Bowers Mansion – A tale from the Silver State

Note: This column first appeared on Jim Hill Media way back on October 30th, 2003. This weekend Roger is hosting a big get together of all the Silver State family. But Bowers Mansion has a tale worth sharing here!


From a column on October 3rd, you may recall a fine tale by Jean de Lutèce about the backstory for Disneyland Paris Ravenswood Manor.

Would it surprise you to know that there is history from Nevada’s Comstock Lode that shares many of the same points as that “story”? If you’ve been reading these Ruminations for a while, it shouldn’t.

So grab your favorite bubbling brew, cuddle up with a beloved ghoul friend or two, and let me illuminate you…

What today is the state of Nevada was once a major part of the Territory of Utah. Before the discovery of gold in California, it was pretty quiet. About the only settlements were stations along the trail here and there. A few Mormon immigrant colonies as well. After the findings at Sutter’s Mill, that changed as the rush was on. More and more, folks coming west stopped here and there, finding water and good grazing land for their stock. Some decided to take their chance with fortune and pan for gold in the more promising spots. Not much to show, so they kept on heading west, where greater riches were waiting for them. After all, the streets were paved with gold in California, right?

Here’s a link to the tale of the discovery of the Comstock Lode. It is considered the largest silver deposit in the United States.

What made this ore richer than any other was the amount of gold found with it. The main ore body was almost two miles long and several hundred feet wide in places. An initial asset in 1859 found that this ore was worth $3400 a ton! It was no wonder that people flocked here from both east and west. Miners who had not found their fortunes in California came here hoping to stake their claims, and retire, rich. Between 1873 and 1880, the total value of ore taken from the Lode was over one-half of a billion dollars, so that wasn’t out of the realm of possibility… But much like today’s California Lottery, the odds were not in one’s favor. It was a hard existence for the average Joe and even more so for the average Jane. The frontier was definitely not the place for all but the most hardy of women.

Among those people who actually did strike it rich were the two upon whom our story focuses today. Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers and Allison “Eilley” Oram Bowers. If ever fortune smiled upon any of the common folk, and then turned them the cold shoulder, they were the ones.

Eilley Bowers is one of the most researched, written and talked about women in Nevada history. She was a continual subject of news reports and writers who sometimes wrote tales of her long, eventful life. Many researchers have tried to uncover more of the facts of her life.

“Eilley” was born on September 6, 1826 in the Royal Burgh of Forfar, Scotland, located in the eastern Scottish countryside. At the young age of fifteen, she married nineteen-year-old Stephen Hunter of Fishcross, Clackmannan, Scotland. After six years of marriage, Stephen converted to the relatively new religion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In January 1849, the Hunters decided to move to America and the new Mormon city in the Great Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young had established this home for his followers just two years earlier. The Hunters immigrated to America by ship from Liverpool, England to New Orleans, then by steamer to Council Bluffs, Iowa, where they joined a wagon train and walked the rest of the way to Utah. Soon after they arrived, the two were divorced for unknown reasons.

Three years later in 1853, Eilley married again, to Alexander Cowan. He was also from Scotland and a devout Mormon willing to do anything for the church. In the fall of 1855, he was called on a mission to the western most edge of Utah Territory. Today this is Genoa, Nevada, but then it was the small settlement of Mormon Station in Carson County, Utah Territory. Most women stayed in Salt Lake City when their husbands went off to settle a new community. As evidence of her strength, practicality, and commitment to the marriage, Eilley chose to make the journey to the Nevada wilderness with her husband and his 12-year-old-nephew Robert Henderson, who had recently been orphaned.

When their first winter approached, most of the Mormons returned to Salt Lake City, but the Cowans stayed in the small settlement. The following spring, Orson Hyde, the local Mormon elder, decided to move the Mormons to the Washoe Valley. Since the Cowans had stayed behind for the winter, they were among the first to arrive in the Valley. Alexander was able to purchase 320 acres of good farming land complete with a small house and corral.

A little over one year later, the Federal government was experiencing difficulties with the Mormon congregation that brought about the possibility of an open conflict with the United States. In order to save his empire, Brigham Young recalled all of his missionaries who had been sent out to settle small communities like the one in the Washoe Valley. Alexander was faithful to the church and agreed to return to Salt Lake City in the fall of 1857. Eilley and Robert chose to stay behind in Washoe. After the problems with the government and Utah were resolved, Alexander returned to Nevada for a short time, but soon went back to Utah alone. Ultimately, they divorced, and in the settlement Eilley received 160 acres in Washoe Valley of the acreage that they had purchased in 1856.

