Dennis Cassinelli: Bowers Mansion built from opulence of the Comstock
One of the most elegant displays of wealth from the Comstock is the wonderful mansion built by Sandy Bowers and Eilley Orrum. It’s the finest example of the homes built in Nevada by the new millionaires of the Comstock mining boom. In 1856, Eilley Orrum and her first husband Alex Cowan had purchased land for an estate on the west side of Washoe Lake. The following year, Cowan returned to Utah during the Mormon Exodus from Nevada Territory.
Not wanting to leave the territory, Eilley divorced Cowan and moved to Johntown in Gold Canyon where she operated a boarding house. When silver was discovered in Gold Canyon, Eilley acquired a 10-foot mining claim on the Comstock Lode. Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers, an uneducated prospector, had a similar claim adjacent to hers, so Sandy and Eilley married and combined the two claims. This became one of the richest early claims on the Comstock and soon was producing millions in gold and silver.
Sandy Bowers and his wife Eilley quickly accumulated a fortune from the mine they had developed. Eilley had dreams of prestige and respectability and couldn’t wait to spend their newfound wealth. Sandy bragged they had “money to throw at the birds.” The couple decided to use the money to build a mansion on the property Eilley had acquired in Washoe Valley. They hired J. Neeley Johnson, a builder and ex-governor of California to design and build the mansion to Eilley’s specifications.
The design was a combination of Georgian and Italianate architectural styles and was based on Eilley’s recollections of elegant houses in her native Scotland. Bowers employed stonecutters and masons from Scotland to construct their new home. Since they had money to throw at the birds, Mr. and Mrs. Bowers eventually spent $400,000 on their mansion. This was an exorbitant sum for a home in the 1860s.
In 1861, Sandy and Eilley decided to take an extended trip to Europe, which lasted two years. The purpose of the trip was to shop for furnishings, statuary, paintings and other adornments for the mansion. In addition, Eilley wanted to visit her relatives in Scotland and she even hoped to have a meeting for tea with Queen Victoria.
Before the couple left on their fabulous European shopping spree, they decided to throw a great bon voyage party at the International Hotel in Virginia City. Since Sandy and Eilley paid for the party and invited nearly everyone in town, the celebration was a smashing success.
As the couple toured the great cities of the British Isles and Europe, they purchased some of the finest furnishings and paintings their gold and silver could buy to place in their new Washoe Valley home. They had the elegant fabrics, custom made furniture and decorative accessories crated up and shipped back to their mansion being constructed for them in Nevada. Meanwhile, doorknobs and hinges made of silver from the Bowers mine were installed on all the doors in the new mansion.
After two years abroad, Eilley was never able to arrange a meeting with the Queen of England for tea as she had dreamed. Having spent a fortune on their furnishings for the mansion, Sandy and Eilley boarded a ship named “Persia” for the trip back to the Nevada Territory. During the journey, Eilley adopted a baby girl whose mother had died on the voyage home. She named her new daughter Persia after the ship on which they had sailed.
Upon their return to their new mansion in Washoe Valley, Mr. and Mrs. Sandy Bowers and their adopted daughter Persia spent a few short years enjoying the luxury of their wonderful new home. The Bowers mansion became a social center for all those who were important on the Comstock. Elegant parties with plenty of free champagne attracted the Comstock elite to cross the Washoe Lake causeway to socialize with Sandy and Eilley.
On April 21, 1868, Sandy Bowers died suddenly at the Crown Point Ravine in Gold Hill. This was the first of many setbacks that led to the pitiful decline of Eilley Orrum Bowers and the mansion she and Sandy had built. Daughter Persia died in 1874 and the death was a staggering blow to Eilley. The silver in the mines had finally ran out and there was no longer any money to throw to the birds nor to maintain the mansion.
Eilley added a third story to the mansion to have rooms she could use as a boarding house for travelers. To survive, she sold many of the expensive household furnishings and the silver doorknobs. In desperation, the destitute widow turned to fortune-telling in Virginia City, Reno and eventually in California where she had gone to live with relatives. With failing eyesight and hearing, in 1903 she died impoverished in California. Sandy, Persia and Eilley Bowers are buried in a plot on the hillside behind the mansion overlooking Washoe Valley.
Bowers Mansion has had many owners, periods of abandonment and remodels since the days when Sandy and Eilley lived there. The third story was removed and the cupola rebuilt on the roof as it appeared when new. Washoe County Regional Park System took over the property and now maintains it as one of our finest regional parks. With many generous donations, much of the original furniture has been located and placed back in the home.
My own family and I have enjoyed the hot spring swimming pools, picnic grounds and mansion tours for many years of fond memories. There are facilities for small family picnics or big pavilions for large family reunions and events. I’ve written much more about the elegant Comstock era in my book, “Chronicles of the Comstock,” available at half price on my blog, denniscassinelli.com.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.