Complete Nevada Traveler Contents
Description and History of
by David W. Toll
From The Complete Nevada Traveler, the Affectionate and Intimately Detailed Guidebook to the Most Interesting State in America. Buy the Book Here
The Fourth Ward School was just one of Virginia City's grand schoolhouses in the 1870s.
For 25 glorious years Virginia City was the leading city in Nevada and the brightest and most important settlement between Denver and San Francisco. Then came 75 bad years during which mining production slowed and finally stopped. The city shriveled, but it never quite died, and in 1950 Lucius Beebe was one of a handful of literary folk from the East who rediscovered the ancient metropolis. Lucius Beebe, a former New York City society columnist, railroad buff, and heir to many productive acres of Washington apple orchards, brought the old Territorial Enterprise back to life.
The Gold Hill Hotel is the eptitome of Western hospitality, from bar room to great room, to dining room, to guest rooms, both modern and historic
The revival of the Enterprise brought something of the original spirit of the Comstock back to life with it. The tourist boomlet of the 1950s accelerated beyond all expectation in the 1960s with the debut and continuing popularity of the "Bonanza" program on television. Suddenly Virginia City had an economy again.
A few of the bonanza gold and silver mines are open for underground tours
Since then, mining has started up and closed down again several times, but the tourists keep right on coming in droves. They come to see one of the most exciting cities in the west, authentic beyond any doubt, where Mark Twain made a name for himself, and where John Mackay made a fortune.
Some of them are disappointed, repelled by the commercial exploitation rampant in the historic old city. The advertising signs that bristle above the old board sidewalks and line the road into town are given credit for creating a Coney Island atmosphere in
A casual gathering outside the Espresso shop on the north end.
But here's what J. Ross Browne wrote in 1863: "One of the most characteristic features about Virginia City is the inordinate passion of the inhabitants for advertising. Not only are the columns of the papers filled with every species of advertisement, but the streets and hillsides are pasted all over with flaming bills." So maybe the Coney Island effect is authentic. And perhaps it's not the commercialism itself that bothers people, but that this inauthentic commercialism doesn't satisfy. They've come for - what, oysters and champagne? - and found hot dogs and Budweiser instead. Maybe the real problem is that most local businesses and their customers a step removed from the extraordinary history the Comstock Lode represents. It's all a little unfamiliar now, and degraded by fleeting images vaguely remembered from television.
Now that Margaret Marks is gone, there is no longer anyone still in business on C Street who can remember Virginia City when the mines were working. The Crystal Bar, owned and operated by the Marks family since the 1880s, is now the Virginia City Visitors Center. Its staff is enthusiastic and helpful, but they only know what they've read. They've never seen the miners up from their labors below ground, crowded into the downstairs bar at the Frederick House for an after-shifter made by the Chinese bartender. A Chun Kee liner, it was called in his honor, and it cost a dime. Now ten dollars won't buy a Chun Kee liner in Virginia City because nobody knows how to make one and nobody knows enough to order it: one miniscule example of how authenticity gets lost.
Still, Virginia City does hold a special place in the heart and the history of the American West, and despite the increasing distance from the glory years, Virginia City's antic history can come to life in your imagination when you visit.
"Entering the main street," Browne wrote, "the saloons along the board sidewalks are glittering with their gaudy bars and fancy glasses, and many-colored liquors, and thirsty men are swilling burning poison: organ grinders are grinding their organs and torturing their consumptive monkeys; hurdy-gurdy girls are singing bacchanalian songs in bacchanalian dens. All is life, excitement,
avarice, lust, devilry, and enterprise."
Or just like a modern day Sunday in August (except for the hurdy-gurdy girls and the monkeys).
Today's C Street is still lined with thriving saloons - The Delta, which first opened its doors in 1863, and the lively Bucket of
Blood across the street are the biggest of them. Sadly, the celebrated Union Brewery is closed as we go to press.
The bar business isn't what it was in Virginia City, but you are never more than ten steps from a t-shirt. Souvenirs aside, Virginia City's shops do reflect the old city's variety. Jewelry, Indian goods, rock and mineral shops, clothing-it's an eclectic collection of shops and stores, and a long way from Rodeo Drive. But there are treasures among the t-shirts, and you'll enjoy browsing and windowshopping as you clomp along the wooden sidewalks.
