This is mining country. One hundred and sixty years ago people came from around the world prospecting for riches from the earth – silver, tons of it, millions of dollars worth, lay beneath the rolling Virginia Range. The mines, except for the ones that are open for tours are all shut down but the lure of mining still attracts people from around the world. It isn’t the ore, it’s the lore; of history and frontier America. Within the city limits of Virginia City there are two mines that offer tours; interesting and informative.
For a feel of history untarnished a two or three minute drive south of Virginia City brings you to Gold Hill. Gold Hill was never touched by the celluloid fame of movies and television like Virginia City so the tourists have more or less just blown it off. While Virginia City is full of history, a walk down C Street still feels like a walk through Disneyland’s Frontierland. Standing on C Street in front of the year round Christmas store sipping on your walkaway bloody Mary you can try and get the feel of a 19th century mining town but no matter how much vodka you’ve absorbed the place won’t let you fully absorb 1800’s America. Not Gold Hill though. Gold Hill feels old, a place lost in another place that doesn’t necessarily want to catch up. No souvenir shops, no cocktails to go and no staged gunfights.
Don’t expect anything breathtaking in Gold Hill. Gold Hill requires the visitor to put in the effort to take in its aura. If you want to be force fed history go back to Virginia City. If you want to meditate on the past and feel it then drop in on Gold Hill. Find a place to park and walk past the old brick post office and then follow the slope from the old Gold Hill Hotel. Just beyond the hotel you run into the remnants of the Yellow Jacket Mine. Further up is the headframe of the New Yellow Jacket mine that was dug in 1876 to an eventual depth of 3,000 feet. Here in the company of a band of wild horses you can spirit yourself away to 19th century Nevada without the distractions of t-shirt shops and the Trump-O- Mobile just up the hill.
The Yellow Jacket Mine, named after a nearby hive, is notorious in local history. The new shaft was preceded by the original, downslope and located just behind the Gold Hill Hotel. On April 8th, 1869 a fire broke out at the 800 foot level killing at least 35 miners (31 bodies were recovered). According to an article in the Journal of the Mining History Association, “The degree of devastation at the Yellow Jacket eliminated any hope of determining what exactly caused the fire.” The theory is that the fire was started by a burning candle.
“Whatever the cause, all agreed that the fire must have worked its way unnoticed along support timbers for quite a while. This occurred during the early morning hours when the graveyard shift was finishing its work. Since there were fewer miners during the late night shift, not as many lives were at risk as would have been the case during the middle of the day, but there was also no one around to notice or extinguish the fire as it progressed. The flames devoured wood and oxygen, creating a large pocket of smoke-filled, foul air. The timbers held on until the shift change, when, at approximately 7:00 a.m., the weakened supports together with masses of rock collapsed into the drifts of the 800-foot level, flushing the poisonous fumes into the adjacent works like a lethal storm. Survivors said they heard what sounded like a gust of wind that instantly extinguished candles. They were the lucky few with first-hand accounts or the incident, having escaped to shafts or finding themselves far enough away to survive.” (Source. Journal of the Mining History Association).
Most of the deceased miners hailed from the British Isles, ten from Ireland and twelve from Cornwall. The average age was just over 30. At least four bodies were never recovered. This has of course spawned legends of spirits haunting the area, including the allegedly haunted room (a cottage actually) at the Gold Hill Hotel called The Miner’s Cabin. The cabin is located adjacent to the remains of the headframe of the Yellow Jacket Mine.
Below: Two views of an abandoned mine headframe and building above Gold Hill.
This is still mining country. Only now it’s the locals prospecting for riches from credit card accounts – American Excess. Excess it is. An excess of t-shirts, silver jewelry (some good, some trash) and the usual old west touristy baubles including toy guns and candy cigarettes; the forbidden fruit that suburban America insists will turn out a generation of chain smoking assassins.
“God, Guts and Guns made America great”
This is God, guts and guns country. “God, guts and guns made America great:” the conservative mantra that might likely be the town’s own motto – officially or informally. Virginia City is patriotic to the hilt; a patriotism of the conservative variety. Nevada may have had a 30 year Democratic Senator in Harry Reid but a meeting of the Harry Reid fanclub in Virginia City must have been a lonely place to be.
Guns are no small deal in Nevada. It’s the 9th ranked state in gun ownership per capita. It’s where Californians go to try and circumvent their state’s strict gun laws. Depending on which way you lean that’s either an argument for standardized national gun laws or proof that California’s gun laws are toothless. It seems that the most popular accessory for a motor vehicle next to a required license plate is an NRA/2nd Amendment decal, not required but likely encouraged. During out last visit most of the shops we visited posted signs for a local raffle in which the first prize was a weapon of some sort.
Virginia City’s history and very founding is based in no small measure on the notion of guts and so called American individualism. No doubt it took some testicular fortitude to strike out for Virginia City in order to strike it rich. The ground was fraught with silver but the job of getting it out was fraught with danger. The heritage of frontier guts is one held dear to the heart of this town; if not to the town’s soul then to it’s wallet because out here the economic life blood is tourism looking for a taste of the old west.
