Fleshpots

It was one of the traditions of the American West that the de luxe devisings of life began to arrive in its mining camps almost as soon as the first prospectors had staked and recorded their claims.  No sooner had he struck it really rich in the Matchless over in Colorado’s Leadville than Horace W. Tabor, owner of everything in sight, told the proprietor of the Saddle Rock Café that he had better send to Delmonico’s in New York for a chef worthy of his august clientele.  In Central City the owner of the Teller House was in the habit of giving elaborate banquets with desserts representing his hostelry illuminated by cunning arrangements of gas lamps inside.  In Nevada’s later years Tonopah had an opera house and Goldfield an authentic French restaurant with Chicago prices‑plus, almost before the first mine hoists were in operation.  The California characters in Bret Harte spent an appreciable portion of their time eating Eastern oysters and drinking champagne out of magnums.

Virginia City was no exception to the rule of grande lux.  Before there was so much as a board building in camp there was a reasonable choice of tent saloons and beer stoops literally excavated out of the side of Sun Mountain.  The first brick building in town at the center of A and Sutter streets was occupied by Wells Fargo & Co. and Charlie Sturm’s Express Bar.  Sturm had earlier occupied a tent saloon and had provided the flagon of whiskey with which “Old Virginny” had christened Virginia City, so who had a better right to the patronage of first citizens and pioneers?  Penrod, Comstock & Co., for a time the first nabobs of the Comstock Lode, promised Sturm their exclusive patronage, a gesture calculated to guarantee him against any possibility of slack business.  They also held their business meetings in the Express Bar.

A few years later, by the time Virginia City had become the howling wonder of the Western hemisphere and was being populated with its first crop of millionaires, the saloons were past all counting; and there was a choice of several dozen hostels of varying degrees of excellence and urbanity.  Hennessy & Breen’s, Pat Lynche’s, Gentry & Crittenden’s, Barnum’s Restaurant and the tap room of Jacob Wimmer’s Virginia Hotel were resorts of masculine fashion and communal foregathering ranking in splendor, convenience and resources, at least in the minds of their patrons, with the best Fifth Avenue had to offer.

But the true Periclean Age of Virginia and the Comstock was, of course, the splendid, silver seventies.  Gone now were the wooden frame hotels and saloons.  After having burned flat three separate times, the town had taken to building with brick.  Gone, too, was the street fighting, stabbing, shooting, claim jumping and eventual lynching of the early years.  Lawyers and, in consequence, some degree of law had come to Washoe and there were six precinct police stations in Virginia and Gold Hill with officers on constant duty.  And culture and the resources of thunderous wealth had taken up their abode among the mine hoists.

Chief among their manifestations were the six story International Hotel and that ultimate citadel of voluptuous, nay, positively Babylonish luxuries, the Washoe Club.  In these splendid precincts, in parlors draped in looped and fringed portiers, in corridors glittering with crystal chandeliers and in tap rooms graciously awash with the precious distillate of Bourbon County trod the nabobs in Prince Albert coats, silk top hats and wonderfully flowered waistcoats.  Flunkies in livery responded to the summons of richly brocaded bellpulls. Crystal goblets and chalices from Vienna and the glass factories of Bohemia clinked and were elevated in salute.  There was the smoke of dollar cigars everywhere.

The International Hotel was by no means only a local object of respectful admiration.  Its state suites were counterparts of those in San Francisco’s miraculous Palace Hotel, the finest the world had ever seen until then.  From its upper floors the view extended eastward down Six Mile Canyon, past Sugar Loaf and almost to the reaches of the Sink of Carson itself.  Its elevator, or “rising room” as it was known at the time, was the only one between Potter Palmer’s expensive Chicago hostel and the Pacific Coast.  Favored guests were permitted by the management to descend to its capacious cellars which spread far out beneath the sidewalks of C Street and draw their favorite spirits directly from the wood.  A French maître d’hotel had charge of its culinary destinies and shoals of Chinese house boys disposed instantly of every cigar butt that missed achieving one of the International’s scores and scores of handsome and useful brass cuspidors.

The Washoe Club, located a block or two south of the International in C Street, was the scene of a stupendous dinner in honor of President Grant.  Here, too, the nabobs, Flood, Fair, Mackey and O’Brien, played poker in uninterrupted sessions that lasted for days while the empty champagne bottles were carried away by the hamper and the gold double eagles passed across the table in foot‑high stacks.  It was at the Washoe that Mackay, by then one of the richest men in the entire world, told Dan De Quille that, since no amount he could conceivably win at cards could excite him, life seemed hardly worth the living.

Today the Washoe Club’s furnishings, or some of the less perishable of them at least, are still visible in C Street saloon that has assumed its name, but the last vestigial trace of the International Hotel disappeared when it went up in a blaze of seedy grandeur one summer night in 1914.  Gone were its splendors of plush and ormolu, gilt and crystal, as indeed they had largely vanished before the end came.  At the last even the elevator was a memory of departed splendors and guests were charged in reverse proportion to the number of steps they would have to climb to ascend to their rooms.

But the tradition of spacious times and of gaudy hurrah persists in Virginia City almost a century after its first flaming discovery.  No historic shrine in the entire West can boast of more bars, oases, refreshment parlors and gaudy mantraps than still flourish along C Street.  The past is recreated, vicariously, to be sure and with less violence than once obtained, but traces of its uninhibited manner are still discernable on Saturday night on the Comstock.  The Comstock House, the Delta, the Sawdust Corner and the Silver Stope, Reggie’s Sky Deck, the Crystal Saloon and the Brass Rail all bear testimony to the vitality of their ancestral strain and forebears.

Should the delights of this galaxy of sluicements pall, there are others:  Old 62, The Sazarac, The Smokery, the Virginia Club, The Golden Nugget and The Wonder Bar.

Virginia City still boasts a culinary heritage from the well‑fed past.  Four Day Jack Sunara at the Delta Restaurant, a chef well and favorably known in every mining camp from Dawson City to Rawhide, has no greater pleasure than serving up a suckling pig or a whole roast young kid to visiting celebrities or the editorial staff of The Territorial Enterprise on occasions of festival.  At the north end of town the Comstock House provides an opulent menu against the background of a Victorian dining room of elegant connotations.  The Comstock is seasonal and strictly de luxe, the dream operation of Margaret and Dick Chilcott of San Francisco, who, summer after summer, arrive with Leon Chevally, who presides behind the Gold Leaf Bar, one of the most ornate sluicing artifacts anywhere.  The Comstock lives on with overtones of modified splendor.


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