Dennis Cassinelli: Johntown, Nevada’s first ghost town
Most Nevadans know where the principal towns and cities of the Comstock era are located. Most locals and tourists know about Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City.
What many people do not know is that the Comstock Mining District included many other nearby towns that contributed greatly to the history of the fabulous Comstock Lode. These included Dayton, which was the “Gateway to the fabulous Comstock,” Sutro was at the entrance to the Sutro Tunnel, Mound House was a station on the Virginia and Truckee Railroad and the terminus point for the Carson and Colorado Railroad, and Como was a rival mining district in the mountains to the south.
Johntown was a rough and tumble wannabe town that grew up along Gold Canyon during the 10-year period when miners, prospectors and Chinese made their way up the canyon to the discovery of Nevada silver.
Between the discovery of gold nuggets near Dayton in 1840 and the discovery of the fabulous Comstock Lode in 1859, most of the major players made their homes in ramshackle miners’ cabins, tents and rooming houses in the mining camp of Johntown along Gold Canyon about half way between what later became Dayton and Silver City.
The settlement was founded in 1853 by Walter Cosser. Of all the early towns of the Comstock era, none was more important or less talked about today than Johntown. In my research, I have yet to find where the name Johntown came from. Perhaps some of the early ladies of the evening named it for their customers, or Johns. (Well, that’s my guess and I’m sticking to it.)
The little hamlet, consisting of no more than a dozen homes of all kinds was home to Henry Comstock, who later gave his name to the great silver lode, the Grosh brothers, who discovered silver before many of the other prospectors, Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, the discoverers of the Comstock vein, and James Fennimore, or “Old Virginia,” who was honored by naming Virginia City after him. A handsome Scotch teamster named Sandy Bowers came to town, where he met and married an ambitious Scotch divorcee named Eilee Orrum.
She had seen in her Crystal ball that she and Sandy Bowers were destined for fame and fortune. The two of them combined their mining claims and purchased property in Washoe Valley that later became Bowers Mansion after they made their fortune following the Silver discovery.
Just up the canyon from Johntown was a rollicking saloon known as “Dutch Nick’s.” Every Saturday night there was a “grand ball” held at Dutch Nick’s place where there was music, dancing, faro and blackjack. Because there were but three women in town, Indian Princess Sarah Winnemucca was rumored to have been invited to the dances to help even up the odds for the prospectors and miners.
The first newspaper in the territory was published at Johntown. It was called “Gold Canyon Switch.” This handwritten weekly was printed on several sheets of foolscap, a common writing paper of the time. The single copy was passed from person to person until most everyone in the tiny town had caught up with what was news. It was edited by Joe Webb between 1854 and 1858. Unfortunately, not a single copy exists today.
Unlike many of our old ghost towns, Johntown has completely disappeared. Not only is there practically nothing left to mark the site, but there is no one alive today who can remember when it even existed. After the discovery of silver at the head of Gold Canyon, there was no longer a need for the tiny mining camp along the slimy creek that ran through Gold Canyon. It was not long after the discovery of silver that the miners and prospectors abandoned Johntown and made their homes in Virginia City and other places closer to the action.
Dutch Nick moved his saloon to Gold Hill, which was followed by Eilley Orrum’s boarding house. These became the first two businesses in Gold Hill. By the 1860s there was no longer a need for a mining camp at the lower end of Gold Canyon, and Johntown slipped away into oblivion to become Nevada’s first Ghost town.
Near the junction where the truck route and the main highway from Silver City come together, there is a small historical marker that tells about Johntown. The actual site, about one mile east of the junction is now on private property with no original existing buildings. My purpose in writing this article has been to remind everyone how humble the first 10 years where for the prospectors and placer miners who hung in there to eventually discover the fabulous Comstock Lode. This tough little town, which was home to all the original participants in the discovery of Nevada silver was truly the birthplace of the Comstock.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. Just click on “order books”