Virginia City and the Comstock Lode

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 describing Virginia City to his mother in a letter.

Virginia City, Nevada, 1866

Virginia City, Nevada, 1866

A once bustling mining town in the late 1800s, Virginia City was heralded as the most important settlement between Denver, Colorado andSan FranciscoCalifornia 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.

Hoisting Works Virginia City NV 1890

Hoisting Works Virginia City NV 1890

Grubby prospectors became instant millionaires. Famous men like William Ralston and George  Crocker, who would 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 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.

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.

Virginia City, Nevada Mining Works

Virginia City, Nevada Savage Works Mill, by Timothy H. O Sullivan, 1867. Click for prints products and downloads.

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 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.

By the 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.”

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