LEGENDARY NEVADANS: Eilley Bowers of Washoe Valley
Take a hot little second, guys, and imagine if this was your job descrip: “Miner – Fortune Teller – Socialite – Prospector.” Up until Eilley Bowers, there was only one other person whose job description I had even remotely envied, but dang. What a life she must’ve lived and, honestly, she really did live it. All at the same time, she was one of the richest women in the United States, a complete all-around female frontier badass, and one of the most emblematic women of her time. She married and divorced twice, outlived all of her children, and, within the span of 30 years—1846 to 1876 to be exact—had quite a ride.
Today, you can enjoy a slice of her legacy at Bowers Mansion, the first stately home in the territory that would later become the state of Nevada, and one of the best examples of the sort of estates becoming of an 1860s Comstock millionaire. The best part? You can can grab onto the same EXACT experience at Bowers Mansion today that you could in the 1860s… truly, nothing has changed over the course of more than 150 years, and it’s all yours for the taking, my history-loving babes. Read on to see the reasons you should clear your weekend plans and high-tail it to Bowers, tout suite. #NVHistory
It’s 1846, And Eilley’s Grand Adventure Begins
The minute she leaves Scotland and boards a ship for America, her adventure is off with a serious bang. True to the era, Eilley Oram Hunter is practically a child bride and married off by the ripe old age of 15… practically on the verge of a real deal spinster, eh? The lucky man is a guy by the name of Steven, but surprise! Although I’m seriously doubting the depth of their relationship and life goals at 15, he pulls a bait and switch on her and converts to an up-and-coming religion: Mormonism. Although it’s already in motion by the time they leave, he fully converts to Mormonism while aboard the ship to America, and though it wasn’t likely the sole reason of the deterioration of their marriage, things are not in great shape by the time they arrive. By the time Eilley and Stephen show up in the U.S. by way of Louisiana, they’re practically already divorced. And, by the time they reach their destination of choice—Salt Lake City—they officially part ways.
Now, think about that for a second. You leave your native land (and family) at 15, take a ship halfway around the world with someone you think you are going to spend the rest of your life with, and show up in a part of a country that has zero infrastructure. Like, at all. Real Cowboys-and-Indians type of stuff going down for real. With those types of odds, you can bet like 75% of today’s population would just lady-of-the-night up, call it quits. But no, she meets a second dude, ALSO a Mormon, named Alex Cowan. He is a farmer and, in the hot new phases of their relationship, is sent even further west as part of a Mormon mission, to the Nevada Territory—Mormon Station, to create local government, to be exact…. AKA Nevada’s VERY FIRST establishment, in present-day Genoa. But, upon arrival at Mormon Station, their mission relocates to “Franktown”… or Washoe Valley.
Eilley Finds Her Footing And Heads For Gold Hill
The best part of about this whole mission to Franktown was this: Eilley and Alex managed to get their hands on 320 acres of land. And only for a hundred bucks. Imagine! Wow. Even in the world we’re living in today, that only equates to less than $3000. But just when this whole Manifest Destiny thing really starts to look like it’s finally going to pay off, the Utah War of 1857 erupts and Brigham Young recalls all Mormon colonists back to Salt Lake. Sigh. In her second massive streak of bravery, Eilley decides she’s going to hang back for a bit and wait to see what happens. Side note: can you imagine just swingin’ on over to Utah in this era? Yeah, I think I’d probably stay, too. Besides, things weren’t going all that great in her second marriage to Alex, either. Yikes.
Despite owning a gargantuan amount of pretty primo land in Washoe Valley, they don’t have a house or anything on it. So, when Alex returns back to SLC, Eilley did what any other person during this time and location would’ve done and headed for the closest glimmer of a town: a little place called John Town… which would later become Gold Canyon… and, ultimately, Gold Hill. For my fellow history nerds out there, you know what’s about to go down, oh yes you do. There was some prospecting momentum going down in Gold Hill during 1857… more and more people were making their way west, suffering from a serious case of good ol’ fashioned gold fever. No major strikes had happened in the area just yet, but there were all kinds of miners certainly chasing it. To make ends meet, Eilley decides to open a business of her own—yep, another mind-melter, considering the starkly male-dominated era—and starts running a boarding house in Gold Hill.
