Sunset over the Sierra
For nine decades now the Comstock has been an integral part of the legend of the American West. For nearly half of this period it was a produce of wealth in one of the most tangible of its many forms and for the other half of its inhabited and exploited existence it has been a romantic fragment of the national history of the land. It has inspired a wealth of lore and literature to the extent of a very considerable bibliography of serious books and has served as a background for a good deal of fiction which never surpassed the actual recorded fact. It has occupied space in the American consciousness out of all proportion to its geographic size or population. Even today it advertises itself to the tourist trade as “the livest ghost town in the world” and there is a surprising degree of truth in this brash boast.
The shrinking violet could never with any plausibility be selected as the official flower of the State of Nevada.
Where the bonanza kings left off on the Comstock the literary lions took over. The legend of the Lode is as completely irresistible to writers as ever the original “blue stuff” was to James Finney or Pat McLaughlin, and its various aspects have engaged such first-rate men of letters as Oscar Lewis, Eliot Lord, Samuel Bowles, Sam Davis and Wells Drury. Even the Virginia & Truckee Railroad is the subject of a very respectable bibliography and the learned treatises on the mining of Comstock are beyond accurate counting.
Surprisingly enough, however, the Carson River, or Carson Water as it is known in the stately old phrase, has never come in for its share of romantic treatment although it is one of the most romantic little rivers in the world. Probably the fact that it is not navigable and that no vast civilizations were ever borne upon its tides has led to this neglect, but Carson Water made possible a great and spectacular productivity as ever floated upon the Mystic, the Ohio or the Colorado. Without it the milling of the Comstock ores would have been impossible by any process known to the nineteenth century and the necessity for transporting ore over vast distances to mills in other parts of the land would have been incalculably costly.
The Carson is well worth the attention of a curious and enquiring generation. A remote and lonely stream, it rises in the foothills of the High Sierra, flows briefly north and east to its appointments with destiny and disappears ingloriously into the Sink of Carson without every knowing the sea which is the objective of almost all respectable and conventional rivers. In spring it is a rushing torrent that inundates vast meadows and downloads around Minden and Gardnerville. By midsummer it is a placid meander whose pools and backwater entice the judicious picnicker and occasional crayfisherman in the neighborhood of Empire and Dayton. In winter it is a gelid streamlet impervious alike to the devisings of mankind or the zephyrs of Washoe. Always it is a lonely and often a beautiful little river winding its way to a lonely and geologically improbable end.
But once it was a river of mighty consequence. When its stamping mills and reducing plants stretched for miles above the Carson City and Empire its waters were carefully husbanded and used over and over again by the successive mills along its banks. Its existence was the basic fact that lay behind the construction of the railroad. Its presence made possible all the operations of the far-reaching and consequential Comstock. It was a river of humble origins and appearance but of weighty importance in the affairs of men. The locomotives of the V & T prowled beside the river on a vast network of spurs and sidings, but today little remains save an occasional cement foundation or vast and ruined machinery sprawling like the skeletons of prehistoric monsters in a wilderness of vines and scrub trees.
There are other pleasant places to explore around the Comstock. Few persons other than native Nevadans know that the Geiger Grade on which they approach Virginia City from the main highway at Steamboat Springs is not the original Geiger over which the stages of Wells Fargo toiled with their treasure until the coming of the railroad is still available to traffic a few thousand feet from the surfaced grade and is an infinitely more picturesque and exciting drive.
Then there is Six Mile Canyon which leads by a precipitous and craggy route down to Sutro past the ruins of a score of once tremendous and vibrant reducing plants and stamp mills. As lately as 1904 the great Butters reducing plant was built to employ 300 workers in Six Mile, but all that remains today is a heap of ruined masonry, mute testimonial to unjustified optimism. And there are agreeable and exploratory drives to be made to Jumbo and Como, but they are not strictly speaking a part of the Comstock.
The years of the Second World War were bleak ones for the Comstock. The V & T had misguidedly torn up its tracks between Carson and Virginia and the rationing of gasoline eliminated the tourist trade almost in its entirety. For lack of repairs whole blocks of buildings in the lower town collapsed and disappeared, their structural economy having been sawed up into firewood. Mining was prohibited by the government and without mining or tourists and with a diminishing supply of liquor Virginia City was in a bad case.
Now, however, the Comstock is enjoying the sort of boom it dreamed of during the dark days. Interest in its historic aspects becomes greater with each passing year and the presence of small but distinguished literary colony adds impressively to the town’s prestige. Its literary lights include Roger Butterfield, author of “The American Past”; Duncan Emrich, assistant librarian of Congress for American folklore; Walter can Tilburg Clark, whose “Oxbow Incident” and “Track of the Cat” have been national best sellers; and Irene Bruch, a lady poetess in the best bohemian tradition of the craft. If this were not distinction enough for a community of 400 persons, Doctor Emrich’s wife is author of a number of well known juvenile books and Katharine Hillyer and Katherine Best are magazine writers of national fame. The Reno Chamber of Commerce, which takes a proprietary interest in all the adjacent countryside, never misses an opportunity to point with pride to Nevada’s mining town culture.
