Virginia City: One Hot Lode

Imagine a ghost town with people still in it and voila! Virginia City.

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Typical street scene in Virginia City, NV.

Wander into the High Desert of western Nevada and it’s amazing that anybody would 1) found a town there that 2) survived. I am all for the grand, airily vast vistas and desolate beauty, but “desolate” doesn’t quite cover it. The High Desert is, after all, high and a desert. It’s empty, it’s bone-dry, it’s a wonder anything takes root aside from a tumbleweed.

And that’s where the Comstock Lode comes in. Before it, Nevada wasn’t even a state, it was part of Utah, and something you had to suffer through on the way to California from the Great Plains. But the game plan tends to change with news of the one of the biggest silver strikes in history.

Cowboys and Indians get the usual credit for creating the Old West, but miners, too, have their place in the story. Silver, and a lot of it, was found on a hillside in the Virginia Mountains in 1857, and that’s when everything happened. Carson City rose in 1858, Reno followed in 1868, the Nevada Territory incorporated in 1861, and literally RIGHT OVER the Comstock Lode site was Virginia City. And what had been cluster of rude houses and holes in the ground was by 1859 the center of the universe, hostile environment be damned.

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The Mackays were one of the many Virginia City millionaires whose fortunes were made on the Comstock Lode.

Virginia City was a classic boomtown. The population reached 25,000 within months. A railroad was built, hauling tons of silver from the mines to Carson City and the world. Along with miners came prospectors, inventors, gamblers, bankers, merchants, industrialists, madams, businessmen, brewers, a few put-upon ministers, even an intrepid newspaper reporter named Samuel Clemens who was just then fiddling with the idea Mark Twain as a pen name. President Ulysses S. Grant visited. The Piper Opera House pulled in divas and maestros from New York and Europe. There was even a Millionaires Club, but you had to be one to get in.

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Still new at the writing thing, Mark Twain wetted his appetite for colorful characters in Virginia City’s heyday as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper.

Landowners had no compulsions against opening mines directly in town; some buildings had elevators to the shafts in the front room, while the backs of others literally open into the tunnels. So much silver poured wholesale out of “VC” that Nevada is still referred to as the Silver State and went a long way in separating the territory from Utah and financing the Civil War (on the Union side).

But as it is with a lot of boomtowns, the boom ends. The mines dry up. 1874 is the official end-date, but ironically, the Comstock never exactly petered out. The silver (and gold) veins are still there, but so is the scalding hot water table. Miners could only go so deep, in conditions that were already unregulated, hellish, and outright deadly even without the threat of being boiled alive. Small-scale mining carries on today in Virginia City with strict health and safety standards, but modern technology can only go so far against geology. The holes are just too damn hot. And don’t make that dirty.

That mustangs occasionally wander through town suggests the party is over, but that doesn’t mean Virginia City died. The town, a 20-minute drive from downtown Reno, is very much alive. And one hell of a time-warp.

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One of the old mines just outside downtown Virginia City. And it still produces!

Take away the power lines and the main drag of town, and most of the minor ones, look exactly as they did in the late 1870s. Walking down the boardwalks (AKA, the sidewalks), of C Street (said-main drag) was a case-in-point that I was born far too late; when there is a saloon called — no lie — the Bucket of Blood, this was clearly my kinda town. Saloons, in fact, line C Street end to end. Not a surprise for a town full of miners. And as an FYI, the Bucket of Blood still serves up the firewater just as it did in the day.

Virginia City revels in its old-town feel, helped in no small part by all the ruins of the past strewn all over town. Instead dismantling all the mining infrastructure, the silver barons left it, all of it, en situ. It was cheaper to abandon it than carry it off. Even better, the dry desert climate preserved all the mills, sluices, wagons, coaling stations, water tanks, even an old donkey engine tractor, a type of steam tractor, that would have rusted or rotted away with the passage of the elements.

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Memories of the past are next to the sidewalk in Virginia City.

It’s also a showcase of American quirkiness. Ghost tours! Cowboy poetry slams! Steampunk balls! World championship outhouse races! Thirty minutes from downtown Reno, I thought Virginia City was something of a day-trip, but and came away with the knowledge it is destination all on its own. Victorian architectural showcases aside, VC has plenty of hotels (the old-school Silver Queen and the Gold Hill are just two), plenty of eateries (including the Mustang Steakhouse, run by the famous Mustang Ranch brothel outside Reno), and plenty to do. All those saloons make for a pub crawl for the ages, but the town’s calendar of events always has something a tad more vanilla on tap; I, for one, want to find out what the hell an outhouse race involves.

I mean, what happens if there’s a crash?

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An old…”something” in Virginia City. Maybe an ore chute?
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