“Even the devil would be homesick in Nevada.” ~ Mark Twain
Bonanza: a situation in which people quickly become very rich, successful, or lucky. ~ Macmillan Dictionary.
“I’ll have a bloody Mary to go please.” Did I hear that right? Cora and I were having lunch in a little Virginia City cafe when I overheard the customer at the counter ordering what my dear aunt Bonnie often referred to as “a traveller.” Sure enough the man left with a cocktail in a plastic cup – just like a frappuccino, only more fun. Take that Starbucks. Virginia City is indeed a unique and interesting little town.
Tucked in the Virginia Range of western Nevada’s Storey County, with Mount Davidson looming above is the little silver mining town of Virginia City. It’s a solitary little place, the nearest population centers being Carson City 16 miles to the southwest and Reno 26 miles northwest. As soon as you leave the town itself you’re in rugged country; hard, rocky and dry, patched with a tattered rug of sagebrush. In an apparent afterthought, nature threw in a few pine trees for variety.
But a close look past the first impression of parched, flinty isolation reveals a unique beauty. The cliffs and crags don’t limit themselves to the monotony of browns and grays but often radiate reddish and mahogany tones splashed with the bright yellow of blooming sagebrush. At sunrise the hills and bluffs gleam with the golds and yellows of the new day.
The Virginia Range supports life beyond sagebrush and pines. One can usually spot a flitting jack rabbit or a grazing band of wild horses. Bighorn sheep are more reclusive animals. Coyotes while not always seen can be heard howling and yapping in the early morning hours. (During our most recent trip, Cora had a touching close encounter with a wild horse documented in the post A Mustang Moment)).
In 1859 the area was even more desolate. Carson City had just been founded the year before and Reno was ten years in the future. So why would anybody have a notion of establishing a town in such a lonely, desolate place? Money. Isn’t that always the case?
As early as ten years before, some miners had been futilely seeking their fortunes placer mining in the streams of nearby and misnamed Gold Canyon. Turns out that those miners had been prospecting in the wrong place. Just a few miles from their meager diggings was one of the richest veins of silver in history.
Everything changed in 1859 when two immigrants, James McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley discovered silver at a location that would become the little town of Gold Hill, just downslope and south of present day Virginia City. In short order the two were swindled out of their claim by a fast talking miner named Henry Comstock who made his own claim that the discovery was on his property. Comstock later sold his interest in the claim for thousands of dollars that he managed to fritter away over the course of 12 years. Destitute, he would later commit suicide in Montana. His name would live on, as the huge body of gold and silver in the Virginia Range would be known forever as the Comstock Lode. His namesake treasure would later lend its name to casinos, streets, restaurants and all manner of buildings and businesses scattered throughout the State of Nevada.
Shortly after the initial discovery an assay of the Comstock mud revealed the enormity of riches buried in that desolate place. Those present at the assay swore an oath of secrecy, hoping to keep the fortune to themselves. Well, we know how those kinds of oaths hold up and so, shortly after the secret was consummated it was leaked and the world was on its way to western Nevada.
A year after the discovery a tent city sprung up and two years after that a full fledged city emerged with brick buildings and all the businesses and services needed for a booming town.
It’s a well known fact that the mere mention of money can turn the most comatose, disjointed body of politicians into a dynamic, single minded unit hell bent on acquisition. To that end Nevada was granted statehood five years after the discovery of the Comstock Lode.
1873 saw the discovery of an even bigger lode of gold and silver that became known as the Big Bonanza, a strike that would produce over 181 billion dollars (in current value) worth of precious metals. By the mid 1870’s the population of Virginia City and Gold Hill had bloomed to 25,000, many of them immigrants from throughout the world.
During its boom years Virginia CIty was the archetypal frontier town. It was a violent place, notorious for saloons, dance halls, gambling dens, breweries, riots, murders and political corruption. In 1873 Virginia City was home to 115 saloons and 200 “ladies of easy virtue.”
Years after a short stint as a local reporter a young, soon to be famous author described Virginia City as “no place for a Presbyterian,” adding, “And I did not remain one very long.”
The young reporter had journeyed to Nevada to try his luck prospecting. Like most other miners he failed and in need of money took up reporting for the Territorial Enterprise. His first article appeared on July 17th, 1862. A few months later he adopted his pen name, Mark Twain. It was in Virginia City that Samuel Clemens cut his teeth as a young writer. Two views of The Territorial Enterprise office. Above as shot. Below, edited in monochrome.