When the Mormons abandoned the settlement of Franktown, some accounts have Eilley remaining on the ranch. Yet, there are records that show her and Robert moving to Johntown (today it is below Silver City) where she could earn a respectable living in 1857. The camp housed around 180 miners who were searching the surrounding canyons and streams for gold.

From various accounts, she cooked and laundered for her boarders. She was known to occasionally provide entertainment during the evening hours with her crystal ball. Little did she know how important that would become in her later years.

The operation had to have been considered one of the higher-class (and hence, more respectable) boarding houses in Johntown since Eilley had a real building in the midst of a tent city. That was a welcome addition to the rustic camp. Eilley and her nephew lived there until the spring of 1859 when gold was discovered on a nearby hill, and the town of Gold Hill was born.

Eilley and Robert quickly relocated to the new town site and built another boarding house. She took advantage of the situation by acquiring several plots of land. An unsubstantiated tale relates that James Rogers had fallen victim to some of the local “tarantula juice” and could not afford to pay his bill to Eilley, and so transferred his claim to her instead.

That August, she married (for the third time) to Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers. He was an illiterate, but hard working miner who made his way west from Salt Lake possibly as a teamster on one of the expeditions to bring supplies to the Mormon settlements. He stayed on in the area and tried his hand at prospecting, eventually acquiring a claim in Gold Hill that adjoined Eilley’s. Their combined holdings meant the couple was financially stable at this point in their marriage.

(The Bowers claim was a consolidation of the two 10-foot claims located or acquired by Lemuel Sanford (“Sandy”) Bowers and James Rogers on or a few days after January 28, 1859. It was bounded on the north by the unpatented Plato claim and on the south by the patented Bacon No. 59 claim. From the mineral survey plat of the Bacon No. 59 claim it appeared that the Bowers claim lay in the Southeast Quarter of Section 31 and the Southwest Quarter of Section 32, T. 17 N., R. 21 E., M.D.B. & M.)

Soon Gold Hill and the new town of Virginia City were exciting mining towns, with a quickly growing population, producing the most concentrated amount of silver and gold in the United States.

The Bowers were among the first millionaires of the Comstock Lode. Over the next two years, Eilley gave birth to two children. Unfortunately both died as infants, an all too common occurrence in those times.

In celebration of their prosperity, they planned the construction of grand mansion on Eilley’s Washoe Valley property. This new home was completed in 1863 and is considered the finest Nevada example of homes built by the new money class of the Comstock. It was symbolic of the fulfillment of Eilley’s dreams of prestige and respectability. Designed by J. Neeley Johnson, a builder and ex-governor of California, it combined Georgian and Italianate architectural styles. The structure was modeled after a design conceived by Eilley based on her recollection of elegant buildings in her native Scotland. Stonecutters from Scotland were employed for the construction, which eventually cost the astronomical sum of $400,000 to complete.

The two-story mansion is located in a wonderful meadow backing up to the foothills of Mount Rose, and is next to a series of natural hot springs.

Visitors stayed away when the house was new and later when she tried to turn it into a resort. Friends of Sandy Bowers accepted the couple’s invitations, but their wives declined. The “nice ladies” of the day snubbed Eilley Bowers because she was twice divorced, a working class woman and a Mormon — all reflections of prejudices of the era.

The comfort of the family and the entertainment of guests figured in the design of the downstairs library, parlors, sitting rooms, dining room and kitchen. The upstairs originally included a billiard room, but the billiard table’s immense weight put such strain on the floors that it was moved downstairs. Bedrooms upstairs boasted Victorian bedsteads, dressers, vanities and wardrobes.

Now 140 years old, the mansion bears its age well. Carefully fitted stone walls requiring little mortar still stand straight. Deeply recessed, tall windows fill the house with light, their frames so slanted that the slashing storms from the Sierras cannot drive rain or snow beneath the sashes. Restoration removed the ill-conceived and unfinished third floor. Many features survived the decades of neglect including the fountain in front of the house, the marble fireplace mantles, the fitted interior shutters, the intricate ceilings, the carved wooden moldings, the wood-grained paneling, and some of the hardware plated with Comstock silver.

