have just heard five pistol shots down the street.... The pistol did its
work well...two of my friends were shot. Both died within three minutes."
-- Mark Twain describing Virginia City to his mother in a letter.
A once bustling mining town in the late
1800s, Virginia City was heralded as the most important settlement
Colorado and San
California in the time of
its heydays. One of the oldest settlements in
Nevada, it got its
start when two miners by the names of Pat McLaughlin and Peter
O'Reilly discovered gold at the head of Six-Mile Canyon in 1859. Soon, another miner named Henry Comstock, stumbled upon their find and
claimed it was on his property. The gullible
McLaughlin and O'Reilly believed him and that assured Henry a place in
history when the giant
Comstock Lode was named.
However, the Comstock Lode would not be known for gold, but rather, for its immensely rich
silver deposits. Though silver had initially been discovered in 1857
in Nevada by brothers, Ethan and Hosea Grosh, they died before they
could record their claims. Though the miners rushed in after the
discovery of gold, they were unable to get to it because of the heavy
blue-gray clay that clung to
picks and shovels. However, when someone had the good sense to assay
the sticky mud, it was found to be worth $2,000 a ton – a very nice
amount in those days.
Word of the discovery
spread like wildfire and lured California gold miners in a reverse
migration back over the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and within no
time, a ramshackle town of tents and shacks was born. When a miner
named James Finney, who was more often called "Old Virginny" from his
birthplace, dropped a bottle of whiskey on the ground, he christened
the newly founded tent-and-dugout town "Old Virginny Town" in honor of
himself. It was later changed to Virginia City. By
1862, the population had soared to some 4,000 and would continue to
increase over the next decade and a half.
became instant millionaires. Famous men like William Ralston and
George Crocker, who would found the Bank of California; Leland
George Hearst, John Mackay, and William Flood made their
fortunes in Comstock mining. Soon mansions, imported furniture and
fashions from Europe, and the finest in food, drink and entertainment
were commonplace. Virginia City quickly rivaled San
Francisco in size
All the new wealth caught
the eye of President Lincoln who needed gold and silver to pay
expenses and on March 2, 1861, Nevada became a territory. Statehood came
just three years later on October 31, 1864 even though it did not contain
enough people to constitutionally authorize statehood.
It was in Virginia City that Samuel Clemens,
then a reporter on the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper, first used
his famous pen name of Mark Twain. He went to work for the newspaper in
the summer of 1862 at the age of 26. A year
later he began signing the name "Mark Twain" to his columns.
Engineers made amazing
breakthroughs to facilitate the silver removal. New honey-combed,
square-set timbers became the industry standard to shore up mine shafts.
Water pipes were stretched
from the Lake Tahoe Basin to provide over 2 million gallons of fresh
mountain water daily. A four mile long tunnel was blasted from solid rock
by Adolph Sutro to drain over 10 million gallons
of boiling, rancid water per day from the lower levels of the mines.
miners working the Comstock Lode, it was extremely dangerous as they faced cave-ins, fires, and underground flooding. The water temperature and
deeper levels would rise to more than 100 degrees and often, when miners
penetrated through rock, steam and scalding water would pour into the
In 1869 William Sharon and William Ralston
built the Virginia and Truckee Railroad to haul ore from the Virginia City
mines to the ore mills along the Carson River in the valley below and to
the east of Carson City. Known as "the crookedest railroad
in the world" due to its dizzying descent of 1,600 feet in 13 miles, the railroad would then return with
wood and supplies to Virginia City.
1870s, over $230 million had been produced by the mines and Virginia City
was continuing to grow. At the peak of its glory around 1876, Virginia City
was a boisterous town with many businesses operating 24 hours a day.
At that time the boomtown
sported some 30,000 residents, 150 saloons, at least five police
precincts, a thriving red-light district, three churches, hotels,
restaurants, ten different fire departments, its own water, electric and
gas systems, and numerous other businesses. The thriving community also
provided various types of entertainment including Shakespeare
plays and dances at Piper’s Opera House, which continues to stand; as well
as opium dens, dog fights, and more than 20 theaters and music halls. Its
International Hotel was six stories high and boasted the West's first
elevator, called the "rising room."
But like other mining
boom towns, Virginia City would eventually begin to decline, beginning in
1877. From the time it was first established through its decline, Virginia City suffered five
widespread fires, the worst of which was dubbed the
"Great Fire of 1875,” which burned nearly 75% of the town and caused some
12 million dollars in damages. But the residents persevered and the town
was rebuilt in about 18 months.
The Comstock Lode was
fully mined by 1898, and the city once again took a sharp decline. During
the years from 1859 to 1919, more than 700 million dollars in gold and silver taken from the mines of the
Comstock Lode, which mines' were excavated to as much as 3200 feet. By 1920, there were just a few small operations in business
and by 1930, only about 500 people lived in the community.
Today, the historic community is a National Historic Landmark, designated
as such in 1961. It now boasts about 1,000 residents, and though a shadow
of its former self, it draws more than two million visitors per year.
Numerous historic buildings continue to stand including Piper’s Opera
House, which still entertains customers today and the Fourth Ward School,
built in 1876 which today is utilized as a museum. Numerous mansions also
continue to stand which provide visitors of the sophisticated and lush
lifestyle of these long ago residents and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad
runs again from Virginia City
to Gold Hill. The landmark is the largest federally designated Historical
District in America is maintained in its original condition. "C" Street,
the main business street, is lined with 1860's and 1870's buildings
housing specialty shops, restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, and casinos.
As a federally designated National Historic
District, it is illegal to dig for artifacts, remove any found items from
the community, or mistreat any property.
is located about 23 miles south of Reno, Nevada.
Virginia City, Nevada
86 S. "C" Street
P.O. Box 920
775-847-4386 or 800-718-7587