Tales of Nevada
By Slagg Ditch, a McGill Native
“Did you vote in the Nevada election just now?”
“Yes, I did. I voted a straight Union ticket.”
“Okay then, let’s go have a whiskey and play some stud.”
“Good idea, but I first have to step right here next door and vote in the California election.”
Odd as it may seem, that conversation could well have happened in the booming mining town of Aurora in the early 1860’s. Yes, a person could cast ballots in both California’s Mono County and in the Esmeralda mining district in the Nevada Territory on the same election day, and many did. Aurora had a dual personality, being the seat of both Mono County and the Esmeralda district.
Aurora was located high in remote mountains somewhere near the line dividing the territory and California. But no one knew for sure where that line was located in the Aurora vicinity. Both entities staked claims to the town and surrounding areas because of the vast mineral riches.
To illustrate the confusion, the Speaker of the California Legislature and the President of the Nevada Territorial Legislature were Aurora residents at one and the same time.
In 1860 three worn-out prospectors from California discovered gold in a waterless arroyo quite by luck, staked a claim, and formed a mining district. The district was named ‘Esmeralda’ after the tragi-heroine of Victor Hugo’s popular novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Aurora, the town that rose in the district virtually overnight as gold fever hit, was named after the Greek goddess of the dawn.
A noted historian described Aurora this way: It had “a population of two thousand people, twenty-two saloons, sixteen ore mills, ten restaurants, two churches, one newspaper, a Masonic hall, an Odd Fellows hall, and an unspecified number of bordellos.” The population grew to over five thousand before mine production began to wane.
Congress created the Nevada Territory in March 1861, two days before Abe Lincoln’s first inauguration. It sliced off about half of the western portion of the Utah Territory, which had extended roughly from the Rockies to the Sierras. Lincoln named Orion Clemens to be secretary of the territory. Orion’s brother, Sam, accompanied him on a three-week stagecoach ride from Missouri to Carson City.
Sam had not yet adopted the moniker ‘Mark Twain.’ He was soon off for Aurora to live in a rustic cabin and unsuccessfully try to dig up his share of the riches. He chronicled his Nevada days in his book Roughing It. He first used the Twain pen name in is iconic ‘Letter from Carson City’ dated February 3, 1863.
An initial task was to fashion a border between California and the territory. There is no need to read cumbersome Congressional reports to understand the politics involved in drawing the borderline. The politics are evident from looking at a map.
The northern portion of the border was simple enough to devise. A line was drawn directly south from Oregon border to the middle of Lake Tahoe.
The Tahoe/Oregon line placed the southern portion of the Cascades (including Mt. Shasta and Lassen Peak) and the northern-most Sierras in California. Nevada was left with the Black Rock Desert (hello Burning Man) and environs. Thankfully the Carson range and Truckee Meadows were in the territory.
Now, had that borderline continued directly south from the lake to the Mexican border, it would have placed Los Angeles and San Diego in Nevada. Needless to say, the rich and powerful California delegation in Congress was not about to let that happen.
Therefore, at a point roughly in the middle of Lake Tahoe the state line was angled off to the southeast. The obvious reason for running the line in that direction is that the Sierra range angles off in the same direction, and California wanted to make sure those mountains were its own. The mountains had been, after all, the source of the gold that enriched it and led to its statehood. There could well be much more of the stuff.
The southeasterly borderline runs roughly 400 miles from Lake Tahoe to the Colorado River. Had that angle in the lake been even one degree less obtuse, a line that long would have put Las Vegas well inside non-gambling California and Bugsy Siegel might have lived a longer life.
It was easy enough for settlers using compasses to trace the line from Lake Tahoe southeast for 30 miles or so, clearly leaving the Genoa settlement, for example, in Nevada. But exactly where did it go from there for the next 70-some miles to Aurora? Far out there were a few ranches, the Walker River, and a way station at Wellington that was on the wagon road between Carson City and Aurora. Most of the few folks living out in those lonely mountains and valleys cared less where the state line ran, so long as they were left alone.
And so, the battle was joined. Officials from the legislative and administrative bodies of California and the territory claimed to know the location of the state line. The claims were based on faulty ‘surveys,’ or hearsay, or were just pulled out of thin air. One can imagine the drunken banter in Aurora’s saloons between men who saw the territory as home and the ‘Californies,’ as they were called.
The bickering continued for two years after the territory was established until, finally, both sides agreed on an impartial survey. Aurora was found to be four miles inside Nevada. The seat of California’s Mono County was moved to Bridgeport.
Aurora became the second largest city in Nevada (only Virginia City was larger), and the Esmeralda district produced riches that exceeded $400 million in today’s dollars.
As the mines petered out, Aurora became a classic Nevada ghost town, but it was ravaged and salvaged over the years to the point that it virtually disappeared. Modern mining techniques, which create open pits or move mountains, have completed the job.