Visiting today, it is easy to be struck by the size of the mansion, as being small. Compare it to the above ground structure of Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” in New Orleans Square and you’ll note the similarities. Yet, that is not uncommon for the era. Remember that many people lived in shacks with flimsy walls and roofs or simple tents. In the sense of a permanent structure, it was immense for the day. Comparing it with other local buildings, even the Federal mint building in Carson City seems small today. The largest building in town was the Virginia & Truckee Railroad’s great stone enginehouse — almost a half a contemporary city block in size.

While the mansion was under construction in 1862, Mr. and Mrs. Bowers took their famed European excursion. They hosted a banquet at the International Hotel in Virginia City prior to their departure. They left San Francisco on May 1 bound for New York via the Isthmus of Panama. From there, it was off for Scotland, England and Europe. They enjoyed the good life, purchased treasures for their home and visited her family in Scotland. Local papers shared these adventures of great interest with eager readers.

Among the goals of the European excursion, Eilley dearly wanted to be presented at the Court of Saint James. She made special preparations and purchased an elegant gown in Paris particularly for the occasion. Yet for all their money, the couple lacked social connections and she was to be denied such an opportunity. It is said that Sandy tried to make up for this disappointment for the rest of their stay by finding attractive and unique treasures to distract her.

It appears that Eilley found one of her own in Scotland. When they returned to Nevada in March 1863, the Bowers had a baby girl with them whom they had adopted during their trip. For her own reasons, Eilley did not want the details of the adoption to be made public. The truth of young Margaret Persia’s birth was never known. The Bower family spent several years living in their mansion and generously dispersing the profits of their seemingly endless fortune.

Even though the War Between The States was continuing in the east, the Bowers and the other prosperous residents of the new Nevada Territory (decidedly Union in loyalties) were continuing to enjoy their riches. On October 31, 1864, Nevada became a state (with its motto, “Battle Born”) and followed President Lincoln’s reelection shortly thereafter. Five months later the war ended, Lincoln was assassinated, and the mines of Nevada were entering a period of decline.

As ores began to play out, the Bowers were among those slowly losing the riches they had come to know. Sandy moved back to Gold Hill to try to save the mine, but luck was not with him. In early 1868, he tried to sell a share of the claim. However, before the sale could be completed, he died of silicosis that April. He was buried in a plot on the hill behind the mansion, overlooking the Washoe Valley and Franktown.

Struck with grief as she was, Eilley took over the business affairs with the help of George Waters. The ore was gone and her financial situation was not promising, and in 1870 she sold him all of her interests in the mine.

In 1873, a new and surprisingly large body of ore was discovered, but not on or near the Bowers property. The Big Bonanza brought new life to the Comstock and Nevada. With increased prosperity, the people of Virginia City and the surrounding communities found the need for diversions from their daily toils.

Rather than give up, she revisited her previous professional life in the boardinghouse by making the mansion a resort destination. Nighttime parties and summer picnics became a way of life for Mrs. Bowers. The hot springs and grounds offered a place for all kinds of events. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad completed the line between Reno and Carson in 1872, passing near the Mansion. With trains and the connecting stages from the nearby Franktown station, an excursion to Bowers Mansion was an easily accessible journey for many of the working men and women of the Comstock.

Ads for the parties can be seen in the Territorial Enterprise. One of the balls she hosted was in support of the Women’s Suffrage movement. It was the spot for the annual Miner’s Ball. The Mansion was at its height of popularity from 1873-1875. She was famed for hosting and creating an atmosphere where the grand parties went until the wee hours. People enjoyed the picnics on the grounds. She was known to have opened her doors so that people might see and appreciate the mansion.

During the summer months, the Miners Union, Knights of Pythias, the Pioneers, and many other fraternal organizations often sponsored large picnics. Thousands rode trains, brought their wagons and even walked to these grand affairs. While Eilley was always the gracious hostess greeting guests, this did not greatly assist her financial situation.

At one point, she tried to raffle the mansion, but it had to be suspended, as there were not enough tickets sold to make the venture feasible. She built on a third story to the mansion to bring in more boarders, but this only increased her debt. Things were not going well for Eilley, but the picnics still continued.

Photo of the mansion
A later front view of the Mansion with the ill-conceived third floor.

