Once a Thriving City
The history and stories of Virginia City are as unique, rich and colorful as the streets and buildings themselves. One must see Virginia City to even remotely understand it. It’s a living, breathing example of America’s fortitude and desire to achieve.
At its peak, Virginia City was a thriving, vibrant metropolis of 25,000 residents. Located about 35 miles southeast of Reno, Nevada in the Virginia Range and in the shadow of Mount Davidson, its hills made millionaires. Silver and gold was buried deep beneath her streets and men and women traveled from around the world to live and work. Miners pulled millions of dollars from shafts and tunnels 3,000 feet beneath the thriving town. The spirit of those Comstock “originals” still inhabits the places where they once worked, lived, worshiped, educated and died.
Today, visitors to Virginia City can walk with these past residents. Pack your passion and imagination for this authentic step back in time.
The 19th-century mining bonanza that turned Virginia City into the most important industrial city between Denver and San Francisco, was the result of the Comstock Lode. A rich deposit of silver ore discovered by Henry Comstock, part-owner of the property on which it was discovered, in June 1859. Getting his nickname for only making pancakes for breakfast, Henry T. “Pancake” Comstock was referred to as one of the original finders of gold in Gold Canyon, just south of Virginia City. Comstock was said to have been lazy, employing American Indians on his claims, and was a fast-talker. Since he was on the scene of the original findings, his name stuck almost instantly.
…oral traditions cast the earliest players as drunkards and madmen.
Ronald M. James; “The Roar and the Silence”
The destitute prospectors from all over the world funneled their millions back into the town by building mansions, hospitals, churches, opera houses and schools. They imported furniture, fashions and entertainment from Europe and the Orient.
The riches helped finance the U.S. government during the Civil War, as attested by a museum named after General Ulysses Grant. In fact, silver from Virginia City may have helped save the Union. It also helped build empires around the world. Among the finest examples is San Francisco, a city built with Comstock silver.
The Ophir, Gould, Curry and Consolidated Virginia mines — those consisting of the “Big Bonanza” of 1873 — produced at least $300 million in mineral deposits and made telecommunications giant John Mackay a virtual overnight millionaire. The Comstock King spent millions of those proceeds on Nevada’s School of Mines located on the University of Nevada, Reno campus where his namesake adorns many of the buildings on campus including a statue on the quad. In addition to Mackay, Fair, Flood and O’Brien comprised the remaining “Bonanza Kings.” Other notable icons of the Comstock included engineer Adolph Sutro, who later became Mayor of San Francisco, banker William Sharon, entrepreneur George Hearst and the famous Madame Julia Bulette.
While the Virginia & Truckee Railroad transported bullion from the rural highlands of Virginia City to Carson City, the Territorial Enterprise, with literary whiz Mark Twain, delivered news of the day to the vibrant mining metropolis of 25,000. In 1868, Mark Twain reminisced and wrote about his journalism career in Nevada with the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise:
“To find a petrified man, or break a stranger’s leg, or cave an imaginary mine, or discover some dead Indians in a Gold Hill tunnel, or massacre a family at Dutch Nick’s, were feats and calamities that we never hesitated about devising when the public needed matters of thrilling interest for breakfast. The seemingly tranquil ENTERPRISE office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days.”
— Mark Twain’s Letters from Washington, Number IX, Territorial Enterprise, March 7, 1868
Mining was a hard way to make a living. With 100-degree temperatures 3,000 feet down a mine shaft, it required deep concentration from the person at the helm of the elevator. Needless to say, the people worked hard and played hard. Away from work, the people of the Comstock enjoyed performances at Piper’s Opera House, which still stands today as a favorite for events and weddings. Residents also played baseball as a favorite pastime and unwound after a long day at Virginia City’s many saloons that topped more than 100 at one point.
Many attended school with the Fourth Ward School still standing as a testament to the grammar and high school students it educated. The school is considered a must stop for visitors to learn about the town’s vibrant history. Virginia City Comstockers are buried in the cemetery with stories told to this day and tombstone messages reflecting their unconventional lives.
The Great Fire of 1875
“A breath of hell melted the main portion of the town to ruins.”
Territorial Enterprise, 1875
The morning of October 26, 1875 would dramatically change Virginia City in more ways than one. A gripping fire, started at the boardinghouse of “Crazy Kate,” and roared through town fueled by the dry timbers and Zephyr winds. Panic set in quickly, buildings caught ablaze and mines filled with fire and smoke. Almost instantly, 8,000 people were homeless. The total loss for the city was estimated at $10 million. Luckily, the casualties from the fire were remarkably low. Restoring the town started immediately and in less than a year most everything was rebuilt. Even the International Hotel was reconstructed, which had six stories, and hosted the first elevator in Nevada.
National Trust for Historic Preservation Award
In February 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation presented the Distinctive Destinations Award to the Storey County Commissioners. In his acceptance speech, Commissioner Bum Hess stated: