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  • Ghosts, Cowboys
  • Claire Vaye Watkins (bio)

The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in. And at the end I can't help thinking about beginnings.

The city of Reno, Nevada, was founded in 1859 when Charles Fuller built a log toll bridge across the Truckee River and charged prospectors to haul their Comstock silver across the narrow but swift-moving current. Two years later, Fuller sold the bridge to the ambitious Myron Lake. Lake, swift himself, added a grist mill, kiln, and livery stable to his Silver Queen Hotel and Eating House. Not a bashful man, he named the community Lake's Crossing, had the name painted on Fuller's bridge, bright blue as the sky.

The 1860s were boom times in the Western Utah Territory: Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter's soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes. The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table. The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains; steaming water had not yet flooded the mineshafts. Henry T. P. Comstock-most opportune of the opportunists, snatcher of land, greatest claim jumper of all time-had not yet lost his love Adelaide, his first cousin, who drowned in Lake Tahoe. He had not yet traded his share of the Lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom times.

Lake's Crossing grew. At statehood in 1864 the district of Lake's Crossing, Washoe County, was consolidated with Roop County. By then, Lake's Crossing was the largest city in either. The curse, excavated [End Page 163] from the silver vein and weighted by the heavy ore, settled on the state.

Or begin the story here:

In 1881 Himmel Green, an architect, came to Reno from San Francisco to quietly divorce Mary Ann Cohen Magnin of the upscale women's clothing store I. Magnin and Company. Himmel took a liking to Reno and decided to stay. He started designing buildings for his friends, newly rich silver families.

Reno's Newlands Heights neighborhood is choked with Green's work. In 1909, 315 Lake Street was erected. A stout building made of brick, it was one of Himmel's first residential buildings. 315 Lake is a modest design, small porch off the back, simple awnings, thoroughly mediocre in every way. As for Himmel, some say construction at 315 Lake stirred up the cursed dust of the Comstock Lode. And though it contaminated everyone (and though we Nevadans still breathe it into ourselves today), they say it got to Himmel particularly, stuck to his blueprints, his clothing, formed a microscopic layer of silver dust on his skin. Glinting silver film or no, after his divorce was finalized Himmel moved in with Leopold Karpeles, editor of the B'nai Brith Messenger. Their relationship was rumored a tumultuous one, mottled with abuse and infidelity. Still, they lived together until 1932 when the two were burned to death in a fire at Karpeles' home, smoke rising from the house likely smelling like those miners boiled alive up in Virginia City mine shafts.

Or here. Here is as good a place as any:

In March 1941 George Spahn, a dairyman and amateur beekeeper from Pennsylvania, signed the deed to his 60-acre farm over to his son Henry, packed four suitcases, his wife Helen, and their old, foul-tempered calico cat, Bottles, into the car and drove west to California, to the ocean.

He was to retire, bow out of the ranching business, bury his tired feet in the warm western sand. But retirement didn't suit George. [End Page 164] After two months he came home to Helen with plans to buy a 511-acre ranch at 1200 Santa Susana Pass Road in the Santa Susana Mountains. The ranch was up for sale by its owner, the aging silent film star William S. Hart.

The Santa Susana Mountains are drier than the more famous Santa Monica Mountains that line the California coast. Because they are not privy...


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