Nestled in the shadows of the eastern Sierra Nevada range just 20 minutes from Lake Tahoe’s world-class skiing, Genoa has long been a special place in Nevada. It was established in 1851 when John Reese and his party built a trading post and his men took up land claims extending from the Walley’s Hot Springs marsh area south of Genoa into Jack’s Valley on the north. Since most of the men in Reese’s party were Mormon, the location became known as Mormon Station. But in 1855, as legend has it, Judge Orson Hyde renamed the burgeoning town after Genoa, Italy, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus.
A stunningly beautiful destination with a full four seasons, Genoa was the first permanent non-Indian settlement in what later became the state of Nevada, a post created to provide provisions for the wagon trains that had just completed the difficult journey across Nevada and Utah. The post quickly developed into a small but important farming community. However, in 1857, Brigham Young recalled Mormons throughout the west back to Salt Lake City because of a dispute with the federal government. Many of the Mormons abandoned their homes and farms or settled for token payments. This inevitably led to disagreements and in 1862 the aforementioned Judge Orson Hyde, a Mormon elder who found his land confiscated by non-Mormons in his absence, actually placed a curse on the area residents in the hope of frightening them into paying for the property.
Fortunately, Genoa (which is pronounced Juh-NO-uh, not JEN-no-a, as it is in Italy), survived the curse.
For a time, the growing town became the center of activity in the region. From 1860-61, it was a stop on the famous Pony Express route and a rest station for travelers on the Overland Stage Line. In 1864, Genoa became the seat of Douglas County in the new state of Nevada.
Around that time, Genoa also became home for several of the state’s earliest newspapers, including the Territorial Enterprise, which would later relocate to Virginia City where it became one of the West’s most beloved and famous periodicals, featuring writers such as Mark Twain, who wrote the following about the area’s thermal springs:
Eds. Enterprise: I have overstepped my furlough a full week – but then this is a pleasant place to pass one’s time. These springs are ten miles from Virginia, six or seven from Washoe City and twenty from Carson. They are natural – the devil boils the water, and the white steam puffs up out of the crevices in the earth, along the summits of a series of low mounds extending in an irregular semicircle for more than a mile. The water is impregnated with a dozen different minerals each one of which smells viler than its fellow, and the sides of the springs are embellished with very pretty particolored incrustations deposited by the water. From one spring the boiling water is ejected a foot or more by the infernal force at work below, and in the vicinity of all of them one can hear a constant rumbling and surging, somewhat resembling the noises peculiar to a steamboat in motion hence the name.
But being first doesn’t always guarantee success. Within a few years, Genoa was eclipsed in importance by other communities in northwestern Nevada, such as booming Virginia City and Reno. By the 1880s, Genoa could only claim a few hundred people and a handful of businesses.
Indeed, several fires over the years succeeded in decimating much of the original town. One story has it that the worst fire, in 1910, was started by a resident of the county poor farm who lit a pan of sulfur beneath his bed to rid himself of bedbugs. The mattress caught fire and sparked a blaze that destroyed half the business district and the original Mormon Fort, which, to be quite frank, had never reached landmark status, having been used over the years as a chicken coop and a pig barn.
In 1916, Genoa was replaced as the county seat by Minden, a newer ranching and farming community located closer to the major highways. Despite the loss, the town never joined the ranks of Nevada’s ghost towns.
Perhaps because of its magnificent picturesque setting in the Sierra pines, Genoa has survived. The splendid two-story brick courthouse, built in 1865, was used as a school from 1916 to 1956, then was converted into a museum. The site of the Mormon Fort became the location of a shaded state park that features a replica of the old fort, which also houses a museum. It was the setting for the opening scenes in the movie Charley Varrick starring Walter Matthau.
Additionally, one of Genoa’s true claims to immortality is that it is home of the famous Genoa Bar — the oldest saloon in the state. From its uneven floor to its worn wood and brass counter to the ancient chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, the Genoa Bar is a genuine Nevada landmark and worthy of a visit if only for a tall, cool one. Billed as “Nevada’s oldest thirst parlor”, it was patronized by Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Johnny Cash and was used in John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films. The town was also the set for the movie Misery, starring Kathy Bates. (During the filming Genoa temporarily doubled in size with buildings added and then removed when filming was done.)
Now home to a whopping 250 people, the town is filled with quaint, friendly buildings and homes that echo the region’s past. If you walk the unpaved side streets, you can find half-hidden gems, such as the lovely Orchard House. Constructed in the 1860s and now a bed and breakfast located in the town’s oldest neighborhood, the Orchard House also provides a venue for outdoor weddings and special events. The Genoa House Inn and the Wild Rose Inn, two more bed-and-breakfasts decorated with Victorian elegance, are also available if you want to stay a while.
You can also enjoy a round of golf at Genoa Lakes Golf Club, then relax with a massage at 1862 David Walleys Hot Springs Resort and Spa, a popular timeshare resort that was one of the first “health resorts” in the area to take advantage of the natural mineral hot springs in the Carson Valley. According to David Walley’s obituary published in the Carson Valley News for March 13, 1875, the spa opened a couple of miles south of Genoa in 1862. With just a tent for shelter, baths sold for fifty cents each. Walley erected the first bathhouse the following year, and in 1864 Walley’s wife, Harriet, arrived from the East to help run Genoa Hot Springs resort. “From a mere rock pile has risen a magnificent hotel, bath-houses, stabling and ball room,” the weekly News proclaimed. (Source: OnlineNevada.org)
Befitting its reputation as an open, friendly town, Genoa’s most important annual special event is the Candy Dance Arts & Crafts Faire, traditionally held in late September. The event, which attracts hundreds each year, features a large craft fair and a candy festival with dozens of homemade candies, fudge, cookies and other delectables. Highlight is an old-fashioned, down-home community dance — the Candy Dance.
Genoa has several self-guided walking tours, plus seasonal guided tours, like the annual Genoa Ghost Walk, and horse and carriage tours. Some bus tour companies stop in Genoa for a quick bite of lunch or ice cream or a drink at “Nevada’s Oldest Thirst Parlor,” the Genoa Bar. The graveyard is also worth a visit; many pioneers rest in the Genoa graveyard including Snowshoe Thompson (a nickname for the Norwegian-American John Albert Thompson, also called “The Viking of the Sierras”), his wife and his son. And if you’re looking for a special gift, The Genoa Trading Company, a narrow building adjacent to the Genoa Bar that specializes in Native American collectibles, jewelry, artwork and Pendleton blankets, handbags and other accessories, might just be the find of your life.
In short, the town of Genoa is a delightful place to visit, either as a day drive from Reno or Tahoe, or as a destination in itself. Bigger is not always better, and Genoa is the epitome of that. For stargazers, birdwatchers (February is the month to see Bald Eagles!), nature lovers of all stripes, adventurers, those who revel in the discovery of out-of-the-way treasures and the exploration of history’s mysteries, Genoa might just be the place you’ve been looking for.
Compiled by InsideTheGate.com staff. Copyright InsideTheGate.com Readers are encouraged to contribute their own stories and photos. Email [email protected] and put "On the Road" in the Subject line so we'll know what it's about.