Exploring the home of the ‘Washoe seeress’
November 12, 2005
Despite her reputation as a fortune-teller known as the “Washoe Seeress” in the late 19th century, even Eilley Orrum Bowers could not have predicted her long-lasting notoriety.
Bowers is perhaps best known today as one-half of the namesake couple who built Bowers Mansion in Washoe Valley – the big stone structure on the western side of the valley that you can see from Highway 395.
Eilley Bowers was born Allison Orrum in Scotland in 1826 (her nickname was Eilley). At the age of 15, she married a Mormon missionary and traveled to the United States. The couple first settled in Illinois, then moved to Salt Lake City.
Following the Mormon custom of her day, her husband, Stephen Hunter, took several wives after they had settled in Utah. Eilley, however, did not enjoy the polygamous lifestyle and soon divorced Hunter. In 1853, she married Alexander Cowan.
The two moved to the Carson area where they purchased 300 acres in Washoe Valley. In 1857, Cowan, who was also Mormon, returned to Salt Lake City during troubles between the church and the U.S. government.
Eilley chose to divorce Cowan rather than return to Utah and moved to Johntown, a mining camp below Virginia City, where she opened a boardinghouse.
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During this time, she acquired a handful of mining claims from boarders unable to pay their debts and met a Comstock miner, Lemuel “Sandy” Bowers, who would become her third husband.
The two combined their mining holdings and, as luck would have it, ended up owning one of the Comstock’s earliest major silver strikes. Within a short time, the Bowerses were among Nevada’s first mining millionaires.
Deciding to spend their seemingly limitless wealth, in 1864, the Bowerses began building a huge stone mansion on Eilley’s acreage in Washoe Valley. While the home was under construction, they traveled to Europe to purchase furnishings.
When it was completed, the mansion was one of the most magnificent homes in the state and the Bowerses were willing party hosts. During the next four years, they indulged themselves on the finest clothing, furniture and collectibles.
In 1868, however, Sandy Bowers suddenly died of silicosis at the age of 35. By then, the original mine had become tapped out and he had invested much of their money in unprofitable mining ventures.
After the estate was finally settled, Eilley found herself penniless. Despite her best efforts to hold on to the magnificent mansion, she was unable to keep it. Her misfortune continued when, in 1874, her adopted daughter, Persia, died at the age of 12.
Since her days in Salt Lake City, Eilley had been intrigued by the occult. Apparently during that time she acquired a crystal ball for fortune telling and had prognosticated for friends.
In 1875, following her many financial and personal setbacks, Eilley set up shop in Virginia City as the “Washoe Seeress.” Despite skeptics, she practiced her arcane arts for nearly a decade, until the decline of the Comstock.
In the 1880s, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked in various jobs, including – as she had so many years before – operating a small boardinghouse. In 1898, she was placed in a rest home in Oakland, where she died in 1903 at the age of 77.
The story of Bowers Mansion almost parallels Eilley’s life. In the early 1870s, Eilley Bowers substantially renovated the mansion when she attempted to convert it into a resort and added a third story.
Unable to pay the workmen, the floor was never properly finished. Additionally, the cupola and trademark balconies around the upper floor and the original roof were removed during Eilley’s remodeling.
Following its sale in 1876 to settle Eilley’s debts, the mansion passed through the hands of several owners and became increasingly decrepit over the years. In 1903, Henry Rider purchased the property and operated it as a resort for locals. In 1946, Rider sold it to the Reno Civic Club and Washoe County for use as a park.
In the 1960s, Washoe County voters approved a bond that financed restoration of the house to its original state. The result is a beautiful, 19th century residence that provides a glimpse into the lives of early Comstock millionaires.
While tours of the mansion are only offered from Memorial Day to Labor Day and on weekends in April, May, September, and October, the site is worth a visit at any time of the year.
During our recent visit, we wandered around the outside of the mansion, admiring the workmanship, and visited the former Bowers Root Cellar, now a visitors center that is open all year. Inside, it contains a number of historic exhibits about Washoe Valley and the Bowerses.
Additionally, we discovered a quarter-mile walk uphill from the mansion to the graves of Sandy, Eilley, and Persia Bowers. Perhaps because of all the sadness in their lives, it seemed somehow appropriate that the graves of all three have marvelous, sweeping views of the surrounding Washoe Valley.
Adjacent to the mansion is some 40 acres of park land that includes plenty of lawn, a geothermal-heated swimming pool, picnic tables, and volleyball courts.
Bowers Mansion is located about eight miles north of Carson City via Highway 395 and State Route 429 (the Washoe Valley frontage road). For more information about the mansion, call 775-849-0201.
n Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada” which are available at local bookstores.