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Research & Thoughts

A NEW Bonanza Project Announced

For those who can never get enough Bonanza, how about a nonfiction book, Virginia City & Bonanza: History Fact & Fiction? Sound appealing? As a lifelong Bonanza fan, the research on this project is fascinating. I'm curious is there's a market for this, before I get too far into it and work to get Bonanza Ventures' approval.


The Bonanza TV series, as we know, began to air in 1959, one hundred years after the big Bonanza silver strike on Sun Mountain at Washoe Diggings. Virginia City was then established and became known as one of the richest cities in the world. But their big bonanza days ended by 1880. The city's renaissance in 1959 owed everything to the new TV series, said Joe Curtis.


Curtis is former owner of the Mark Twain Bookstore and Museum, and the museum was started by his parents around the time Bonanza began to air. Curtis is retired now and is a historian for Virginia City, a stickler in getting details right. I first contacted the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce because I wanted to know if Bonanza had any role in opening up Virginia City to tourism. They forwarded my message to Curtis, who said "without a doubt, if it weren't for Bonanza, Virginia City would be a ghost town today."


We worked on an article about this renaissance, and there are some surprises. Hopefully we can find a magazine that will publish it. I've got queries out.


It's also part of the larger project. You see, Bonanza didn't just set itself in Virginia City. It had episodes taken from their history. This book will explore just how accurate those episodes were, and will expand on them by showing the real history of the territory. I see this as not only a great resource for history buffs and Bonanza fans, but an amazing look at this period in time and the process of mining in the 1800s, and how this was reflected in the TV series during its 14 year run.


For instance, you'll learn that the entire area called the Ponderosa was not settled in 1859. So the Cartwrights didn't kick anyone off their land -- well, except Washoe Indians. Perhaps this explains why Bonanza has usually had a soft spot for the natives portrayed on the show. You'll see the Ponderosa area colored in red on the authentic 1860 map. Joe Curtis confirmed that they didn't start building up this Ponderosa area at Incline Village until the 1930s. The Cartwrights' Ponderosa took over unsettled land. Carson City and Virginia City are east and north of the Ponderosa. And Genoa is down at its southeastern corner.


Joe sent me more maps, too, that will be used in the book. Do you know where the Comstock Lode was? I mean, precisely? Do you know where it was first found? I uncovered a mystery about Mark Twain, too, and how the Territorial Enterprise moved three times.


A lot of what I've used comes from materials I've picked up over the years from the many trips to Nevada, but there's nothing like the direct conversations that Joe Curtis and I have had. He's a real gem, helping me weed out fact from fiction. "Virginia City is a mining town, not a cowboy town," he noted. Yes, Virginia City did try to accommodate the cowboy fans; however, in this project I note more and more how the episodes related to mining history, such as in "She Walks in Beauty."


In disseminating the history of Virginia City, I learned how much the writers of Bonanza got right, which is pretty darned good at a time when VCRs weren't used and episodes were shot out of a gun a week at a time -- a lot more episodes than any series does today. When you buy a DVD of a single season, you're getting as many as 24 episodes.


In reading Dan DeQuille's "The Big Bonanza," there is one episode that Bonanza got exactly right. Can you guess which one? Hint, no, not "Enter Mark Twain." That was more to dramatize his time there, a composite of what did happen with Sam Clemens there.


The main focus in this book will be on getting Virginia City history right, but I will include information about the Bonanza conventions held here, times that the Cartwrights visited the area, and even more detail on the Ponderosa Ranch Theme Park; information in the article will also be included in the book.


I will also straighten out the Bonanza timeline. I used to think that episodes shot in 1959 were reflective of those that happened in 1859. Instead, I will be inserting episodes that can be dated into the actual historical timeline, which is an outlined breakdown of Virginia City history. For instance, Mark Twain didn't get to Virginia City until 1862.


What I won't do in the book, though, is dissect the lives of the four (or more) cast members of the TV series. I will go all the way through the DVD series to pull out those historical episodes that deal with Virginia City history. As I've only bought the series to Season 6, this gives me a great way to do what I've never done; study the series after Adam's character left. It's time I do that, and show how historically right Bonanza episodes really were, right to its finish line, which was before 1980 but not a lot before.


I think we'll all develop a greater appreciation for Bonanza, and for Virginia City - the little town that would never die. We'll understand that, even though the real geographic distances made no sense, why David Dortort gave Bonanza the best of both worlds.

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