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Scenes from the Past...

The Fascinating Life of the Owner of the Mansion Dubbed “Stewart’s Castle”

Although designed and laid out as Pacific Circle by Pierre L’Enfant, the circle now named Dupont Circle remained devoid of development until 1873. That year, Nevada Senator William Morris Stewart had local architect Adolph Cluss design a turreted, Mansard-style mansion on the circle’s the northwest side, between Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues. The grand residence lasted just 28 years, however, having been razed in 1901.

Senator Stewart (1827-1909) and other rich western mining millionaires had purchased much of the undeveloped land surrounding the circle in the early 1870s, which would eventually be developed with large residences and lavish homes around the circle and lining Connecticut Avenue. Only two remain today — the Patterson House at 15 Dupont and the Blaine Mansion at 20th and Massachusetts, with all of the homes lining Connecticut Avenue since converted into retail shops and restaurants on the ground floor.

Senator Steward is known for his rather strange career which was prompted by a loan from Judge James C. Smith of Lyons, New York that allowed Stewart to enter Yale University in 1848. Like many men his age, he left two years later, drawn to the California gold rush. Unlike most, however, Stewart made a fortune mining gold for the next 12 years, and at age 27, in 1854, became the attorney general of California. He formed a law partnership in San Francisco with Henry S. Foote, a former U.S. Senator and Governor of Mississippi; and shortly thereafter, married his daughter, Annie Elizabeth Foote. Stewart was embarrassed to bring his Southern belle to a rude mining camp, so he constructed a replica of her Mississippi childhood home. Still standing today and located at 416 Zion Street in Nevada City, the beautiful structure has been described as the “only true antebellum Southern Colonial house in California.” It was constructed in 1855.

They moved to the western Utah Territory in 1859, when Stewart sought to repeat his fortune with newly discovered silver deposits in the area. He was responsible for the carving of the Nevada Territory out of the Utah Territory in 1861, established Carson City, and wasted no time sponsoring the admission of Nevada as a state in 1864. With a need for the riches contained in its soil to feed the growing Civil War coffers, the Union quickly accepted the state. As expected, Stewart was the first elected U.S. Senator from Nevada in 1864.

Mark Twain, known as Samuel Clemens at the time, was then a struggling reporter at the Territorial Enterprise and Clerk for the Nevada Territorial Legislature. Twain was employed for short time in 1867 as Stewart’s personal secretary, but fired shortly thereafter; Twain claimed he resigned, and exacted his revenge a few years later by skewering Stewart in his 1872, classic Roughing It, accusing him of cheating him out of mining stock in Virginia City.

Stewart’s role as lawyer and politician in Nevada has always been controversial. He was the territory’s leading lawyer in mining litigation, but his opponents accused him of bribing judges and juries; he accused the three Nevada territorial judges of being corrupt, and he himself barely escaped disbarment. He is mostly noted for his assistance in the development of the Comstock Lode, the first major U.S. deposit of silver ore, discovered under what is now Virginia City, Nevada on the eastern slope of Mt. Davidson. After the discovery was made public in 1859, mining camps soon thrived in the vicinity, which became bustling centers of fabulous wealth. The excavations were carried to depths of more than 3,200 feet, and it was estimated that between 1859 and 1878, the area yielded about $700 million in silver and gold.

Stewart represented dozens of mine owners, and was said to have collected over $1 million in legal fees during the Civil War years. It seems the city life on the east coast was not suited to the Stewarts and they used the mansion for only a few weeks at a time and in 1875, relocated briefly to San Francisco. He was elected to the Senate again from Nevada in 1887 and reelected in 1893 and 1899. Most famously, Stewart is given credit for authoring in 1868 the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution protecting voting rights regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant offered Stewart a seat on the United States Supreme Court, which was declined.

The mansion suffered a devastating fire in 1879, which required extensive repairs. From 1886 to 1893, they leased it to the Chinese Legation, members of which are pictured here in one of the drawing rooms.

In 1899, he sold the mansion to Montana Senator William A. Clark (1839-1925), a fellow millionaire miner, who razed the property in 1901 with the intention of building another mansion on the site that was never brought to fruition. The large corner lot remained vacant until the Riggs Bank built a branch building on the site in 1924.

Stewart retired from the Senate in 1905; he returned to Washington in 1909 for an operation at Georgetown University, where he died from complications. The year prior, however, he published his memoirs in a tome entitled Reminiscences of Senator William M. Stewart, of Nevada.