Virginia City’s main drag is C street, a melding of history, the Old West and a motherlode of kitsch. And there are saloons; plenty of those, although nowhere near the 115 that served the city in its heyday. Some of the saloons are of the touristy nature but there are a couple that seem to be reserved by custom as hangouts for the locals. Those are the ones that open early in the morning and serve the grizzled old boys in faded and stained ball caps; veterans of life in the hardscrabble, who complain about liberals and pantywaists while they sip bloody Marys, screwdrivers and coffee spiked with various potables. The ones with more gravel in their guts go straight for an early morning “pick me up” of Old Crow with a PBR back. My reaction is always a perverse yearning to join them. I don’t of course; I’d be the outsider, the urban interloper engaging in a touristy intrusion.
One of the more interesting saloons is/was the Delta saloon famous for the Suicide Table and most recently in March of this year for, well, blowing up. Seems that a gas leak was ignited and the place exploded. Luckily there were no casualties but for the damage done to the saloon and the wallet of the proprietor. The saloon is closed until repairs have been completed. The Suicide Table survived the explosion and can now be seen at the Bonanza Saloon.
The Suicide Table is a faro bank table that dates back to the 1860’s (Faro is a card game popular in the mining towns. For an explanation of the game follow the link). According to either fact, legend, outright bullshit or most likely a combination of the three, the table was responsible for the deaths of three of the saloon’s owners.
The first was a fellow known as Black Jake who, after losing $70,000 put a pistol to his head. The second casualty is unnamed. The story goes that he couldn’t cover his losses and either did himself in or was treated to a Wild West/Virginia City version of “swimming with the fishes.” The third victim came by way of a lucky miner who purportedly won $86,000, a team of horses and interest in a mine. That apparently represented all of the saloon keeper’s worldly possessions and the story goes that he bailed out of this world looking for solace in the next.
Some of the saloons serve up food or music or both. The music is lively but you best go in expecting to hear one of two genres, Country or Western. The food? Well, it’s good for soaking up the alcohol. If you want to do a little gambling while you drink, something that I don’t recommend, then your option is the Mark Twain Casino. It’s got that charming divey feel about it and offers gaming machines only.
If there’s one thing annoying about mines its that they typically have a short shelf life. By the 1880’s the shelf life of the Storey County mines had reached their expiration date; they were played out. The party was over and the lights were going out. By the 1930 census only 700 residents remained in the entire county and Virginia City was physically crumbling.
It took a newfangled bonanza to revive Virginia City; the tourist industry. It started with a 1949 film, Virginia City, starring Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart. Books regaling the legend and rowdy history of the silver boom spurred historical interest in the area and East Coast financiers injected monetary interest. But by far the biggest bonanza of all would come as a result of a television show named – Bonanza.
In 1959 NBC debuted Bonanza, a western set in the 1860’s in the Virginia City/Lake Tahoe area. In the 1950’s and 60’s the western genre was going through its own boom and Bonanza’s frequent mention of Virginia City spurred new enthusiasm among preservationists and tourists.
Most westerns of the time were of the shoot em up variety but Bonanza was a horse of a different color. It was a sort of a cross between soap opera and horse opera. While there were gunfights aplenty Bonanza also included dramas about relationships and moral dilemmas encountered by the protagonists, thrice widowed Ben Cartwright and his sons Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe. Ben was a rich fellow, his ranch spanning a thousand square miles. I never could figure out what it was that they did for work. Once in a while they spent a few moments mending a fence or leading a horse to water but most of their time was spent sorting out the melodrama du jour.
Oftentimes the men went to Virginia City to meet with old Sheriff Roy Coffee or to do some banking. They might wet their whistles in the saloon where a kerfuffle might ensue with an out of town ne’er do well. What they NEVER did was consort with any of Virginia City’s 200 loose consorts. In sixties television fallen women were a taboo subject. As a result of Virginia City’s newfound fame the town was re-energized and given a face lift through renovation and preservation.
Virginia City has all of the kitchy ingredients of the typical western town. Along with the saloons, all of the required ingredients in the recipe for a wild west tourist town are included. There are the candy shops that offer barrels of salt water taffy and the de reguer old timey candies; candied apples, candy sticks, brittles and hard candies in flavors that make millennials scratch their heads – flavors like horehound and sarsaparilla. They also sell the retro goodies of my childhood; Turkish Taffy, Charleston Chews, jawbreakers and the widely frowned upon candy cigarettes. Grandma’s Fudge Factory makes out of this world real fudge that can be ordered online (I tried some samples and it is fabulous).
A stroll along the boardwalk (a boardwalk is essential to a wild west town) finds western wear shops, a hat shop, an old time photograph shop where you can have your picture taken in 19th century garb, antique shops, a general store, an all year Christmas shop and a bounty of souvenir shops. While silver is no longer to be found in the ground it can be found in a number of shops specializing in silver, turquoise and Native American jewelry. My guess is that your mileage may vary when it comes to quality and authenticity.
