The Tale of Dutch Nick Ambrose
Back in the heady days of the Comstock Lode, timber and quartz mills were fueling the growth of Empire, Nevada. And nobody at Empire was more famous than ‘Dutch Nick’ Ambrose.
It was Dutch Nick who first claimed that promising stretch of land beside Carson River, and Dutch Nick who (with a partner) laid out the original townsite for Empire. Perhaps even more important to passing travelers, it was Dutch Nick who built Empire’s first hotel and saloon, purveying Dutch Nick’s own home-brewed creation: tarantula whiskey.
Dutch Nick’s saloon became the heart of Empire for nearly twenty years. And as you might expect with a frontier saloon, it also became the site of innumerable shootings, murders, scams and scandals. (We’ll tell some of those stories next month!)
But who was Dutch Nick himself? His great-great grandson kindly helped us piece together the fascinating story of this little-known pioneer!
Nicholas Ambrose (or Ambrosia) was born in Prussia in 1824. We’re not quite sure when he crossed the Atlantic, but by 1850 he was living in DuPage, Illinois. About that time, of course, the Gold Rush was luring many young men west, and ‘Dutch Nick’ was no exception. Accompanied by a neighbor with the euphonious name of Shubael T. Swift, and their friends Jack Kline and Charles Shad, Ambrose crossed the plains about 1850.
Swift wound up living in Carson City, where eventually he would become Sheriff, serving from 1869-79 and 1881-85. But after arriving in the region about 1850, Dutch Nick chose a different path.
Nick settled just east of Carson City, at a felicitous site beside the Carson River. It was already a popular spot for early wagon trains to camp and recruit their animals before pushing onward. And three important roads joined here. The Emigrant Trail wandered off to the southwest, toward Genoa; the road to Washoe Valley forked away to the north; and for those heading west, a short three-mile stretch led to Carson City. Meanwhile, just four miles to the east lay Dayton, the entrance to Gold Canyon. With a location right in the middle, how could a businessman go wrong?!
On March 24, 1855, Nick’s land claim for 160 acres was recorded as part of Nevada’s “First Records.” But he wasn’t done yet. A survey certificate issued the following July confirmed his ownership of 373 acres in Eagle Valley.
Nick and his wife, Rebecca, built an early trading post and hotel at what he decided to call Empire. But with nothing else there in those earliest years except sagebrush, the site was generally known as ‘Dutch Nick’s.’ The forward-looking entrepreneur delighted in showing visitors around his ‘town,’ pointing out its large brick courthouse, post office, prosperous businesses and fine church – all existing only in Nick’s active imagination.
Other than his land claim, few records exist to tell us just what Nick was doing in those earliest years. But one brief mention shows he was pressed into service as a juror for the Carson County Court in 1856. That same year, he also was called as a witness on behalf of a defendant accused of petit larceny – though, despite Nick’s testimony, the culprit wound up being convicted.
According to family history, Nick and the former Rebecca Oxendine had been married right there by the banks of the Carson River in October 1854, probably shortly after Rebecca arrived from Illinois.
But strangely enough, another wedding notice for the pair shows up five years later in an 1859 newspaper , this one officiated by Genoa blacksmith/justice Henry Van Sickle (mangled as “Van Slycke” in the press) — by which time the first three Ambrose children had already arrived.
Contemporary newspaperman J. Ross Browne provides the likely explanation for this marital mystery. As Browne put it in his 1860s columns, “Dutch John” had come west with his wife from Salt Lake City, where they’d been joined in a sealing ceremony. If the family oral history is correct, perhaps they also re-recited their vows after arriving at their new home by the river.
Those formalities had been plenty for Dutch Nick and his wife, and as Browne reported, by 1859 they were settled in Empire and raising a “thriving little family of cotton-heads.” Their do-the-best-you-can approach to matrimony wasn’t all that uncommon; couples in tiny pioneer settlements often found it difficult to locate anyone officially authorized to perform a ‘legal’ marriage.
But as the years went by and Utah Territory grew more populated, tongues started to wag. According to Browne, Nick was warned by the local stage drivers stopping at his establishment that simply being “sealed” was no longer enough to satisfy public opinion in this newly civilized territory. The Vigilance Committee, they told him, might be inclined to weigh in.