…Sandy Rolls Into Town
As Eilley is raking in all kinds of profit running this Gold Hill boarding house, she embodies yet another unusual trait for a woman of her time: she begins buying and selling mining claims. (Hey, if it was a “man’s world,” I guess Eilley broke the mold.) In addition to outright purchasing claims, if a boarding house couldn’t count cough up the coin for room and board, she would accept mining claims as payment, too. Interestingly enough, she kinda sorta dabbles in fortune telling in Gold Hill as a side hobby, using her Scottish “peep stone” she brought over from Forfar—that’s Scottish code for a crystal ball, yo.
So things are going great for Eilley. She’s got her own successful business, a weird side hobby, and then—boom! Things go from great to grand when a handsome YOUNGER miner by the name of Lemuel Sanford Bowers shows up in town. An Irish-turned-Missourian “mule skinner”—AKA a teamster or, back then, the dude who convinces the mules to pull the cart—“Sandy” purchases a mining claim adjacent to one of hers. They really hit it off, both personally and professionally, and it doesn’t take long before they decide to become an official item because hey, what’s a third marriage? I like a wild life, but dang, I can barely keep up with this lady.
But wait, that guy Alex… the guy who’s still her husband? Normally during these times you wouldn’t need an on-paper divorce, not unless you wanted something as a settlement. Sayyyyy, 320 acres of prime-time real estate? Sure enough, Eilley proceeds with an official second divorce from Alex Cowan, and scores the land in Washoe Valley. The scandal!
The Comstock Lode Becomes A Thing
By the time 1859 rolls around, Eilley and Sandy have claims all over freaking town. Their own independent ones, sure; and now some that run straight-up adjacent. But, remember how they originally crossed paths, serendipitously staking claims right next to each other? Yeah, back to that. For one specific merged claim, Eilley and Sandy each had about a 10-foot chunk of adjoining land. Well, those little tiny claims turned out to reveal the same fat vein of pure silver, baby.
The claim the Bowers owned was just the tip of the iceberg, guys. The 1859 silver boom that happened in Gold Hill and Virginia City turned out to be the first major discovery of silver in the United States, and still holds the record for being the largest in our nation’s history. Booyah. Because of that strike—the “Comstock Lode”—Virginia City is now an official National Historic Landmark—a serious designation requiring an Act of Congress and signature of approval by the President, that basically recognizes a place’s major role in telling the story of our national history. THAT’S how big of a deal this silver strike was, and continues to be. All in all, the Comstock Lode pumped out such incomprehensible wealth that it helped fund the development of basically the entire Western United states… empowering the expansion of railroads and the construction of cities like San Francisco.
Eilley And Sandy Become Overnight Millionaires
Imagine owning a random piece of land that catapulted you—a lower-class, boardinghouse-operating, mule-driving couple—into unimaginable wealth. The ultimate 1850s lottery, and Eilley and Sandy suddenly hit it… in the biggest of ways. Not only does their claim prove to hold one of the richest veins of silver ore in what would soon become the state of Nevada, but the silver sits super close to the surface, freeing them of the need for costly capital investment. Together, they are Nevada Territory’s Very. First. Millionaires.
There are countless things to admire both Sandy and Eilley about, but, aside from making history we’re still very much profiting off today, it’s pretty sweet that their grand adventure takes place entirely in Nevada. Yep. During this time, it wasn’t uncommon for people to cash in on their Nevada mining endeavors and then immediately return back to where they were from, or move even further west to California—I’m lookin’ at you Adolph Sutro. But Sandy? Nah, he was a stand up guy, and famously quoted as saying, “I made my money in this county, and here is where I intend to spend it.”
