Empire City and the Carson River ‘Seaport town’ | NevadaAppeal.com

Empire City and the Carson River ‘Seaport town’

Sue Ballew
Special to the Appeal
Courtesy Charles Lynch Collection/Carson City Historical Society

In 1854 the town of “Dutch Nick” emerged near the Carson River and about three and a half miles east of Carson. Nevada still was part of the Utah Territory when Nicholas Ambrose “Dutch Nick” became the first settler there. Later he was elected justice of the peace. The townsite was laid out in March 1860 and named Empire City according to Myron Angel. Early settlers called it the “Seaport town” because of frequent floods.

My Dad, Bill Dolan, used to take us on picnics to the Carson River, and there still were the foundations of the mills and huge waterwheels there in the 1950s, showing little evidence of the six mills along the Carson River that were there in the mid-1800s. The first mill was constructed in 1860 and called the Mexican Mill. In the early days they used the water power of the river to run the stamp mills.

“Within the town are the Mexican and Morgan Mill … Two miles below is the Brunswick Mill which, when in operation, employed 200 men. Empire was also the depot of the wood business at the Carson River.” Thousands of cords of wood used for firewood and mining timber were caught in booms, landed and transferred to the V & T cars. (Thompson & West)

The Carson River and Empire were the location of the quartz mills needed for the reduction of ore. The Carson River provided the water power. A small mill was built close to Empire City in 1860 called the Mexican Mill. According to Thompson and West, “The Silver State Mill … was built in 1861, one half mile south of Empire City on the east bank of the Carson. The motive power was water brought from the river through a ditch … this mill had twelve stamps and was capable of reducing twelve tons of ore per day of twenty-four hours, cost, including ditch, $25,000 … The mill is driven by water acting on a breast wheel twenty-eight feet in diameter, and an outside breath of twenty six feet, being the largest water wheel on the Pacific Coast, furnishing about two-hundred-horse power.”

By 1870 Empire was a thriving city with two general stores, four saloons and a school. Today, all that remains is the superintendent of the Mexican Mill, Evan Williams’ House (now the home of Computer Core), a monument and the Empire City graveyard that sits overlooking the site of the one time Empire City.

The Williams’ home is described in an essay by Marjorie Fothergill, “The home faces the rising sun and seems to have a stately appearance … The home itself is a large building with a basement, first and second floor, and a large attic. On first entering one sees long hallway and staircase. At the right is a door leading into a music room. In practically every room there is a fireplace. On the first floor there is a drawing room, dining room, kitchen and several bedrooms. On the second floor there are five rooms which were probably all used as bedrooms. At the time when the house was built and Evan Williams and his family first lived in it, it was very beautifully furnished. There were dark colored tapestries of fine material, and thick carpets in the rooms (and) the stairway. There still is a brass molding in the hallway that was always polished in the early days until it shone, for the Williams employed several servants.” (Essay by Marjorie Fothergill, Special Collections, UNR)

With so little left of Empire City today, what was it like to live there in the 1800s?

Eugena May Bruns lived there. She was born in Empire in 1877 and grew up there. Her first recollection of Empire was “… when it was a bustling town of water mills, ore trains, wood drives, saloons, boardinghouses, grocery stores … Six mills were were built on the river. Two of the mills, the Mexican and the Morgan were built in the area which became Empire. The Brunswick, Vivian, Santiago and Eureka were built below the town about a mile apart … [Her] stepfather, Dad May, was foreman of the Mexican Mill … The words “penstock,” “amalgam,” “retort” and “bullion” became part of [her] vocabulary.” There were various characters in town, one called China Lulu who lived on LuLu Hill. “He wore his hair in a Chinese queue and he had those funny Chinese slippers [and walked] with a basket on a rod. There was also Dutch Billy (William Shipperman) and Lager Joe. Wiggins Hall was a popular place where dances took place from “… dark until daylight.” Even Empire’s founder Ab Ambrose and his brothers had an orchestra with Ab playing the fiddle. (Eugenia May Bruns Oral History, UNR)

And so ends the story of “Dutch Nick” and Empire City. Old Ab Ambrose still is overlooking Empire City ” now from his gravesite at the Empire Cemetery.

– Sue Ballew is the daughter of Bill Dolan, who wrote the Past Pages column for the Nevada Appeal from 1947 until his death in 2006. She is the past president of the Carson City Historical Society.