In a nod to old west ambience you can occasionally spot reenactors strolling around town. During our last stay we saw a western lawman wearing a holstered hogs leg revolver chatting with three fellows in Confederate garb. Those Confederates represented legend, wishful thinking or a bit of both rather than authentic history.
Nevada’s admission to the union in 1864 was spurred on by Union sympathizers prospecting for war funding from the Comstock Lode. With Union soldiers on garrison duty any overt sympathy towards the Confederacy (such as uniforms) was rewarded with a stay in the stoney lonesome of a Union stockade.
To add a little mining flavor there’s an old boy roaming the streets dressed in red long johns and a slouch hat. With a full white beard he looks a bit like a scruffy Santa Claus in a union suit. He walks the length of C Street dragging around a poor white mule burdened with mining gear. What this miner is prospecting for doesn’t come out of the ground but rather out of the purses of tourists.
Besides the mining implements the mule carries a sign inviting visitors to feed him a carrot for the price of one dollar. Photos also require a donation. If you don’t want to feed the mule or take a photo the mule also carries a wooden tip box. My guess is the miner and his mule are independent entrepreneurs rather than official city emissaries. Occasionally the miner sports what looks suspiciously like a pair of Ray-Bans, an accessory that squashes the whole 19th century ambience.
Apart from the campy attractions there is plenty of history to be found in Virginia City. It’s a mining town so take a mine tour. There are two; the Chollar Mine and the Best & Belcher mine that starts from the Ponderosa Saloon. We took the latter tour, an interesting 25 minute descent into a mine that adjoins the rear of the saloon. Some of the whiners on Tripadvisor complain about bumping their heads. So here’s a heads up to keep your head down; it’s a mine not a cathedral. The tour guide will give you a helmet and a warning so if you get an owie on your noggin’ it’s on you.
There’s a steam train that takes you through the rugged countryside, past some of the Comstock mine sites to the old town of Gold Hill. In Gold Hill you can see the wood and sheetmetal remnants of abandoned mines and some of the little town’s old buildings, among them the still running Gold Hill Hotel. A longer trip will take you to Carson City where bordellos are still in full flourish. You can get off at either of the two towns, look around and then take a later train back.
Two historic churches, St. Mary in the Mountains and St. Paul the Prospector Episcopal Church, sit next to each other and dominate the Virginia City skyline. Another church, the First Presbyterian on the main drag is the oldest church in Virginia City. The Fourth Ward School building and the Mackay Mansion both house museums. For me though the most fascinating historic site is the Silver Terrace Cemetery, a subject for a future Cities of the Dead post.
Virginia City is part of the lore and allure of the American West. The American West is a place, one that can be anywhere from St. Louis, Missouri to the Pacific. The American West can be a time, from Lewis and Clark’s expedition into what was then the Louisiana Territory to the present. Yet to relegate it to places in time or on a map is to cut away and discard the meat of the story.
More than a time and place the American West is a collection of stories; of pioneers, of discovery, bravery, individualism, adventure, democracy, perseverance, and egalitarianism. But the anthology of the American West also contains stories of violence, greed, corruption, genocide, land grabbing, environmental depredations and unyielding jingoism; narratives that many Americans refuse to acknowledge.
The story of the American West is a unique chapter in world history. It’s a singular one that’s long captivated the world. Before the dawn of the internet many visitors from around the world were enthralled by the notion of visiting America and arriving into a scene from a Clint Eastwood western.
The American West has fascinated me since I was a kid. I’m sure it started with the nightly horse operas and western movies that used to dominate film entertainment. That early fascination led to books, research and college classes that separated fact from fiction.
That the American West still captures the imagination was made clear to me one Saturday evening as the sun was setting behind Mount Davidson. I was taking pictures at Virginia City’s old cemetery when I met a man and his daughter who were also touring the old yard. He was a guy about my age with an accent that identified him as a New Englander. As one, the three of us happened to spot a wild horse grazing on sagebrush while standing astride of a leaning old tombstone.
“Look at that,” he said. “This is history, this is what I grew up on.” I asked him where he was from and he told me that he was visiting from the East Coast.
“You have a lot of history back home that dates farther back,” I said.
His daughter started to agree but the man broke in, “No. this is different. This is boot hill. This is the wild west. I used to see this on TV every night with my family. This is like a dream.”
We stood quietly for a moment and then I noticed the gnarled, sun bleached skeleton of a tree silhouetted against the blue sky. I took out my camera and kneeled for a shot of the tree. When I’d finished the man and his daughter had moved on to bask a little longer in the lore of the American West.