Why Is Carson City the Capital of Nevada?

(Last Updated On: January 29, 2020)
Why Is Carson City the Capital of Nevada?

In the western United States is Nevada, the 7th largest US state in terms of area. It’s also among the least densely populated. Located in the Great Basin, Nevada is largely desert and semi-arid terrain. Its major industries are tourism and mining, with Las Vegas being the largest and most-well known city in the state. But Las Vegas is not the capital of Nevada. That distinction goes to Carson City. 

So why is Carson City the capital of Nevada? Keep reading to find out.

The Capital of Nevada

The first US settlers to come to the region around Carson City, which sits on the California-Nevada border, were John C. Fremont and his exploration party in 1843. Prior to that, Nevada had been home to the indigenous Washoe people for some 6,000 years. Fremont would name a nearby river, Carson River, in honor of Kit Carson, a mountain man and scout he had hired for his expedition. 

At this time, the territory of Nevada was actually in Mexican control, but they paid little attention to the remote and desolate land. As such, US settlers began to encroach upon the territories. Among these earlier settlers were the Mormons. After the Mexican-American War, the territory would be ceded to the US.

By 1851, Eagle Station ranch on the Carson River had been established, becoming a popular trading post and resting spot for settlers traveling along the California Trail. This entire region was all part of Utah Territory, and as such was governed by the Mormom officials in Salt Lake City. As the territory grew, however, more and more were becoming dissatisfied with their Mormon-influenced officials. A group of influential settlers, led by Abraham Curry, wanted to create a new territory–Nevada Territory. 

In 1858, Curry purchased Eagle Station and the rest of the settlement. He renamed it Carson City after the Carson River. Even before becoming its own territory, Curry was fast at work planning out what he envisioned would be a future capital city. He surveyed land for the (hopeful) development of a town center and capitol building. 

Gold and silver were discovered near Carson City the following year, and the population began to grow. The city’s infrastructure was built up, and by then it was clear that a Nevada Territory would be established. 

Why Is Carson City the Capital of Nevada

Nevada Territory was organized in 1861. When the territorial governor, James W. Nye, first traveled to Nevada, he was escorted from San Francisco by an influential lawyer from Carson City named William Stewart. He convinced Nye to choose Carson City as the territorial capital over places like Virginia City and American Flat. 

It didn’t take long for Nevada to become a state, joining the Union in 1864 in the midst of the American Civil War. Carson City remained the capital of Nevada, being the only capital the former territory had ever known.

While the mining industry continued to play a major role in the economy of Carson City, its new status as capital also led to commercial development. A log flume was built from the Sierra Nevadas into Carson City. The US Mint operated the Carson City Mint, where they made gold and silver coins. And the Virginia Truckee Railroad was built, bringing in a wave of Chinese immigrants into the region.

Eventually, however, Carson City’s population and economy would decline as other railroads and western towns were built up. By 1930, Carson City had a population of just 1,500 people, even billing itself “America’s smallest capital”. 

However, somewhat ironically, since expanding the city limits, Carson City now ranks among the largest of America’s capitals in terms of area.

Carson City Today

Today, Carson City is a nice little town to visit. It mixes culture, shopping, and dining experiences while maintaining its original historic roots and prestige. 

The capitol building built in 1870 is still standing, along with other key buildings such as the Supreme Court, the State Library, and Archives and the Legislative Building. If you’re looking for something educational, try the Nevada State Railroad Museum.

If you ever visit during Carson City’s annual Nevada Day (on or around October 31st), you’ll be privy to unique festivities. Join in with the parade, a world championship rock drilling contest, and the longest-beard contest. There are also ghost walks, which are a great way to learn the extensive history of the region with a spooky twist. Carson City will endear you with its old-world charm, and its rough-and-tumble history. It’s a must-see for anyone visiting the desert state. 

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Mark Heald is the Managing Editor of Sporcle.com. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.