The fascinating story of Bowers Mansion
Folks driving through Washoe Valley for the first time often spot the large stone mansion on the northwest side of the valley and wonder—what’s the story with that place?
If they have time, they pull off the main road to check out the building and see it’s part of Bowers Mansion Regional Park, which includes picnic grounds and swimming pools.
If they happen to be there between May and October, and take a tour of the mansion, they’ll learn everything about the place, which was built by Sandy and Eilley Orrum Bowers.
The two, who earned a fortune from investments in Virginia City’s fabulous Comstock Lode, constructed the mansion in 1863-64.
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 Valley 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.
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 Bowers were among Nevada’s first mining millionaires.
Deciding to spend their seemingly limitless wealth, in 1864, the Bowers’ began building the 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 Bowers 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 several unprofitable mining ventures.
After the estate was finally settled, Eilley found herself penniless. Despite her best efforts to hold on to the 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 Riter purchased the property and operated it as a resort for locals. In 1946, Riter 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, the site is worth a visit at any time of the year.
Visitors can admire the mansion as well as stop by 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 Bowers.
Additionally, a quarter-mile walk uphill from the mansion takes visitors 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 about 40 acres of parkland 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 U.S. 395 and State Route 429 (the Washoe Valley frontage road). For more information go to: https://www.washoecounty.us/parks/parks/park_directory/mt_rose_district/bowers_mansion_regional_park.php.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.