…And Go Furniture Shopping Like Millionaires Do
And spend it, he would. By 1861, construction had begun on that sweet little chunk of Washoe Valley land—and in a big way. Sandy was a miner, and wants to continue being a miner… this whole lavish opulence, icon status thing is mostly coming from Eilley. But gosh dang it, do you blame her? She’d been living hard and fast; I mean, by age 35 she had navigated around the globe, landed in the American West and kept going West, divorced twice, run her own business, and happened to become an overnight millionaire from the largest silver strike in U.S. History. If she wanted to spend her money, by golly you’d better let her.
Thing is, this isn’t going to be any ol’ home. Not even a fancy home by 1860s standards. Nope, Eilley desires the most baller house around… one that resembles her native Scotland. As construction starts, she gets pregnant with her first child—John Jasper Bowers. But he dies within a month. She then has a daughter, Theresa Fortunatas Bowers, who, sadly, also dies in infancy. Damn, life was hard back then! So naturally, she channels all her energy toward the elaborate construction of this mansion, and decides that while the home is set to be built, she and Sandy are going to take a European tour to explore and purchase stuff for their new home. Why? Because they can. In 1861, she and Sandy set sail from San Francisco to Scotland on a ship named “Persia,” where they get their hands on extravagant furniture, statues, paintings and other fancy decorations for their new digs.
They Move Into Their Home, One Of The Most Expensive Buildings In The Western U.S.
By 1863, Eilley and Sandy have returned from their European tour, and their new mansion is completed and ready to move into. But a kind of weird—wait, really weird—thing happens on their trip… they return with a mysterious kid and never really fully explain where she came from. Like, as in, ever. Historians can’t even explain it, or fully trace it, but it sounds like the girl’s unwed mother passed away at sea and they adopted her, naming her “Persia,” after the ship they sailed back on.
Annnnnyyyyway. Eilley, Sandy and Persia return back to the States and move into their big ol’ mansion. Remember, she wanted the home to look like one from her native Scotland, and man oh man, will it, securing the prestige and respect she thinks she is owed. So she hires former California Governor J. Neely Johnson as the lead architect, who combines Georgian and Italianate architecture styles. This specific blend of styles would become exemplary of wealth and architecture in this area.
Once everything was said and done, the two-story mansion cost about $250,000, which translates to close to 6 million dollars in modern times. Built from local timber, the home boasts a cool 16 rooms that incorporate features most could only dream of. Its front makes a grand first impression, featuring a spring-fed fountain, a large wrap-around front porch on both stories, hitching posts, and elaborate detail (that almost looks hand-etched) in the granite construction. The home’s hinges and doorknobs are said to have been made of pure silver and gold from their mine in Gold Hill… imagine that. The mansion also has several hand-crafted carrara marble fireplaces…
Plaster border adorned ceilings, moldings, and ornate medallions above the chandeliers…
A mahogany handrail and balcony…
Of the 16 rooms, Bowers Mansion has a library, guest room, reception room, along with a seriously lavish formal parlor with an adjoining smoking room…
A dining room…
An extra room with a hand-sculpted billiard table…
A kitchen with the original, super-rare (and presently extremely valuable) Calendar Clock Safe. These typically came over on a cowboy chuckwagon, and were comprised of a clock, coffee grinder, and 6 spice tins, with 6 compartments on top and shelves below to store food.
Upstairs were the bedrooms for the whole family. Eilley and Sandy had separate suites…
But the floorplan also featured an elaborate playroom for Persia, too.
Eilley clearly wasn’t playin’ games, because when all was said and done, the Bowers’ Mansion was one of the most elaborate, and expensive homes in the Western United State. Although quite a few other Comstock millionaires also built houses in Nevada, the Bowers Mansion remains a pretty amazing example—and still stands up to the competition, since very little around these parts has changed over the last 150 years.
Before Long, It All Kind Of Starts To Fall Apart
…Starting with Sandy’s death. Sigh. Yep, true to Nevada fashion, the seriously lucrative mining streak that had boomed now busts. The Comstock Lode had catapulted so many people into wealth they’d never dreamt, but we all know good things can’t last forever. Within a few short years, the mines dried up, wealth ran out, and people started to depart Virginia City for the next big strike. The silver just wasn’t coming out of the hillsides like it used to, and there weren’t as many people in Virginia City, which created a sort of 1864-style depression. In an effort to play his part, Sandy moves back to Gold Hill at a last-ditch attempt to save his mine, and look out for the people he employed. While selling and leasing the Bowers Mining Operation, his health totally collapses and in 1868 he dies of lung failure.
