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George and Rita Phelps
It was about the first of October in 1998 when Rita and I took off with our trailer to meet our daughter, Gina, in Manhattan, the old mining town in central Nevada where we own some property, of sorts. We set up camp behind the dilapidated building on our Main Street lot, and in the middle of the night Gina arrived from South Pasadena with her young son, Jesse.
The next morning, after a fine breakfast of hotcakes and bacon that Rita prepared, we all walked downtown to look around. And with a 100-foot tape we "surveyed" our side hill lots, trying to match them to an old map that I had obtained. However, as one might guess, boundaries and streets hardly ever conform to a map in an aging mining town. It’s hard enough keeping the underground claims in order.
With the exception of a nice new firehouse, just down the street from our lot, Manhattan hadn't changed much in the past three decades. Some of the properties had been improved, but there were still a lot of old vehicles, mining equipment and stuff lying around; and weeds, as our sinuses soon reminded us.
The town was originally known as Manhattan Gulch, aptly named for the narrow canyon that slopes downhill from east to west and opens out onto an alluvial fan into Smokey Valley. The upper end and south side of the canyon are sparsely covered with pinion pine, juniper, sage and rabbit brush; the north side is almost devoid of trees and is rocky between clumps of brush and bunchgrass. Silver was located there in the late 1800s.
It was not until 1905, when rich discoveries were made, that Manhattan actually attracted the gold seekers. Claims by the hundreds were staked out and by 1906 the population had climbed to about 4,000. But in the spring of 1906, when the earth quake in San Francisco caused the investors to pull in their horns, the population fell to a few hundred. Typically, there were periods of growth and decline in the years that followed, and the last major surge began in 1939, when a giant dredge was assembled and floated in the Gulch to extract gold nuggets and dust. Overall, I've read, Manhattan mines produced over $10-million in precious metals.
I think it was in the late 1930s when Rita's folks, Sam and Antoinette Zunino, obtained the property on Main Street, mentioned above. It was located a couple of blocks east of their major holdings on the northeast corner of Fifth and Main Streets, where they operated a Bar and Grocery Store. Besides the store they had three small houses in back where they and some of the family lived. With miners working their claims and a dredge working the gulch, and with the training activities at the Tonopah Army Air Base, forty-miles to the south, the Zuninos’ bar and grocery business did fairly well.
However, after WW-II had ended the airfield was virtually abandoned. And then the dredge was shut down and moved - lock, stock and barrel - a hundred miles to the north, to Copper Canyon. The Zuninos sold their store property and "retired" to Elko, where they had built a fine big house in 1930.
It was 1963 when Rita and I bought some of their remaining properties in the old town, including the one on Main Street. From some old photos, and a signboard found under that structure, we know that the building had once housed a business that sold gasoline, oil and related supplies; and I had heard that it had at some time been used as a bar. But we don't know when it was last in use nor for what purpose. Judging from its condition when I first looked inside the place, in 1964, it had been abandoned and "cleaned out" for quite some time. Unfortunately, possibly in the early 1930s, the size of the building had been increased by adding a "lean-to" onto the east side. I say "unfortunately" because of the way it was done. The roof of the lean-to was simply attached to the shingled main roof and the bearing wall beneath was mostly removed to open into the new space.
During the latter part of the 20th century the floor settled, unevenly because there was little or no foundation under it, and most of the shingles were blown off of the roof. In the spring of 1998, the weight of the lean-to roof, abetted by copious amounts of snow, caused that side of the main roof to drop down several feet. It was now in a precarious and unsafe condition.
Our other building, on one of the four lots on the side hill above the Zuninos’ old store lot and below the church, was a small shed or garage consisting of a fragile wooden frame covered with sheets of corrugated tin. The front third of it had also recently collapsed.
But back to our weekend visit: On Saturday afternoon, the four of us went for a drive in our Travelall, up the graveled road above Manhattan and over the summit halfway to Belmont. On our way back we stopped and stripped a few-dozen pinecones from a tree, some of which we later roasted in the oven; an action that resulted in a trailer-full of pine smoke and the need to open most of the windows. The nuts were still not quite done but we had to call it quits. The next morning, Sunday, after I'd shucked some of the nuts from the cones, Rita finished cooking them in boiling water. And they tasted very good after all.
Gina and I spent an hour or so in a small space under the floor of the old building, searching with a metal detector for treasure. I had already done so many years before, but at her insistence we repeated the exercise. With, I might add, the same result; i.e., a few tin and aluminum cans and lots of rusty nails amid filthy dust and dirt.