During this time, twelve-year-old Persia was sent to Reno to attend a boarding school. Perhaps this was to keep her from the dubious party atmosphere surrounding the mansion. When there was a break between parties, the young lady often came home for a visit. In July, 1874, just such a visit occurred. At the end of her time in the mansion, Eilley accompanied Persia back to Reno, but could not stay long as there was another picnic to host that Sunday. After the picnic, Eilley was told to return to Reno. By the time she arrived, it was too late. Persia had died of a ruptured appendix. She was buried on the hillside behind the mansion next to her father. Even with the loss of her daughter, Eilley had to continue on. Three weeks later she hosted a picnic for all the Sunday School children from the surrounding towns.

After the death of three children and her husband, the loss of her mine and her money, and with the approaching loss of her mansion, she began to turn to her spirit friends for support. From as early as her days in Johntown, Eilley had been known to have a crystal ball, but her fortune telling had then been more for entertainment than anything else. Now it was her only means of support. A visit was not considered fully complete without a peek into one’s future by the “Washoe Seeress”. Her ventures forth into the spirit world may have been in search of solace as well for her tortured soul. Having survived the challenges of pioneer life, the toll could have been enormous on her psyche.

In 1876, her debts became unavoidable, and she finally lost the mansion when it was sold at public auction. The new owner, Myron C. Lake, allowed her to stay in the mansion that summer, but then she was forced to vacate. She had retained a small house in Franktown near her beloved mansion, but often stayed in Virginia City and Reno telling fortunes for money.

Eilley had become a wanderer and professional seeress. She continued to live this life until 1882 when she suddenly disappeared from Nevada. She was later found living and working in San Francisco. In 1884 she returned to Reno for a short time and continued to tell fortunes, but she soon returned to San Francisco.

Postcard image of the mansion
A view of the Mansion with the fountain operating.

By the turn of the century, Eilley was financially destitute and was showing signs of senility. She was in her mid-seventies and had lived to see most of her friends die many years prior. Eilley began writing letters to everyone she knew trying to get their support in her effort to get money from the government. In the days when Nevada was a territory, Sandy Bowers is believed to have given the government $14,000 to help fight the Indians in the Paiute Indian war of 1860. Eilley only wanted a little back to help pay for her final days and a decent burial. The money never came.

Eilley made one final return to Reno in the summer of 1901 and was put away in the county poor house. During her stay, she proved to be very troublesome for the caregivers. The Washoe County commissioners were called upon to reach a decision in her case. They finally agreed that she was beyond their help, and they provided her a one-way train ticket to San Francisco and bid her farewell. Local citizens added about $30 in donations to help send her on her way.

After arrival in San Francisco, Eilley went to Oakland where she took up residency in the King’s Daughters Home. She died alone on October 27, 1903 at the age of seventy-seven. With the help of Henry Riter, the new owner of the Mansion (operated as a resort until 1946), Eilley’s ashes were returned to Nevada and she was reunited with her husband Sandy and daughter Persia in the family plot on the hill behind the mansion.

Washoe County purchased the Mansion and grounds in 1946 with the help of the Reno Women’s Civic Club and public donations. It is now a county park with swimming pool (fed by the hot springs), picnic grounds and tours through the mansion itself during the summer season. Within the mansion walls, the story of Sandy and Eilley will continue to live on. As well, her spirit is said to haunt the house to this day, having been seen on a number of occasions roaming the second floor.

In August of 2003, a musical theater production, entitled “Eilley” was performed at the Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. The production was staged by the Gold Hill Theater Troupe. Their more usual venue for performances is at the nearby Gold Hill Hotel, not far for where the Bowers claim is located.

Photo of the mansion as it looks today
The Bowers Mansion as it appears today.

The Bowers Mansion is located in Washoe Valley, on Franktown Rd., 19 miles south of Reno, on the way to Carson City. Access Franktown Rd. from US 395; the junction is marked with a “Bowers Mansion” sign. For further information on hours and house tours, call 775-849-0201 or 775-849-0644. This link has a great selection of views of the Mansion and grounds as the appear today.

So there you have it… While maybe not quite as colorful a tale as that of the Ravenswood Manor, it is all true. “Give or take a lie or two,” as James Garner put it in his role as Wyatt Earp in “Sunset.”

I’m able to add a personal footnote. I’ve been to the Mansion a number of times, but the most notable visit was a big Walker and Colton family picnic on Labor Day of 1967. I recall a dip in the hot-springs fed (and well-filtered) swimming pool as particularly invigorating, if not just down right unusual…

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