|“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.”
THE PONDEROSA SALOON AND MINE IN VIRGINIA
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
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
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.
Twain’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
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
In May of
1864 Mark Twain
took his leave of Virginia City in a
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.
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.