VIRGINIA CITY, NV -- Unlike the Adirondacks or other eastern American mountain ranges that reach gradually to their highest points, the Sierra Nevadas are geological teenagers. At their impulsive age of just 150 million years they abruptly jut out of the valley floors and quickly hit rare-air levels.
This old mining town is just 18 miles south-southeast of Reno, but it's about 750 feet higher at 6,220 feet. That's 1,000 feet higher than Denver's much-publicized "mile high" location.
Visiting the Reno/Lake Tahoe area without driving up into the Sierra Nevadas that jut briefly into Nevada from California would be a waste of an opportunity. Not going there to visit historic Virginia City would be sacrilege. And, it’s convenient to other major communities in the northern part of the state up against the California border – just 15 miles from the state capital of Carson City, 23 miles from Reno and 40 miles from Lake Tahoe.
One thing that is so endearing about Virginia City is that its charm is not recreated for modern tourists.
I found a living Wild West town that still has wood-plank sidewalks, an active Boot Hill cemetery and plenty of links to the days when gold and silver from the Comstock Lode helped create a pool of multimillionaires as well as lines of finance to support both sides in the Civil War and fuel the San Francisco building boom.
Never heard of the Comstock Lode? A quick history lesson:
In 1859, a couple of Irishmen named Peter O'Reilly and Patrick McLaughlin discovered gold in Six-Mile Canyon. H.T.P. Comstock cut himself in on the deal, claiming the discovery was made on his property. An itinerant miner named Jim Finney is credited with naming the instant city after his home state. The ensuing rush yielded more than $400 million in gold and silver before the ore lines played out in the mid-1880s.
During that time, greed and force were two of the strongest elements in keeping whatever social order there was. As described in “The History of Nevada: Storey County,” the Comstock Lode discovery ushered in certain standards:
“Numerous disputes about claims occurred in consequence of the uncertain terms of occupation. Those who have had any experience in making possessory claims well know on what slight circumstances the right to a claim depends.
“In most cases, however, possession was the only title and even that was not always good unless a show of force was made to give it respectability. In some instances men fortified their ground and held it by military possession.”
At its peak, Virginia City was the most important town between Denver and San Francisco. Because of its supply of gold and silver needed by the federal government to remain solvent during the Civil War, Nevada was given statehood in 1861 despite not having a sufficient population.
Virginia City itself was home to 30,000 residents. One was Mark Twain, who wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in the 1860s under his real name, Samuel L. Clemens, although it was while employed there he first signed a piece of his work with the Twain pen name.
The droll writings he had published in the newspaper carried the tone of the Mark Twain we know from his many later speeches and anecdotal writings. His column on New Year’s Day 1863 is a good example.
“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.
“Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time.
“However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”
Besides its newspaper and its mines, the city had many other important claims to fame. For example, it was home to the first miner's union in the nation, and its six-story International Hotel had the first elevator in the American west.
The nightlife was as varied as the characters who flocked to the area with dreams of grubbing wealth from the mines. Everything from Shakespearian acting troupes to opium dens were available. And, of course, what Wild West historic town would be complete with its line of saloons?
My particular favorites: the gaudy Bucket of Blood, rebuilt after the devastating 1875 fire that destroyed much of the city, and dotted with original Tiffany chandeliers plus other artwork and punctuated with live entertainment, and the Delta, perhaps the most famous of the town's 100 original saloons and home to "The Suicide Table," where devastating losses at cards led to at least three suicides. The gamblers’ favorite in those days was faro, a card game that has virtually died out. The Ramada Reno was the last to offer the game, ending it in 1985.
Today, the city of about 1,500 population is a great place for kids, history buffs or the just plain curious. Both formalized walking and driving tours – with some stops appearing on both agendas – bring to life the varied history of the town from its rough-and-tumble mining days right through calmer periods.
Tours of mines, a gambling museum, historic buildings and such mansions as The Castle, built in 1868 by copying the design of a castle in Normandy, France, are available.
As I walked the streets of Virginia City, it was easier to soak in its history than it is in other tourist draws that have rebuilt their past with modern eyes and sensibilities. Little wonder it is the largest federally designated Historical District in America.
The Comstock Archaeology Center is an important aspect of the continued recording of the town's raucous and storied history. It is a private non-profit corporation mandated to encourage the professional excavation and management of the district’s archaeological resources.
Among the unusual aspects of Virginia City that has been unearthed in the past decade is the existence of the Boston Saloon, an African-American enterprise – something that was unusual in the West in the period during which Virginia City flourished.
When you’re not taking a horse-drawn carriage ride or watching gunfight reenactments on the streets, here are a few “don’t miss” spots to see on your Virginia City visit:
• Chollar Mine Tour: See original square set timbering, tools and equipment form the fifth largest producer on the Comstock. May-September.
• Comstock Firemen's Museum: 1876 building houses a collection of antique fire fighting equipment. May 31-Nov. 1.
• The Castle: Built by Robert N. Graves, superintendent of the Empire Mine. The home, copied after a castle in France, took five years to complete. It was widely regarded as one of the finest mansions in the West during its heyday.
• Julia Bulette Red Light Museum: The name commemorates Virginia City's most famous prostitute. Paraphernalia including contraceptives, medical instruments and quack medical cure-alls. Opium equipage is also displayed. Open daily.
• Territorial Enterprise Mark Twain Museum: Housed in the 1876 Territorial Enterprise Building, it features the desk occupied by Sam Clemens at the newspaper. Open daily.
• Nevada Gambling Museum: Display of historic western gaming tables, such as faro and roulette. One-armed bandits and other gaming artifacts are featured. Open daily.
• Radio Museum of Virginia City: More than 100 wireless and radio sets from 1915 through 1950. Open daily April-November and most weekends December-March.
• Silver Terrace Cemeteries: 16 of the Comstock's 31 cemeteries are located at this site. The first burial occurred here in 1860. A brochure describing the cemeteries is located at the entrance or at the Chamber of Commerce. Open daily.
• Tram Tour: A narrated, 20-minute tour of Virginia City departs every half hour.
• Virginia & Truckee RR Train Ride: A narrated, 35-minute round trip train ride between Virginia City and Gold Hill. View the historic mining district from the original 128-year-old right of way. Nine steam trains. Daily May-October, and weekends October-November.
• Way it Was Museum: Collection of mining artifacts, photos, maps, lithographs, working models, costume displays and cutaways of mines and mills. Open daily.
ON THE WEB
• Convention & Tourism Authority
• History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode
• Nearby Reno, not just Vegas' little sister
• Dowd's Guides
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