So, in deference to public opinion and perhaps to avoid vigilante-style trouble, Nick and Rebecca had their marriage re-solemnized in 1859 by Justice of the Peace Henry Van Sickle. An official notice appeared in the paper. And after that, all was well.
By the late 1850s, the discovery of gold and silver at the Comstock was drawing a huge influx of miners to nearby Gold Hill. And no wonder! The first shipment of ore from Gold Hill in August 1859 was said to assay $3,000 per ton.
Those thirsty miners, of course, spelled opportunity. Dutch Nick opened a satellite saloon near Johntown, later moving his establishment slightly up the canyon to Gold Hill. It’s said that Dutch Nick’s saloon was the first frame structure built at Gold Hill, and that the future Mrs. Bowers, Eilley Orrum, built the second building there, a boarding house/restaurant.
One tale about Dutch Nick’s days at Gold Hill offers a glimpse of his prickly personality. After getting into a confrontation with a shotgun-wielding ruffian, Nick managed to barricade himself in his home – only to discover he had no weapon inside. Nick nevertheless continued to hurl insults through the door at the bully outside. But after hours of taunting, he finally opened his front door a bit too wide, and a shotgun blast struck him in the thigh. Luckily, the injury proved only a flesh wound. But an impromptu ‘jury’ of Gold Hill citizens concluded that enough was enough. Nick and his opponent both were sternly admonished to “let bygones be bygones,” or be banished from the camp.
Back at Empire, Nick’s original hotel and saloon also continued to grow as the Comstock prospered. Two quartz mills soon sprang up to mill the Comstock ore. And as more and more timber was needed for the mines, a sawmill was added in 1861 just above Dutch Nick’s original saloon.
In 1860, Dutch Nick sold a portion of his original land claim to William H. Mead, and together they had a survey made of ‘Empire City.’ By April, 1860, the town had been laid off into lots, and was soon expected to become a “flourishing place rivaling Virginia City and Genoa,” according to Richard N. Allen, author of The Tennessee Letters. By August, 1861, the region around Empire could boast 285 citizens.
In 1862, Nick added a sturdy three-story brick residence at Empire for his family (and amazingly, the “Red House” still stands today near the Empire Ranch Golf Course). Nick and his family would occupy the home until Nick’s death in 1880. (From 1881 to 1894 it was rented by Evan Williams, who worked as a superintendent of the Mexican Mill from 1881 to 1884, and was a State Senator from 1885-1891). The home was originally painted white, until Nick’s son and his family occupied it in the mid-1890s and changed the color to red.
Nick’s infamous saloon was located close to the Carson River which, sadly, made it prone to flooding. In January 1862, the water was said to have risen to “eight feet on the floors,” causing $2,000 in damage to the furnishings and building. It would be “inundated” by the Carson River again in January, 1868.
The population of Empire City continued to swell through the late 1860s. But as the mines of Virginia City began to falter, Empire’s economy, too, began to ebb. By about 1878, Dutch Nick’s finances were waning.
Dutch Nick died of consumption (tuberculosis) there at his Empire home in May 1880. He left behind his wife, Rebecca, and their six surviving children (out of a total of nine offspring), “besides many friends all over the coast.” Nick was laid to rest at the Empire Cemetery. The Rev. George R. Davis officiated at his ceremony, and “nearly the entire population of the town followed the well-known citizen to the grave.”
Tragedy soon piled upon tragedy for Dutch Nick’s widow. Just six months after Nick’s death, his original hotel was destroyed by fire about November, 1880. “Nothing was saved,” reported the Territorial Enterprise, “and several lodgers lost all their wearing apparel excepting such scanty clothing as could be hastily gathered up.” Luckily for the family, the building had been insured for $3,000 – more, it was said, than the building was worth.
Now a widow, Rebecca knew she needed to economize. She rented out the Red House that had been her home for nearly two decades, moving with her children to a smaller house on the Ambrose ranch. She would pass away there in 1912.
Read on for more stories about the goings-on in Dutch Nick’s saloon and his infamous Tarantula Juice in Part 2!