The God part? Wherever you have guns, guts and conservatism God usually gets dragged along for the ride regardless of what he/she feels about it all. Just half block away from St. Mary of the Mountains Church I saw a house adorned with a big neon cross, a few American flags and an outsized Trump 2020 sign. In Virginia City Trumpiness is next to Godliness.
It’s mining country, God guts and guns country and without a doubt its Trump country. Once you cross the town limits Trump 2020 signs are visible from here to Sunday (pun intended). Trump flags, caps, signs and buttons. Businesses are unabashed in their reverence for the Don. MAGA baby. If you visit leave your Obama cap in the car and if your name happens to be Pelosi or Clinton figure on assuming a temporary alias.
We visited Virginia City in the summer of 2016 and found out just how MAGA Virginia City could be. Not only was the town festooned with Trump signs, the shopkeepers of the Virginia City Mercantile made no bones about their hatred for Obama. They had all the paraphernalia, right down to the Obama toilet paper.
During our last visit this October past the Trump-O-mobile did a regular drive by every half hour or so along C Street, the main and only drag of any note. I never got a real clear look at it. Looked like a pickup truck festooned with Trump 2020 banners and signs, most of them in red, white and blue. Like a huey helicopter, you hear it before you see it. It plays a loop of Lee Greenwood singing God Bless the U.S.A. (aka Proud to be an American). The song has become a sort of conservative anthem especially when election day approaches. If I had to drive around listening incessantly to that song for an entire afternoon I’d go batshit.
I never have liked that song and not because of its subject matter or its current following although I don’t like the rabid nationalism that it’s inspired lately. Deal is, I’m a country music fan; dyed in the denim country music fan. I have all the accoutrements; boots, whiskey, beer, an occasionally broken heart, a couple Stetsons, an old pickup and a hunting dog (being at heart a bleeding heart I don’t hunt). From the start I thought Greenwood and his song were perversions of country music – Perry Como with a pedal steel and a flag. I’ll take Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Willie and Waylon Throw in some Cash too and you can keep the change.
I have some friends who would tell me that I should boycott Virginia City. To what end? If I boycott everything that doesn’t fit completely in my political silo then I might just as well give up movies, TV, music, sports and trips to any state below the Mason-Dixon line. With the exception of Walmart, Nike and major sporting events in countries with repressive regimes I’m kind of over that whole boycotting gig. We need to find better ways to settle our differences. To be brutally honest, I don’t think that places like Virginia City can be San Francisco liberal and maintain the frontier character.
Roos Brothers Clothier
It was during our last trip to Virginia City that I looked up at one of the brick buildings and was thrilled to see, Roos Bro’s in fading block letters. I have a little personal history with The Roos Brothers’ Clothing Store. Originally from France the Roos Brother’s Adolphe, Hyppolite and Achille were early merchants in the booming west. In 1864 Adolphe and Hyppolite opened a successful clothing store on Kearny Street in San Francisco. By the 1880’s with the prosperity of their clothing business Adolphe and his son Robert had become major players in the San Francisco social scene.
Meanwhile, in response to the silver boom the brothers had opened a store in Virginia City managed by Hyppolite Roos. The Virginia City store rode out the boom but not the bust and subsequently closed, but a building on C street retains the name.
In California the Roos Brothers business continued to prosper and by the early 1900’s under Robert’s management the company had two stores in San Francisco and Berkeley and one each in Oakland, Palo Alto, San Jose, and Fresno.
In 1957 Roos merged with another clothier, Robert Atkins to become Roos-Atkins. Roos-Atkins opened a store in the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo where I grew up. It was not only the place to buy upscale clothes it was also home to a box office in the store’s basement. If you wanted tickets to a sporting event or concert Roos-Atkins was the place to go. There was no Ticket Master, no phone in ticket sales and no virtual box office sending tickets to the phone in your pocket.
A crystal clear childhood memory is of tagging along with mom to Roos-Atkins to buy tickets to the San Francisco Giants. Mom would check the schedule for a good pitching matchup and then select our seats from a seating chart. Once she was satisfied she paid with cash or a check and was handed real paper tickets in a little envelope.
For years and into my adulthood Roos-Atkins was always the place to go when I needed new slacks, a dress shirt or a tie. Roos-Atkins was where I shopped for nice clothes for Cora during the early years of our marriage. By the 1990’s though, the last Roos-Atkins was shuttered.
It’s been thirty years or more since I’d last given even a passing thought to that old clothier. I’d never realized it’s rich pioneer history until I looked up at that old building 200 miles from where I used to go with mom for baseball tickets and later in life shop for Christmas gifts for my wife.
I imagine that during one of our next trips to the Reno area we’ll visit Virginia City again but that won’t be until the spring at the earliest. Pretty soon the snows will be coming to that little mining town and I don’t do snow. There’s still some history to explore and I do have some perverse attraction to the touristy corniness.
A few photos closes out the final chapter of The Virginia City Diaries.
Below, some views of the two most prominent buildings in the town, St. Mary in the Mountains and St. Paul the Prospector.
Above and below: You can still get a beer at the Union Brewery.
We visited in October. With the approach of Halloween and autumn the store windows were decorated appropriately.