Chapter OneIn the Beginning

        The day started pleasant enough. A light, cool breeze played on the late summer flowers. Birds vied for early morning worms. It was Sunday. Soon the church bells would be ringing. The year was 1871, the month September, the 17th to be exact. It was shaping up to be an ordinary morning in western Nevada.No one expected this pleasantness to last. Sure enough, before long it became just another hot, dry afternoon. This particular one though, was punctuated by additional weather miseries.
     Gale force winds swept off the majestic Sierra Nevada. Tumble weeds cart wheeled over the yellowtops. The winds drove dust along the streets of Carson City. Those foolhardy enough to venture outside could hardly see. Winds swirled through the Carson Valley and over the Carson River. Who knows where they headed after passing up and over the Pine Nut Mountains on their way to Utah? But as unsettling as this late summer wind storm was, it was nothing compared to the storm that was about to break at the Nevada State Prison
     .From the time prisons were first introduced, prisoners have been figuring out how to escape from them. It was certainly no different at the Nevada State Prison. This facility was located about a mile and a half east of Carson City. Originally, it was the Warm Springs Hotel, built in 1860 by Abraham Curry. The crude structure was constructed from hand-hewn sandstone taken from the nearby quarry. For the 1860s, it was a fairly impressive edifice.
     Carson City, originally known as Eagle Station, was settled in late 1851 by Frank Hall. Hall had lost his interest in the California Rush, so he packed up to head back east over the Sierra to Utah territory. A few miles north of Mormon Station, Nevada, established early that same year, he found a perfect place for another trading post.
     Along with five associates, he erected a crude log station that November. In a moment of inspiration, the skin and feathers of an eagle, Hall shot that morning, was tacked up over the door. Eagle Station was open for business. It was an excellent location, but fell on hard times. Soon it became known as Eagle Ranch. It had exchanged hands several times by 1858.
     Then Abe Curry came on the scene. He was a serious businessman with a vision. Thwarted in an attempt to buy land nearby, he learned the Eagle Ranch owners were in financial trouble.
     He found them eager to sell. For a measly $500, he bought the trading post and the ranch, which included a select herd of Mustangs. Curry was optimistic. He had a town site laid out. He named it Carson City, after the famous frontier scout Kit Carson. Ten acres were set aside for a Capitol building. Curry just knew that Nevada would become a state. At first he had to give plots of land away. Anyone who promised to build was given one.
     One day, Curry discovered a hot spring on the outskirts of the ranch. He decided this would be an excellent place for a hotel. Thus was born the Warm Springs Hotel.
     His faith in Carson City paid off when silver was discovered in nearby Virginia City. Carson City became a thriving center of commerce as folks from all walks of life came through in hopes of striking it rich. Carson City found itself a lively freight and transportation center. The Virginia and Truckee Railroad was completed between Carson City and Virginia City in 1869, with the shops and main offices in Carson City.
      Long shallow flumes carried huge pine logs in a flow of fast water down the steep eastern slope of the Sierra from Spooner Summit to Carson City. The timber was fed into the sawmills. Here the wood for the underground mines was cut, and building materials were milled. The finished products were loaded onto the railroad cars for delivery to the nearby towns by way of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad. When Carson City was selected as the territorial capital in 1861, Curry leased his Warm Springs Hotel to the Nevada Legislature as a meeting hall. The First Territorial Legislature was held at the Warm Springs Hotel in 1861. Curry provided the facilities, rent free. They were certainly not deluxe.
     The delegates met in a room divided by a canvas partition. The sawdust on the floor served as both carpet and spittoon for the tobacco chewing attendees. Transportation to and from Warm Springs for the officials was provided by a horse-drawn streetcar moving along on wooden rails.
     Mark Twain said of Curry’s generosity, “But for him the legislature would have been obliged to sit in the desert.”
      Curry was not the only generous contributor. Two leading women of the era, Hannah Clapp and Margaret Ormsby collected chairs for the participants, so they would have a comfortable place to sit. Margaret Ormsby was the wealthy widow of Major William Ormsby, a business owner and military man. He had been killed in action against Chief Winnemucca in 1860 near Pyramid Lake, north of Reno. In his honor, the legislature established Carson City as the seat of Ormsby County.
      Hannah Clapp was known for her activism in the movement for women’s rights. She was an astute business woman with an indomitable will. When she was 35, back in 1859, she decided to move west with her brother and his family. In an early letter written to other family members back home in Michigan, she had this to say:
      “This Sunday is very much like other days with us here; although now we have the privilege of attending a Mormon meeting. I embraced the opportunity on Sunday and went with my bloomer dress and hat, along with my revolver by my side.”
