“I 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 describes Virginia City to his mother in a letter.
One of Nevada’s oldest settlements started 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, which 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 recording their claims. Though the miners rushed in after discovering gold, they could not 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. 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.
Grubby prospectors became instant millionaires. Famous men like William Ralston and George Crocker found the Bank of California; Leland Stanford, 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 and excess.
All the new wealth caught the eye of President Abraham Lincoln, who needed gold and silver to pay Civil War 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.
In Virginia City, 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.
For the 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 tunnel.
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 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.
By the 1870s, over $230 million had been produced by the mines, and Virginia City continued 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 thoroughly mined by 1898, and the city once again took a sharp decline. From 1859 to 1919, more than 700 million dollars in gold and silver were 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, is utilized as a museum. Numerous mansions also continue to stand, which provides visitors with the sophisticated and lush lifestyle of these long-ago residents. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad runs again from Virginia City to Gold Hill. The landmark is the largest federally designated Historical District in America maintained in its original condition. “C” Street, the main business street, is lined with the 1860s and 1870s 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.
Virginia City is located about 23 miles south of Reno, Nevada.
Virginia City, Nevada
86 S. “C” Street
P.O. Box 920
Virginia City, Nevada 89440
775-847-4386 or 800-718-7587
Source: Bureau of Land Management
For more information and preservation see The Comstock Foundation for History and Culture.