Not long after lunch we "entertained" a few of Manhattan's property owners at our trailer, outside in the warm sunshine. There was Ona Flowers, who lives in the Reno area and was there on business, and Tony Grimes who has a place on the hill above the old school and west of the church. He was the man who had contacted us earlier about our dilapidated properties, and who posted the "No Trespassing" signs for us when he was the acting mayor (a voluntary office rotated every four-months between the active, and willing, townsfolk). Next came "the lawyer and the jeweler," as Tony referred to them, Bill Belli and Gordon Bramwell; the former who also has a home in Verdi and practices law in Reno, the latter who also has a home and jewelry business in Tonopah. The stories abounded. Bill, who said he was gathering information with the intention of writing a book about Manhattan, seemed particularly interested in Ona's stories and invited her to contribute to his history files.
The sun finally closed onto the horizon and the air (at our 7,000' elevation) grew crisp. I wished for a jacket but was afraid I'd miss something if I went for one. And soon the conference broke up. Rita cooked a chicken and Ona was persuaded to stay for dinner. It was a wonderful meal, accompanied by yet more stories from Ona who was born and raised in Manhattan and knew everyone who was there in the 1940s and what they had done - good and bad.
Monday morning arrived twice for me, the first time at about 4:00am when Rita suggested that the furnace might have gone out. Without hesitation, remembering that I'd intended to switch the propane tanks before retiring, I put on my pants and shoes, stepped out into the frosty air (the thermometer read 26-degrees), switched to the full tank, quickly returned inside, re-lit the stove and furnace and jumped back under the covers. Later, after the sunlight had found our trailer, we all got up and dressed and enjoyed a breakfast. As before, there was frost on our cars but because of the dryness it hadn't formed on the grass or ground.
Gina wanted to salvage some of the wainscoting from the old building, to use in their house in South Pasadena. So she went to pulling boards from the old ceiling while I got to work with hammer and screwdriver, loosening wide boards and using them to secure the broken down doors and gaping windows. I used an electric Sawz-all (powered by an old generator someone had given to me) to cut the boards to length. With a little trimming I was able to close the back (south) door, and I added a hook-and-eye to keep it shut. We figured that padlocking it against trespassers would be futile.
And then it was time to relax, which we did by taking a trip to Belmont in Gina's car. Belmont had changed some since we were there in 1984, when on a trailer-camping trip with my sister Dot and her husband Elly. We had camped on the summit between Manhattan and Belmont the first night, in the juniper/pine forest, and then went on to Belmont in the morning.
The old courthouse looked about the same now as it did then, being in a state of limited preservation. The old mining headquarters building, on the hill above town, had been recently restored and was operating as an inn or bed-and-breakfast. But the old business district now consists of little but crumbling rock or brick walls. The northwest section of town, on the side hill, was undergoing a major rearrangement with rough, newly bulldozed roadways around a deep gouge in the rocky strata—-perhaps in preparation for a new water system.
Gina drove up over the hill to the east so we could point out the remains of the old Combination Mill.
The time arrived for Gina to pack up and head for home. At about sundown we said goodbye to her and Jesse, then Rita and I retreated to our much-silenced trailer. So quiet, it was, that we decided to go to the uptown bar to see what was happening there. As usual, two or three pickup trucks (virtually all of the residents drive old pickup trucks) were parked out front, and three rather heavy-set guys were bellied-up to the bar inside. The lady barkeep, a smallish, middle-aged woman was, by her own admission, un-skilled in the art of mixing drinks. She was just filling in for the lady barkeep, who was also the owner, she said, but who was off gathering elderberries that day.
Above the near end of the bar was a television set, tuned to the Monday Night football game on a Reno station. The signal was coming from a repeater on the hill above town, a gift to the community, we'd been told, from a Howard Hughes company. It was a noble gift but there was insufficient money in the town coffers to properly maintain it. We'd barely started to sip our drinks when one of the three men, dissatisfied with the poor TV reception, interrupted the banal conversation at the other end of the bar and demanded the remote-control from the barkeep, who obviously didn't understand its complexities. In a matter of minutes he tuned the black box atop the TV to a signal from a satellite. The picture was perfect. Not so the game, as the Packers were being clobbered. We left for home before the game ended, walking the 200-yards down the gravel-strewn pavement (from the most recent, not unusual, gully-washing rainstorm), guided to our trailer by the light of the moon and a couple of street lights.
