the dam outlet, Carmelinda shot him in the back with a shotgun.
Apparently, the wound was not life-threatening, but the shot went deep into the man’s back. Carmelinda was arrested for attempted murder and taken to jail in Dayton. Rather than taking her to the county jail, the sheriff put her in a makeshift jail upstairs in Dayton’s Odeon Hall. This was because she was nursing an infant son named Charlie. She was allowed to keep her nursing son with her during her confinement. She was released after a few days and the matter was considered closed.
I remember Pietro when I was a young boy in the 1940s and 50s when we would visit him at his ranch in Reno or when he came to visit us at the ranch on Glendale Road where I lived. I still can remember him walking around stoop-shouldered from the injury he had received from that shotgun blast. He said he could still feel fragments of shot in his back more than 40 years after the incident. He died in 1954 at the age of 88. At the time of his death, he owned a ranch where the spaghetti bowl freeway intersection is now located.
Information for this article came from personal interviews with family members and from an article by Laura Tennant in the 1991 issue of Lyon County Reflections.
Dennis Cassinelli is Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com