A number of the town’s most famous structures were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1875 and most of its architecture today dates from that and succeeding years. Most notable of the post-conflagration landmarks is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Mary’s in the Mountains whose original was among the losses that dark day in October ’75. John Mackay was frantically engaged with his own workmen in saving the lower workings of his Consolidated Virginia Mine when news was brought to him that St. Mary’s was gone. In the gloom and excitement of the moment Mackey promised to “rebuild twenty churches” if his mine was saved and he later handsomely lived up to his promise, although a single edifice seemed sufficient for the religious needs of the community.
Perhaps the most apparent and certainly the most animated indication of the Comstock’s new lease on life and on the bonanzas of tourism is the reactivation of the celebrated newspaper The Territorial Enterprise, which, after thirty-six years of suspension, was revived as one of the authentic properties of the Old West by former New Yorkers Charles Clegg and Lucius Beebe, now residents in Virginia City and described by Stewart Holbrook as “Nevada’s peerless ambassadors to less favored parts of the world.”
The title and good will, such as it was, of what had once been the most famous of all frontier newspapers, was a latent asset through a succession of abandonments and mergers of the feeble and faltering Virginia City News. The new tycoons of newspaper row purchased the News with a circulation of fewer than 200, reverted to the historic name and style of The Territorial Enterprise, and set about relocating Virginia City on the map. Removing from a job printer in Sparks, a suburb of Reno, they erected a handsome modern printing shop in the rear of the still standing Territorial Enterprise Building at 24 South C Street to which the paper had moved in 1863. The Enterprise Building is actually the property of Roy (“Buffalo Bill”) Shetler, who maintains it as a Mark Twain Museum, and the editorial and business offices of today’s newspaper occupy rented space there while printing its editions in an annex invisible from C Street.
The new owners set about recasting The Territorial Enterprise not so much in its original format as in a style a good deal more atmospheric than it had possessed in the days when Joe Goodman and Dennis McCarthy were the primal movers of its destinies. All its headlines, standing and departmental heads, and much of its advertising are hand set in rare and beautiful fonts of Victorian elegance, many of them museum pieces, while its actual contents are the up to the minute or at least up to yesterday’s news of Nevada and the West generally. From a limping 200 and nineteenth place among Nevada weeklies, with no twentieth, The Enterprise in less than three years came to be, by Audit Bureau of Circulation’s rating, the largest weekly newspaper in nine Western states including, naturally, Nevada. With a circulation in excess of ten times the population of Storey County in which it is published, it has climbed from four slim pages of local news to twenty and twenty-four pages of costly national advertising and to the position it occupied of old as the free-wheeling wonderment of the Western World.
Its present editors are scarcely more inhibited than was the redheaded young man named Samuel Langhorne Clemens who, as a member of The Enterprise staff in 1864, started signing his stories with the byline Mark Twain. Possessed of a genius for chaos, they enjoy nothing so much as the controversy of “hey, rube” proportions, and as a result The Enterprise has occupied a great deal of space in the national prints, to the ultimate enrichment of Virginia City itself.
While it may be remarked parenthetically that a ponderable number of Comstockers have no slightest notion of what The Enterprise is all about, they have no least hesitation in pocketing the tourist dollars it attracts to C Street, and subscribers of discernment in Boston, Houston, Baltimore, and Paris enjoy the continuity it establishes with the great days and the riding years of the Old West.
An indication of Virginia City’s awareness of its ever crescent value as one of the last valid repositories of the Old West, both in spirit and in concrete being, is the recently enacted regulation aimed to preserve the façade and architecture of the center of the business community in and around C Street formally known as “Virginia Old Town.” The legislation, similar to that which protects the historic properties of Paris and the Vieux Carré in New Orleans, prohibits alteration of existing buildings or the erection of new structures until the architecture involved has been approved of by a board of qualified experts in the field of Western atmosphere.
The threat of invasion by hamburger stands, motels, drive-ins, and filling stations of moderne aspect provoked the notoriously cantankerous and uncooperative Comstockers to a concert of action altogether unprecedented in the community’s annals in modern times.
Amateurs of the American past and of the old West see in Virginia City one of the few remaining examples of the hell and high waters days of the frontier and the individualist. There are vestigial remnants of the nineteenth century elsewhere in the land, notably Central City and Leadville in Colorado; Tombstone, Arizona; Columbia in the Mother Lode; and the other Virginia City, that one in Montana. None of these however seem to retain the ancient flavor of character at once raffish and sophisticated that abides in the Comstock. The great days may be irrevocably gone but those which have followed them in Nevada are still sufficiently spacious to serves as a reminder of a notable manner of life patterned in the American way.