Aside from being horribly sad, this is an important turning point in Eilley’s story because this is the beginning of when the Bowers start to fall into debt. But before you jump to any conclusions on how they spent their money, yes—because, yes, they were totally living fast and hard in ways we can’t understand, even by today’s standards—some of their acquired debt came from Sandy being a pretty damned good guy. You see, unlike many of the other mine owners in the Comstock boom, Sandy kept paying his workers even though he wasn’t making any money himself. That continued for years to come, even posthumously, which says a whole helluva lot about the man’s character. He worked as a miner, hit unimaginable wealth as a miner, and continued to look out for his people, even after he had failed—and even died.
Travel Nevada PRO TIP: Sandy was buried in the hillside behind the Mansion, and his grave can still be accessed today via a short hiking trail that departs from the back of the Mansion. It’s incredible that this historic gravesite can be accessed at all, but here’s the best part: when paying Sandy your respects, don’t forget to turn around and drink in the views of Washoe Valley below. Aside from a few vantage points within Washoe Lake State Park, this is undoubtedly the best way to take in sweeping views of the mansion itself, along with Mount Davidson (where the Comstock Lode went down) in the distance behind it, to boot.
With A Slight Silver Resurgence, Things Look Up For A Bit
Though Eilley had lost her partner in crime for good and she and Persia now had to fend for themselves in a time where independent women and success stories didn’t exactly go hand in hand—bam! Plot twist, yet again. Eilley and Persia had basically been laying low for a few years, hunkering down in the mansion, undoubtedly trying to figure out their next move. It had appeared that all the lucrative silver snatching up in Virginia City had come and gone, but in 1873 another silver boom totally takes off and draws the masses back to the region for a second time. By this point, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad had already been up and running, transporting the gold and silver mined from the surrounding hills. But, because of this sudden, unanticipated resurgence in silver, they decide to expand their routes and lay track from Reno to Carson City.
This is a sensational stroke of pure luck for Eilley because guess what: that Reno-to-Carson route is about to be laid a stone’s throw from her front porch. Drawing on her entrepreneurial, boardinghouse runnin’ days, she does something pretty genius: opens up her fancy-schmancy mansion as a resort. You can imagine the envy, for those who had already known about it, but especially so when the dang train blew right by it. Remember—this was the most baller house anyone had ever seen, oooor heard about. Giving the people what they wanted? Super smart move, Eilley. Marketing the Mansion and its natural, spring-fed pool as “beneficial to health,” along with the Mansion’s stunning, rolling grassy knolls, Bowers Mansion naturally transforms from private residence into this this elaborate, alluring grand excursion for the muckity-mucks profiting from the Comstock. Plus, a boardwalk is built from the V&T track right up to the front door. The mansion starts rockin’ with social events, dances, and guests flocking to the shady escape to picnic, swing under trees, bathe in the natural spring water, and basically have the time of their freaking lives.
More Bummer News: Persia Dies, And Eilley Is Forced To Sell The Mansion
These incredibly exorbitant picnics continue to be a thing for several years—with a model like that, how could it honestly fail? Thankfully, Eilley’s situation stabilizes for a bit, considering her new “resort” starts to bring in some serious coin. But, considering her mounting debt since the minute Sandy died, it’s still not enough. Plus, I’m not sure if she realized this or not, but remember that Bowers claim they had up in VC? Ya, even after Sandy dies, they continue paying the workers. Things go from bad to worse when Persia suddenly dies from what is thought to have been a ruptured appendix. One minute she’s going to school up in Reno, next thing we know, she’s critically ill and dies. Pretty sad stuff. Persia is also buried behind Bowers Mansion next to her Pa, Sandy.
In an attempt to pay off her debt, Eilley sees the writing on the wall and decides she’s gotta try to unload this money-pit of a mansion. She enters negotiation with the State of Nevada, who—of all things–has become super interested in using the grounds as a psych ward. But the deal falls through, and what had begun as an icon of status and wealth she felt she was owed, becomes this ultra-burden that she’s gotta face… alone.