Museums abound, and even though they are of uneven quality, there is something of interest in each of them. The Gambling Museum displays an eclectic collection of dicey artifacts; the Fourth Ward School at Virginia City's south end is a wonderful Victorian schoolhouse turned museum. The signatures of the Class of 1936 -- the last to graduate-still decorate the blackboard upstairs. The Way It Was Museum on the north side of town is devoted to the underground workings and the men and machinery that dug them.
You can tour the mines underground at the Chollar Mine, on South F Street near its junction with the Truck Route and at the Best & Belcher, accessible through a back room at the Ponderosa Saloon at the corner of C & Taylor Streets. And you can satisfy your curiosity about Virginia City and Nevada at Mark Twain Books and at the bookstore in the Gold Hill Hotel.
You can't walk ten steps without finding another snack to try, from fudge to ice cream to cherry cobbler. For something more substantial look for the Sawdust Corner with its extensive lunch menu next door to the Delta Saloon, and Julia Bulette across the street, with its million dollar view.
It's too bad so much is centered on C Street, though, if only because the steepness of the mountainside streets discourages people from exploring further, and much of Virginia City's character does not emerge from a single view. Many of the Victorian homes on the hill above town, dating back to the 1870s and 1880s, have been restored and stand in splendid fashion once again. B Street, next above C, is certainly worth a stroll. The Storey County Court House is a distinguished example of western Victorian public-building architecture, and visitors are encouraged to view the building which still houses the creaky machinery of county government. This building, like most of those now standing in Virginia City, was constructed after the great fire of 1875. It is distinguished not only by its impressive dimensions and spacious elegance, but by the statue of Justice above the main entrance gazing intently and without blindfold at her scales.
Chief among the attractions along this promenade is Piper's Opera House, once the leading theater on the lode. The opulent
International Hotel stood across the street from it (until it burned in 1914), making B and Union the toniest corner on the Comstock during the glory years. World famous actors, singers, musicians, and troupes played Piper's, and one of its impressarios was the young
David Belasco. Entertainers such as Michael Martin Murphey now attract audiences to the restored Opera House once again.
Next to Piper's stands a row of often-photographed buildings, including the Knights of Pythias Hall (still used by an active aerie of Eagles) and the Miner's Union Hall (occasionally serving as a theater for melodrama or as a dance hall). Continue south to The Castle, a magnificent mansion house with its original nabob furnishings intact, from French lace curtains to silver doorknobs, just as they were in the glory days.
Below C Street are attractions just as compelling. St. Mary's in the Mountains on E Street, and St. Paul's Episcopal Church
on F are both open to worshippers and casual visitors alike, and services are still conducted on Sundays, as they are in the old Presbyterian Church on south C Street. St. Mary's, rebuilt by Father (later Bishop) Patrick Manogue after the great fire of 1875, was restored a century later by the late Father Paul Mienecke. It is a structure of grace and eloquence, recognized as one of the finest remaining examples of western Victorian church architecture.
The large, rather forbidding brick building visible below the town is the former St. Mary's Hospital. Operated by an order of nuns until shortly before the turn of the century, it became the Storey County Hospital until it finally closed in the middle 1930s. Now, as St. Mary's Art Center, it houses an active summer arts program.
One of Virginia City's greatest attractions is the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, once the richest (and crookedest) short line in the world, now in the process of restoration and already operating a regular passenger schedule between Virginia City and Gold Hill from Memorial Day through October. Steam locomotives pull excursion cars between the depot car on F Street, and the Gold Hill depot, about two miles around the hill and through the tunnel.
Below town to the north are Virginia City's nine cemeteries. The burying grounds-and please don't call them Boot Hill, that's in Pioche, or Tombstone, Arizona-were once like gardens, a showplace of tree-shaded walks and carriageways between the elaborate enclosures, monuments and headstones. With the decline of the mines, the cemeteries fell into delapidation and disrepair along with the rest of the city.
They were rescued from abandonment by a team of convicts from the State Prison working under the direction of the pastor at St. Mary In The Mountains. The overwhelming majority of visitors to Virginia City pay a visit to the dead -- how can they resist? --and they put about $75 a week in the collection jars to support restoration.
Virginia City's playful spirit erupts in a number of civic celebrations over the course of the year. Some of these are town
parties where local folks celebrate their great good luck in living on the Comstock, and the public is invited. You'll find chili cook-offs, parades, cakewalks and frolics of every description, some scheduled and some spontaneous in this magnificent old city.
Buy the Book
A Service of NevadaWeb