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        PALS AT THE PONDEROSA
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STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRIS POH
“Youthful ambition hardly aspired so much to the honors of the law, or the army and navy as to the dignity of proprietorship in a saloon. To be a saloon-keeper and kill a man was to be illustrious.”
                                                                                                                                     Mark Twain - ROUGHING IT

The Ponderosa in Virginia City, Nevada as seen in American Public House Review
THE PONDEROSA SALOON AND MINE IN VIRGINIA CITY, NEVADA

Like many aficionados of the television western, I spent several hundred Sunday Evenings between 1959 and 1973 taking that ride from the forested mountain slopes and lush grasslands of the Ponderosa Ranch to the lively streets of stately Virginia City. How could a kid brought up on the likes of Bronco Lane and Cheyenne Brody resist the virtuous ways and code of conduct exemplified by the Cartwrights? Other than Little Joe’s penchant for taking advantage of Hoss, and their inability to keep former or potential brides alive for more than one episode they were, to my way of thinking, the perfect American family living in the perfect American place.

Unfortunately over time my perceptions would develop some cracks in the veneer. The cast of Bonanza were not necessarily as noble as the Cartwrights.  Virginia City and THE PONDEROSAwere little more than a back lot and soundstage at Paramount. But I do credit the series with furthering my desire to experience this part of the country firsthand. And though the writers exercised a bit of narrative license from time to time, it was through the show that I first learned of Mark Twain’s journalistic endeavors in Nevada.

The portrait of Mark Twain which hangs in Virgina City Nevada's Ponderosa Saloon as seen in American Public House ReviewTwain’s lack of love for physical labor combined with his lack of luck for locating precious metals prompted him to accept the position of city editor at the Territorial Express in Virginia City. From 1862 – 1864 he along with fellow news hounds Dan de Quille and Bret Harte scoured the Comstock for those stories that would excite their readership from San Francisco to New York City. As a matter of custom and editorial edict, when it came to gathering news the rule of the day was “find or fabricate.” It was during this period that Twain refined his ability to embellish, exaggerate and entertain. Also, during this stretch Samuel Clemens acquired his celebrated nom de plume.

By most local accounts the moniker was the result of Clemens’ request of the proprietor of John Piper’s saloon to keep a proper register of those libations that were consumed on credit. Piper’s accounting method for his cash strapped customers was a simple affair. He would put a chalk mark on the wall behind the bar whenever a drink was ordered. If Clemens were making a purchase on behalf of himself and a fellow reporter, as was often the case, he would tell the barkeep to mark twain.

Clemens disputed this morsel of local lore. He claimed in later years that the designation was lifted from the late Captain Isaiah Sellers, who wrote for the New Orleans Picayune under the same pen name. Clemens reasoned that since the captain had passed on the alias was his for the taking.

Jenny Bailey of the Ponderosa Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada as seen in American Public House ReviewIn May of 1864 Mark Twain took his leave of Virginia City in a rather abrupt fashion. A scandal in Carson City and talk of the offended parties seeking remedy on the field of honor may have hastened his retreat to the civility of the east.

It is now May of 2008 and I’m admiring a portrait of the revered Mr. Clemens as I sip a beer at THE PONDEROSA SALOON AND MINE. I’ve landed on this particular barstool because access to the Washoe Club has been delayed due to the late arrival of the owner. Thanks to the kindness of Jenny behind the bar I quickly adjust to the surroundings of this unplanned layover. This handsome saloon is literally and figuratively a goldmine. For less than the cost of a cocktail one can enter an elevator in the rear of the building and descend into the depths of the Comstock.

Bailey the kitten and his shot of milk as seen in American Public House ReviewAfter a couple more brews and some pleasant talk - I vow to return. By early evening I’m back on the same barstool. I’m accompanied by my wife and our friends from town Will and Norma Jean. Jenny is now quite comfortable on the patron’s side of the bar. Donna from the Bucket of Blood drops by. Bikers that we met earlier in Gold Hill join the gathering, and Bailey stops in for his regular nightly shot.

We sing, dance, laugh and converse until closing. It has been a long journey from Sundays in 1959 to this moment in time; but I have finally found that perfect American family at the PONDEROSA.




THE PONDEROSA SALOON AND MINE

106 SOUTH C STREET
VIRGINIA CITY, NEVADA 89440

(775) 847-0757

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