At A Last Attempt, Eilley Decides To Renovate The Mansion And Add An Expansion
Yep, you’re already in-debt, Eilley, what’s a little more? Seriously, I see her logic; I mean, the place was already around 20-ish years old and could probably use some brushing up in order to offload. But dang, this renovation and expansion didn’t exactly encompass just a few new fresh coats of paint. Eilley goes big with this thing, as in, adding an entire third floor that includes a whopping FOURTEEN rooms. Plus, the expansion includes a bunch of extravagant baths near the spring-fed pool in the back of the property, a greenhouse shrubbery and flower garden, and a big ol’ dance hall.
In total, the expansion cost Eilley right around 8,000 big ones, and worked… briefly. I mean imagine it: Eilley welcoming women in their large victorian dresses as they made their way up the V&T boardwalk to have a picnic and bathe in the swimming pools. It’s good stuff, enough to earn the place the nickname: “Carlsbad of Nevada.”
But… it doesn’t last long and ultimately backfires, catapulting her deeper into debt. Considering she already owed the county money, they basically tell her enough is enough and make her auction everything off at an attempt to pay down her $13,000 in debt. When all is said and done, she loses everything to Myron C. Lake—the founder of Reno—but even after all her flashy possessions were sold, it only nets her $10,000. She’s still in the hole for three thousand bucks.
The Famous Washoe Seeress
What do you do when you’re officially down on your luck? I mean Eilley’s three children had died, so had her husband, and now she’s lost one of the things she’s most proud of earning. Everything she’d built is gone. But she somehow figures out a way to continue her grand adventure, yet again, and falls back on an unlikely talent of the time: fortune telling, baby. By this point, she’s what, in her early 50s? Perfect window for fortune telling! Honestly, what else does she have to lose… she had, in fact, lost just about everything. Marketing herself as “Mrs. L.S. Bowers, The Famous Washoe Seeress,” she again, establishes instant success in her newfound profession, successfully predicting real events, like the 1875 fire that destroyed the majority of Virginia City.
By 1880, there isn’t much reason to stick around Washoe Valley. Virginia City has totally burned down, the majority of the area’s silver is tapped, the economy’s tanked, she’s lost her family, and her prized home now belongs to someone else. So, Eilley decides to go to San Francisco—a city that was built from the very wealth stemming from the Comstock Lode. This works out for a bit—that is, until Eilley’s hearing starts to go, and she can’t ultimately hear requests from her clients. Bummer, right? With that, she comes back to the Silver State.
Eilley Ultimately Dies Completely Penniless
So now she’s back in Nevada, trying to figure out her next move. It’s a challenge to find any positives in her situation, but maybe the very worst is this: the people who can actually vouch for her, and the successes she’d gained throughout the Comstock boom have all basically died or left the area. So now, she’s suddenly perceived as this lunatic fortune-telling spinster. Great. Her ultimate fear was not being able to afford her own burial, so at her extreme last attempt, she decides to approach the county to get some of their money back. You see, when Nevada was on the brink of the Paiute War, Sandy didn’t want to fight. Why would he? He’d just lain a successful claim on what was making him a millionaire. He wanted to stay and see that through. To get out of having to go to the local Paiute War, which is a whoooole other story, Sandy and Eilley helped finance it, donating $14,000. But, when approaching the state about getting some of that coin back to pay off any remaining debt and funding her own, decent burial, she finds out she’s missed the paper processing window. There is no way to recover any of those funds. That basically triggers this giant situation over who would pay to care for her—Nevada or California. She has no family or anyone to vouch for her, remember? Eilley is ultimately shipped back to California, this time Oakland, where she is cared for at a rest home of sorts until her death. She dies in 1903 totally penniless. At least her ashes are returned to Nevada, where she receives the dignity of a burial alongside her Persia and Sandy.
