Given Carson City’s close association with Mark Twain—a writer known to have spun a tall tale or two—it makes sense that there are a few colorful myths and legends involving the community, including: Carson City’s Prehistoric Human Footprints—In the late 1870s, convicts working at the quarry at the Nevada State Prison began uncovering fossils as well as unusual footprints in the stone. In 1881, Warden William Garrard wrote to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco to request help in determining the source of the footprints. While his letter went unanswered, a year later, W. J. Hanks, sheriff of Storey County and a former prison employee, met with Charles Drayton Gibbes, the academy’s geologist, who agreed to investigate. Gibbes, along with H.W. Harkness and several California University professors, visited the quarry later that year. In a follow up report, Harkness noted that the site was most likely once a pond or lake and that “we see the footprints of a variety of animals, among which we recognize those of the mammoth, the deer, the wolf, of many birds, of a horse, and most important of all, the imprints of the sandaled foot of a man.” The news generated considerable attention as Harkness noted that the human footprints measured 19-inches long, eight inches across, and appeared to indicate a stride of two to three feet—about that of a six-foot man wearing sandals. Other scientists studied the prints and came to different conclusions. Several noted that the prints resembled those of an extinct gigantic ground sloth, which often appeared to walk on two legs because its hind feet fell almost exactly over the prints of it forefeet, which also served to lengthen the size of the print. In 1919, paleontologist Chester Stock, who had aided in the excavation of the Rancho Le Brea asphalt deposits, finally solved the mystery. After studying the tracks, Stock said the Carson City prints were nearly identical to sloth prints found at Rancho Le Brea. Additionally, he examined fossils uncovered at the quarry and found that they included sloth bone fragments. He said this “removes still further the possibility that the Carson footprints are to be attributed to a member of the Hominidae (human race).”
Mystery of the Ferris Wheel—One of the most popular stories told in Carson City is how architect George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., who grew up in Carson City, was inspired to invent the Ferris Wheel after recalling the many afternoons he spent watching the large water wheels used by local mines and imagining what it would be like to ride in one of the buckets. Many historians, however, aren’t so sure that this is the case because Ferris himself never cited the water wheels of his youth as his inspiration and instead said he thought up the idea one day while scribbling on a napkin at lunch.
The State Capitol Fence Myth—For many years, a popular legend about the iron fence around Nevada’s State Capitol was that when the construction of the fence was bid, the contract was awarded to a woman, Hannah Keziah Clapp, because the Capitol Commissioners did not recognize her initials, H.K., and believed they were giving the job to a man. That story, however, isn’t true. According to Nevada historian Guy Rocha, in 1875, when the contract was awarded, Carson City had only about 3,200 residents and Hannah Clapp was very well known member of the community. She was a long-time educator, who operated the Sierra Seminary with her partner, Eliza C. Babcock, and had lived in the community for more than 15 years. As additional proof, Rocha notes that the May 4, 1875 Daily Appeal reported “let there be no further complaints about the non-employment of their rights by the women of Nevada. The contract for the furnishing of iron fencing for the Capitol Square has been awarded to Misses Clapp and Babcock, Principals of Sierra Seminary; their bid $5,500 in coin for the delivery of the fencing upon the grounds is the lowest by some hundreds of dollars.
The Great Carson City Stagecoach Robbery—In the 1930s, a story began circulating that sometime in the late 1860s a stage filled with $60,000 in gold bullion was robbed outside of Carson City. According to the story, the stage was traveling from Virginia City to the Carson City Mint when it was stopped a few miles east of Carson City by armed gunmen, who escaped with the gold. A posse quickly formed to hunt the robbers and gave chase. They soon overtook the thieves, killing three in a gun battle, and capturing the fourth, a man said to be named Manuel Gonzales. They didn’t, however, recover the gold. Gonzales was sentenced to 20 years in prison and refused to reveal where the booty had been hidden although he reportedly remarked that he could see the location from his prison cell window. After eight years, Gonzales was granted early release from prison for health reasons. According to the story, a local butcher befriended him and convinced him to lead him to the hidden loot. But just before they could reach it Gonzales had a seizure and died. The treasure is supposedly still buried somewhere near the State Prison. Historian Guy Rocha has researched this tale and traced its roots to a book called “Pots O’Gold,” published in 1935 by former prison warden Matt Penrose. According to Rocha, it’s unlikely that a stagecoach would have been used to transport gold from Virginia City to the Mint in the late 1860s because the Mint didn’t open until 1870, and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad began operating between Virginia City and Carson City that same year. Additionally, Rocha found no mention of such a significant robbery in any newspapers, historical records, or other primary sources of the time. His conclusion? It never happened.
Carson City’s Ghost Stories—A handful of historic buildings in Carson City have been the subject of colorful tales involving specters and ghosts. One of the best known “haunted” houses is the Governor’s mansion. For many years, staff and overnight guests at the Governor’s mansion at 600 N. Mountain Street have reported seeing and hearing a woman in a long white dress followed by a young girl wandering the second floor. Despite numerous sightings, no one is quite sure of their identity or why they haunt the mansion, although some have speculated that they are former First Lady Una Dickerson and her daughter, June Dickerson, the only child ever born in the house. Additionally, it is said that sometimes when a person stands in front of an antique Grandfather clock on the first floor of the mansion, he or she can feel a mysterious cold air or cold breeze. The Brewery Arts Center is also the subject of ghostly reports. Several visitors to the building have reported that they have felt as if they were being watched or talked to, and heard unexplainable noises. One witness claimed to have seen a man dapperly dressed in a brown checked suit with a vest and yellow tie. The ghost is believed to be James P. Maar, a one-time officer in the local Masonic Lodge (which met for many years in the building) who was in charge of keeping order in the building. It is said that he is always polite and acts like a gentleman. The Edwards House at 204 N. Minnesota St., is another haunted residence that, according to local lore, houses a ghostly housekeeper. In the late 1800s, Mrs. Maria Anderson served as the housekeeper and nanny for the Edward family. It is said that her favorite furnishing was a piano that was shipped around the Cape to Carson City. The piano never needs dusting—even today—because the ghost of Mrs. Anderson continues to keep it clean. Additionally, several people have reported seeing Mrs. Anderson sitting in the home’s big bay windows—like she once loved to do when she was alive. Yet another ghost story involves the Ferris House, boyhood home of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. In the early 1900s, a lavish wedding party was being held in the home. Several guests at the party spoke to a woman dressed in a wedding gown, who was not the bride, near the back gate. The guests later asked the confused father of bride why there were two brides at the wedding. He said there was only one bride despite their claims to having seen a second one. Later, it was discovered that there had been a wedding party in the house years earlier. It is said that the ghost of the first bride returned to watch over the party.