Aurora; Nevada's Ghost City of the Dawn. By Robert E. Stewart. Nevada Publications, 2004. Pp. 124. Softcover. $14.95. ISBN 0-913814-81-4.

This book is available from the publisher Nevada Publications, Box 15444, Las Vegas, NV 89114. Telephone: 775-747-0800.

The following review appeared 9 April 2005 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2005 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Eric Moody
Nevada Historical Society

Outside Nevada and California, Aurora is known--if it is recognized at all--because it was once the home of Mark Twain. This now-abandoned Nevada mining camp, where Twain lived briefly in the early 1860s and began the newspaper career that eventually propelled him to literary fame, has been generally neglected by historians. Not until now has there been a book length history of the place.

Author Robert Stewart, who has been intrigued by Aurora for decades, attempts here to remedy the camp's neglect. Over many years, he has familiarized himself with Aurora's geographical setting, surveyed virtually all the available literature on the town, scoured government records, and examined contemporary newspapers in an effort to piece together as much of Aurora's history as possible. He has published articles and a booklet about the town before producing the present volume.

The largest element of Aurora: Nevada's Ghost City of the Dawn, just over 80 pages, is a narrative history. It begins with a description of the discovery of precious metals, gold and silver, in the isolated Walker River region of western Nevada (then western Utah territory) and eastern California in the summer of 1860, just as Virginia City and the Comstock Lode, situated some one hundred miles to the northwest, were starting to boom. The new Esmeralda District, of which Aurora was the principal camp, quickly developed into an important mining center, experiencing a substantial influx of miners and other fortune seekers from California and Nevada.

Prospectors staked out hundreds of claims around Aurora, but a small number of incorporated mining companies soon dominated mining and milling activity in the district, whose production of gold and silver peaked in 1863-1864. An Aurora townsite was laid out, and numerous substantial brick buildings were erected among hundreds of smaller wooden ones. The community's population quickly exceeded 1,000, even though life was difficult in the mountainous region, with bitterly cold winters and hot, dusty summers testing the endurance of any hardy soul drawn there by the lure of mineral riches.

The 1860s witnessed the heyday of the camp; by the 1870s, Aurora's mines had played out and the camp was in decline. It managed to hang on to the county seat of Esmeralda County until 1883, and experienced one last revival on the eve of World War I, but by the 1920s it was virtually abandoned and had become a true ghost town, visited by tourists in automobiles.

In some of the most interesting sections of his book, Stewart writes about Aurora's varied populace, describing living conditions among the miners, merchant classes, and other groups, the types and prices of food available to Aurorans, leisure activities, the impact of fires on the community, and the district's minority groups, notably Chinese and Paiutes. The lawlessness for which Aurora was famous is duly noted, with substantial sections being devoted to the notorious Daly Gang, some of whom were local police officers, and the organization in 1864 of a vigilance committee to combat the desperadoes. The committee ran off most of the gang, which had been terrorizing Aurora for more than a year, and hung four of its members suspected of killing a stage station keeper. The hangings brought the territorial governor, James Nye, and Nevada's U.S. marshal to Aurora, but no charges were ever filed against any of the vigilantes.

A handful of the camp's most colorful residents are given special attention. There is Bob Howland, the ex-New Yorker and protégé of Governor James Nye, who was Sam Clemens's cabin-mate in Aurora. There is also Laura Sanchez, born into the politically prominent Crittenden family of Virginia, who came to Aurora from San Francisco with her husband, Ramon Sanchez, soon to be the town's leading banker and its only mayor. Laura's life on the frontier, which she wrote about in letters to family members, is described in fascinating detail.

The most famous resident of Aurora, of course, was young Sam Clemens, who came to the camp hoping to make his fortune in mining--an episode he would later imaginatively document in Roughing It. He is mentioned repeatedly in the book's historical narrative and then discussed further in one of the volume's several appendices. Twain's activities as a miner (and mining investor) are described, as are his living quarters, friends and associates, and his initial contacts with the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, to which he began sending contributions in 1862. His colorful sketches of mining camp life led to his being offered a reporting job in the summer of 1862, the acceptance of which necessitated a move from Aurora to the Comstock. The volume contains several photographs of Twain in the early 1860s, and some of what might have been his cabin in Aurora.

Stewart's book does not provide new information about Mark Twain while he was in Aurora, but in presenting a memorable portrait of the mining camp and its inhabitants during the time he lived there, it does offer readers some fresh details and perhaps a somewhat deeper understanding of the conditions that shaped Twain, the man and the writer, during his tumultuous Silver State sojourn. Even though it is marred by a number of noticeable typographical and factual errors (which are not mystifying but do point to a need for closer editing), Aurora: Nevada's Ghost City of the Dawn is an entertaining brief work that will appeal to those interested in the Western mining frontier and Mark Twain's formative years as a Nevada miner and newspaperman.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Eric Moody is Curator of Manuscripts for the Nevada Historical Society.