A stark and rather deserted road wound its way under the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains. On either side, there were masses of wild grass, broken by clumps of bushes and stubby trees. A harsh summer sun created mirages on the road. As the vehicle trundled along at a rather fast clip, road signs to slow down were the only indication that a town might be up ahead. Soon, a row of scattered buildings showed up and just like that we were in the centre of Genoa, purportedly the State of Nevada’s first settlement.
At first sight, Genoa seemed like a ghost town. But soon I spotted a lone person here and there, in front of a few establishments, lethargic under the hot sun. Though the name evoked little expectations of a bustling town, it was nothing like its Italian namesake (which found a mention in The Merchant of Venice). With just about 250 inhabitants and a handful of streets, this Genoa ended almost before it began.
All the town’s main establishments, and they were just a few, stood close together on Main Street. Most were old and lovely in a weather-beaten kind of way. The town centre was dominated by a grassy knoll where I met Sue, an old-timer who showed me around. I was told the town was established in 1851 by Mormons on the trail to California, looking to colonise new territories. They first named it Mormon Station and then Genoa four years later. What was once was a harsh, bleak land slowly turned into a lovely town as people set up shops and businesses and marsh land was reclaimed for farming.
The town’s history was as colourful as it was long. And what better way than reliving it through a re-enactment. Kim, another volunteer, met us on the knoll and relived the character of Charlie, a one-eyed stagecoach driver who lived her life as a man and her gender was discovered only after she died. Some of what Kim referred to was on display at the Mormon Station Historic State Park which comprised a small museum and the stockade and wagon shed used by traders. A couple of families on a picnic in the park made for an idyllic scene, redolent of small-town America.
In one corner of the knoll was a bronze statue of a man on skis, dedicated to Genoa’s most famous resident Snowshoe Thompson. A Norwegian by birth, Jon Torsteinson-Rue emigrated to the US in the early 19th century. He headed towards California during the height of the gold rush and stopped at Mormon station when he found the job opening for a mailman. There were few takers, owing to the harsh snowy conditions of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Torsteinson-Rue overcame it by designing wooden skis that were common in his home country and trekked across twice a month, fetching and delivering mail, his attire giving rise to his nickname. Strangely, he was unpaid for the job but persevered for 20 years.
Opposite this was the Courthouse Museum located inside a stately building with pillars and beautiful balcony with wooden balustrade. Built in 1965 as the seat of the county, it was later used as a school before becoming a museum to house the town’s history.
But Genoa had a fair share of dark and edgy characters. I was captivated with the story of Felicitle Allenbach, a French seamstress with a shrill voice who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was branded the Genoa witch. Ridiculed and harassed by the town’s boys, she put bucksaw blades on the fence and supposedly put a curse on Genoa by sowing Bouncing Betty, a fast-growing weed that spread throughout the town. Her end too was dramatic: she accidentally set her house on fire and couldn’t escape.
There was also a much darker one, one that Genoans prefer to gloss over. In the late 19th century, New Yorker Adam Uber was at a bar when Hans Andersen, a local, offered to buy a drink. Uber refused but Andersen persevered; irritated, Uber shot him with a gun. He was arrested and incarcerated in Genoa Courthouse jail. In the dead of night, a masked mob dragged him out, lynched him and hung him up on a cottonwood tree. Located on the road to Reno, a little brown board indicated the Hanging Tree, as it has been known since, symbolically distanced from the town.
To shake off the morbidity, I went back into the centre of town, a distance of about half a mile, and headed to another Genoa institution. Simply called the Genoa Bar, it is supposedly Nevada’s oldest watering hole. Inside, it showed its age, the walls were crammed with memorabilia and artefacts. It was also filled with cheery locals. The bar is believed to have been frequented by Mark Twain, Jonny Cash and even Teddy Roosevelt, as well as featuring in the Wild West films of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. There was foot-tapping music in the background and a couple of people shooting pool. The bar area was bursting with all manner of bottles, some of them clearly improvisations done by the establishments such as bottles of vodka infused with chillies. But the general atmosphere of the bar felt like I was stepping back a few decades, and I shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversations around me.
Hours later, I headed out and passed the Hanging Tree. In the late afternoon gloom, it seemed more ominous. It stood by the side of the road surrounded by lush fields, with lovely mountains in the backdrop but had a foreboding quality. Or it might have been my imagination. But I was glad to leave it behind.
Anita Rao Kashi is a freelance travel writer based in Bengaluru