Tuesday morning arrived on time, and Rita and I lingered over breakfast. An old, ton-and-a-half truck lumbered past our trailer up the driveway to the doctor's house above, the only house served by the road that crosses the rear of our property. We watched through the window as the driver hand-loaded a small stack of firewood. On his way back down he stopped to chat. It was Tony Grimes, and once again we got on the subject of the big, Vietnam-era, army pumper-truck that was sitting behind the old fire house and partly on our property. Another vintage fire truck was parked in the weeds two lots down from ours. They'd been parked there for some time, he said, awaiting the completion of a concrete apron in front of the new firehouse. But the old army truck, on loan from the Forest Service, was inoperative and quite likely to remain that way. Tony was the only one to work on it and the diesel/gas engine under the hood had stumped him.
“The closest mechanic is in Tonopah,” he said, “and there's not enough money in Manhattan's budget to warrant the expense to get it there.”
So it sits there, with a fuel line pinched off with vise-grip pliers resting on the fender. We said goodbye to Tony and he left with his truckload of wood.
We hooked up our trailer, and on our way down Main Street met Tony again, talking with Bob Bottom, the man who owns the Manhattan Storage in the building that once housed the Zuninos Bar and Grocery. We had missed seeing Bob until now.
Bob invited Tony Grimes and us to his office, to see his updated map of Manhattan. His office was a small room inside a large corrugated steel garage, virtually surrounded by old sheds, cars, trucks, mining, and construction-type equipment. His desks, files and a drafting table were piled high with books and papers and maps—-in testimonial to his busyness--but he made room on the latter and rolled out his big map, which, I noted, was drawn by the same surveyors as my map but updated by Bottom.
We learned that Bob had purchased, from the Dexter Mines owner, most of the vacant surface lots above the mines and, strange as it may seem, many of the streets and alleys shown on the old map as well. (Our hillside lots are in that area but are deeded.)
When Bob surveyed the area and marked the lots with stakes (some of which since disappeared) he found that many of the structures were not within their proper boundaries as shown on the map. One example, he related, is the school house (now the county library/museum) that in fact was constructed right where the survey showed a street, a street that he owned. Bob has deeded that part of his street to the county in exchange for another lot.
I guess you could call Bob Bottom an entrepreneur. At any rate, I believe that he deserves a lot of credit for
his work in helping to straighten out what appears to have been a web of inaccuracies. This, in addition to attending to other town needs, including the old church.
It was now almost noon, and I was anxious to get started down the road. We said goodbye to Bob and Tony (again), and ended what was an experience well worth remembering. All of the townsfolk we'd met and talked with, with one exception, had been friendly, generous, concerned, loquacious and informative. And relaxed.
We encountered the usual headwind on our way home that day. (Is there a law that if you're towing a trailer the wind must blow opposite to your direction of travel?) It was still daylight when we entered the once beautiful Truckee Meadows, now almost covered with rooftops, concrete and pavement. Still it was good to get home, where the surroundings are familiar and comfortable and routine habits can be counted on for ease of living.
THE CHURCH WINDOW
The most significant historic landmark in Manhattan, Nevada, has presided over the town from its hillside location for nearly a century now. But its wooden frame, windows, doors and floors are much older, dating from 1874 when it was constructed in Belmont, seventeen miles away to the east.
It was in 1908, seven years after the last Catholic service was held in declining Belmont (according to historian Stanley Paher in "Nevada Ghost Towns") that the building was picked up and moved across the pine covered hills and set up in Manhattan.
Like every other mining town in Nevada, Manhattan has had its ups and downs. Its most recent period of relative prosperity occurred just before and during World War II, when gold was being mined underground and dredged from the "Gulch." That was when Rita’s folks owned and operated the Manhattan Bar and Grocery Store.
When schools were in session, the youngest of their ten children resided in Elko with some of their older sisters. But they spent the summer months in Manhattan. It was then that Rita, next to the youngest of the Zunino children, attended Mass and became acquainted with the Catholic Church on the hill above.
Rita and I had visited Manhattan a couple of times in the 1950s, but it was not until the mid-1960s that she was to become re-acquainted with the old town. And it was October of 1999 when she first mentioned the idea of making a stained-glass window for the church. It was a good idea, I thought, but perhaps a bit over-ambitious.
By October of 2001, though, I was convinced that she was really serious about the project. We were "trailer-camped" on our lot on Main Street, and after breakfast we went up the steep road to the old church and proceeded to measure the pointed-arch windows over the doorway.
