Fence building at old Nevada State Capitol

The Nevada State Museum, where I’m a volunteer tour guide, has an option to take tours of the old Nevada State Capitol building on Carson Street. I haven’t yet given any of these tours, but I observed one given by Ron Roberts, who gives an excellent presentation. Visitors are taken to see the old Nevada State Supreme Court, the governor’s offices and the bronze statue of Sarah Winnemucca. They can see the gallery of portraits of all the Nevada governors from James Nye to the present.

While on the tour, you can observe the substantial iron fence that surrounds the building that has an interesting history of its own. Hannah Clapp was a former school teacher from New York. She settled in Carson City where she convinced the Territorial Legislature to fund a private coeducational school known as the Sierra Seminary. In this effort, she had the support of Gov. James Nye and Comstock mining baron, William Stewart.

By 1864, the Sierra Seminary needed additional professional staff and Hannah Clapp hired Miss Eliza Babcock from Maine to be her vice principal.

Together Miss Clapp and Miss Babcock built a nice home in northwest Carson City and made the Sierra Seminary one of Nevada’s most outstanding schools. Mark Twain twice visited the school and observed the teaching and final examination methods of Hannah Clapp. These observations inspired Twain to use this information in some of the scenes in his novel, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

When the new University of Nevada was moved from Elko to Reno in 1887, President Leroy Brown hired Hannah Clapp as the University’s first staff member to teach history and English, in addition to overseeing the university library in newly-constructed Morrill Hall. Because there were no electricity and gas in the campus’ first building when classes began, as she later recalled, they literally “burned the midnight oil” in the rooms to make the “blackness more palatable.” She founded Reno’s first kindergarten but she was replaced as a professor at the university due to her lack of qualifications.

The two educators made investments in the Belcher mine to help fund their many ventures. In 1875, the Nevada Legislature decided to fund grounds improvements at the State Capitol. It had become unsightly with stray cows, loafers and garbage. When bids were requested to furnish iron fencing materials to construct the new fence around the building, Hannah Clapp and Miss Babcock saw an opportunity to make a profit for the Sierra Seminary. They submitted a bid of $5,500 in gold. Being the low bidder, she ordered the wrought iron from Philadelphia and had it shipped to Carson City by railroad.

When the fencing material arrived, a local contractor and his crew of workmen laid out a footing of sandstone blocks from the state prison quarry. They drilled holes in the sandstone for the posts and set them in place with molten sulphur. When completed, the handsome fence surrounded the Capitol grounds and is still in place today, just as sturdy as it was the day it was completed.

Since the cost of the materials was substantially less than what Hannah and Eliza had paid for it, they made a profit of $1,000. For many years after, a rumor circulated among many local newspapers and word-of-mouth the two women did the actual construction of the fence. I’ve seen written accounts that tell about the two women toiling in the hot summer sun wearing their long woolen skirts as they built the fence themselves.

The story no one knew the bid submitted by H.K. Clapp was actually from a woman was simply not true. The myth persisted until 1996, when Guy Rocha and Dennis Myers put it to rest in their “Historical Myth a Month” series, which tells the true story and sets the record straight.

The fence building story was just one small incident in the life stories of Hannah Clapp and Eliza Babcock. Hannah was profoundly distressed when her lifelong companion Eliza Babcock became ill and died in 1899. Hannah moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to retire and died there in 1908 at the age of 84.

She was known for her work as a feminist and suffragette and an advocate for aid to abused women. She worked on tree planting programs in Reno and worked to outlaw spitting in the streets of Reno.

Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian who can be contacted at cassinelli-books@charter.net or on his blog at denniscassinlli.com. All books sold through this publication will be at a 20 percent discount and Dennis will pay the postage.


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