      Curry, ever the entrepreneur, leased the Warm Springs Hotel to the Nevada Territory in 1862 so it could be used for holding prisoners. He was appointed the prison’s first warden. Using convict labor and the ready supply of rock at the quarry, the facility was enlarged to help accommodate the ever-increasing number of prisoners. Curry sold the property to the state in 1864, although title to the property remained a topic of discussion for many years. The original hotel was destroyed by fire in 1867, but was soon rebuilt. The prison survived and unfortunately thrived. It was not a pleasant existence at the Nevada State Prison. Most of the men had to toil in the rock quarry. The local town was expanding. The rocks were used to construct buildings in Carson City. It was hard, gruelling work.
      In his report of January 1871, outgoing Warden James Slingerland pointed out that the quarters for the prisoners was far too crowded for the comfort and health of the inmates. Each man was supplied with clean clothes when he arrived, complete with black and white stripes. They were well fed. Breakfast consisted of a beefsteak, potatoes and bread. The mid-day meal would feature cold meat, hash, potatoes and bread. Stewed peaches or apples were provided every other day. Vegetables were served when available. For dinner they had roast beef or stew. On Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, they got baked beans. On Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, mush and molasses or pudding was on the menu. Tuesday was soup day. Bread and potatoes were served daily. By 1870, it had become a very unpopular place for those forced to take up residence.
      On December 1, several convicts decided it was time to break out. As night guard Theodore Hawkins unlocked the iron door to let the kitchen hands out, prisoner Charles McCluer viciously hit him in the neck, knocking him away from the door. McCluer ran through the doorway, followed by William Shea, Thomas Heffron and Michael Loon. The four made a rush at Captain of the Guard, Jake Whipple. McCluer swung at Whipple with a butcher knife, slicing the palm of Whipple’s hand. He swung again and harmlessly drove the knife through the rim of Whipple’s hat.
      Hearing the noise of the scuffle, two guards, A.L. Biggs and Wellington Bowen, quickly came to help prevent the escape attempt. Seeing Biggs raise his revolver to fire, Heffron grabbed his arm and prevented him from firing the weapon. Bowen saw McCluer attacking Whipple and fired two quick shots, hitting McCluer in the head and the chest, killing him instantly. Bowen turned and shot Heffron just below the right shoulder-blade. Coming from behind, Shea dealt Bowen a terrible blow with a slung-shot. The convicts made these weapons out of a lead pipe sewn into a woolen stocking. Stunned, but not out, Bowen turned and shot Shea in the stomach. During the melee, Loon ran out the front door and hid in the cellar. Shea, bleeding profusely, was slowly dying from his wound.
      Meanwhile, night guard O.A. Dingman was inside having a perilous time. Prisoner James Garnett thought Dingman was unarmed and seized the guard, attempting to drag him away. As he did so Dingman drew a Derringer and shot him in the abdomen. The man died several days later. Freed from his adversary, Dingman ran outside. He rushed to the armory and grabbed a Henry Rifle,. He mounted the roof. He saw Pat Hurley and other prisoners trying to escape through a skylight. He turned his rifle toward them and fired a warning shot over their heads. They quickly saw any further attempt to flee would probably end in their deaths. The 45 year-old Biggs rushed up to Dingman.
      “You all right Captain?”
      “Yeah, I’m fine.”
      “Hell, I’m getting too old for this,” concluded Biggs.
      The melee was over in a very few minutes. None of the convicts escaped. Shea, Garnett and McCluer left the prison in pine boxes. This left a bad taste in the mouth of the remaining convicts. Several were especially upset with Captain Dingman. They mistakenly thought he had killed all three convicts, when, in fact, he only killed one. Bowman got two. Dingman knew of the hatred toward him and decided soon afterward that another profession would be to his benefit. He headed toward Aurora, Nevada and a job as a mail rider.
      The bloody unsuccessful escape attempt was naturally a topic of much discussion by the guards and prisoners alike. The guards laughed about what they considered a dumb escape attempt. They were very vocal in taking pride that they thwarted the attempt. They bragged about how they took out three prisoners in the process.
      On the other side of the iron bars, the talk was very different. Most of the convicts realized the escape attempt had been a hasty, spur of the moment decision. It wasn’t thought out at all. The deadly consequences of that entire episode was not lost on them either. They naturally wanted out, but didn’t want to die in the process. It was obvious to the more intelligent convicts that any successful prison break would have to involve some careful planning and skillful execution. Several such plans were discussed and rejected.