We met with Bob Bottom (of the Manhattan Advisory Board) and broached the subject of her making a stained glass window for the church. He agreed to present the idea at the next "town meeting," and later notified Rita that she should submit some designs for consideration. She did so, and Bob subsequently notified her that the group had agreed to the project and selected the "Church On The Hill" design.
In June of 2002, accompanied by our friend, Taffy Crew, we made another trip to Manhattan, for fun and to double-check the church window’s old casings. That evening we drove over to Belmont, to the Belmont Inn, for the night. We dined in the best of company that evening. Wayne Hage, a prominent young rancher in the area, along with his buddies and our hostess, Judy Camarillo, entertained us in the style reminiscent of the Old West. It was, for me at least, one of the most enjoyable times of my life. In the morning we headed home the back way, up Monitor Valley and over Northumberland Pass, and on to Austin where we stayed overnight before completing the trip.
Later on, in October, Rita found that our measurements were not adequate. So the two of us made the trip to Manhattan again, this time to make our measurements with more precision. Bob Bottom, as always, was there to help.
By the end of January 2003, Rita had begun collecting the various types and colors of glass and other materials required for her picture. We set up a temporary "workshop" in a spare bedroom, and soon she was hard at work (between routine chores and other obligations) cutting and grinding and fitting the glass pieces, soldering and puttying them in place. At last, on the 15th of May, she completed both parts of the two-panel window.
She invited Mike Linley, a nephew and professional glass worker in Reno, to install the windows. Despite the fact that the job was half-a-world away from Reno, he accepted.
On May 17th, traveling in two vehicles loaded down with ladders and tools, and with the precious stained-glass panels cradled in Mike's padded truck, we headed east for Manhattan.
It was an ideal day in the quiet town, not too hot under a thin overcast sky with only a light wind blowing up the gulch. We drove directly to the church, arriving a little after noon, and had just begun eating a quick lunch when Bob Bottom came up the hill. Soon, with his tacit approval and help, we went to work.
Mike removed the old tinted glass from the outer window casings and replaced it with clear glass, cut to fit on site. He then proceeded to install the new windows, each in its own metal frame, to be held by screws to the original wooden casings. "A perfect fit." The pointed-arch windows matched the weathered old frames within an eighth of an inch all around. In less than the five hours we'd allotted for the job, it was done.
Right from the start, Rita had talked of dedicating the window to her parents and siblings who had lived and worked in Manhattan in those difficult days during the war. Thus, before leaving the sanctity of the church, we attached a small brass plaque to the bottom of the frame. The plaque bears the following inscription:
IN MEMORY OF SAM & ANTOINETTA ZUNINO AND THEIR CHILDREN:
ANGIE - BEN - VIOLET - MARY - JOHN - STAN - JIM - KATIE - RITA - RUBY
The window should also serve as a tribute to the folks who live in present day Manhattan, they who have worked and struggled to maintain the venerable structure. It is largely due to their voluntary care and attention that the church still stands proud but fragile above the town. With continued attention, and with proper funding, Manhattan's landmark has a good chance of surviving yet another century.
October 12, 2000
Accompanied by our son Glen, Rita and I were again headed toward Manhattan. We had contacted Bob Bottom and he’d agreed to spend some time with us. We were anxious to see him, and we wanted to check out Rita’s window in the old church.
After spending an overnight in Austin, we took a leisurely trip down Smokey Valley, stopping for lunch in the park at Carver’s. As we entered the old town I spotted Bob at his construction place, and drove directly there. He greeted us warmly and introduced us to young Bob, his son. They were busy at the time, so we agreed to meet them at Pauly’s bar in an hour.
We were pleasantly surprised by the appearance of the old church. Brand new steps had been installed in front and at the rear entrances; the outside had been stained; the interior had been repainted and some new (old) pews installed. What a godsend! Of course we had to photograph all the improvements, which we did before leaving to tour the town. I was sure that Glen had been there before, but it had been so long he couldn’t remember it. Anyway, he thoroughly examined our lots and photographed them and some other points of interest.
Our visit with Bob and his wife, Sharon, and young Bob, was short but meaningful. Bob bought the drinks and brought us up to date on the town’s happenings, recounted some of his old activities and mentioned some new projects.
At the “uptown” bar we were tempted to stay the night in the owner’s brand new, four-room motel next door. But since there was still no place in town to get a real meal, we took our leave and headed for Tonopah.
Thus ends this chapter of our “Visits to Manhattan.”