An Unlikely Reno Saloon Owner Saves The Day
Eilley ultimately lost the resort in the 1870s to Myron C. Lake, Reno’s founder, who continued to operate the Mansion and surrounding grounds as a resort, with a live-in property manager. After he and his wife died, ownership bounced around a few more times over the next three decades, mostly maintained as a private residence of sorts. That is, up until a local brewery and saloon owner named Henry Ritter enters the game in the early 1900s. He was running a bar up in Reno, and had gotten his hands on a painting of a mansion, which he proudly displayed in his saloon. Story goes, one day a patron came into his bar and inquired about the painting. Ritter responded that he loved the painting and was completely captivated by the property, but knew little about it, including what or where it was. The patron said he knew how Ritter could get his hands on it, and for CHEAP. Next thing he knows, he’s inking the deal, becoming the fifth owner of the storied Bowers Mansion.
During this window of time Eilley was in fact, still riding out her golden years in Oakland. Harry tried his damndest to get her back to the Mansion to live out the rest of her days in her original living quarters upstairs, but she died before he could get her back home. He played a role in getting her ashes entombed with the rest of her family in the family cemetery behind the mansion, and was a devoted owner of the property, moving Eilley’s story forward, even posthumously.
…And Kicks The Resort Glamour Up A Notch
From the second he got his hands on Bowers Mansion in 1903, he very successfully operated the place as the flashy resort it was always destined to be. Eilley had lain some serious groundwork, but Harry was the guy who really elevated the status of this property. The V&T continued to offer train rides to the Mansion for decadent excursions for the wealthy, and if not by train, picnickers traveled to Bowers Mansion by horse, buggy and later the automobile. Harry transformed the library into a bar, had the swimming ponds reinforced with concrete, and made sure the resort withstood the crazy Roaring 20s and Prohibition Era.
By the 1940s, Harry was ready to retire, but not at the expense of his beloved Bowers Mansion. He wanted to make sure that the property was well looked after, and decided that the grounds “belonged to the children of Nevada.” After all, kids had already been appreciating the lush lawns and spring-fed pools for close to 70 years by that point… it only made sense to ensure this would keep happening, right? To help make this a reality and keep the grounds public and protected, the Reno Women’s Civic Club steered fundraising efforts and Bowers Mansion became an official Washoe County Regional Park in 1946.
Visiting Bowers Mansion Today
To me, Eilley’s life falls nothing short of absolutely incredible. Though people want to latch on to the bizarre, and unavoidably memorable fortune telling thread in her life, she really did lead one hell of a grand adventure from 1846-1876. She was married three times—something that wasn’t at all common for respectable women of the era—outlived all three of her children, was an independent business owner, mining magnate, and rode the wave of being a new-money millionaire before ultimately riding out her days running on empty. Imagine what that must’ve been like, living that level of fast and hard. She was one of the most fearless 19th-century women of the frontier, a major historical figure in Nevada’s story, and a life story we all should be able to recite from memory, or at least been familiarized. But, her story has quietly thrived for over 150 years at a place she had an unparalleled vision for. A place that still exists today, and an experience that over 150 years hasn’t changed one bit.
Today, Bowers Mansion is protected under the National and State Register of Historic Places, and still under the watchful eye of the regional parks system. Through it all, Bowers Mansion is still considered to be the best example of mansion houses built by the millionaires who profited from the largest silver strike in United States history. The crazy thing is, despite the fact that all of her worldly possessions were auctioned off when she was in an incomprehensible amount of debt, guess who bought it? Her neighbors. Most of the furniture, statues, and curtains, and other fine furnishings of Eilley’s stayed in Washoe Valley, and when it became a public park and preserved in the 1960s, many of her original belongings were returned.
Today, you can swim in spring fed pools that awaited 1870s leisure seekers, unpack a picnic on a mighty plush lawn as if you were arriving by steam locomotive, and step onto the wrap around porch and through the threshold of this iconic mansion as if you’d been beckoned from the track by Eilley herself. Because what’s the point of preserving history, if you can’t actually enjoy it? Her personal story is a mind-melter for sure, but the fact that this is a place where the experience has remained the same for 150 years? That, my friends, is simply astonishing. #NVHistory
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