Every Town Is A Small Town
Crown Jewel of the Comstock
by Suzanne Neeley
VIRGINIA CITY, NEVADA -- To lose yourself in Virginia City means to give up on worrying, . . .and rediscover your priorities as a fellow human being . . . --Suzanne L. Neeley
It isn't possible to contract gold fever properly in Virginia City, Nevada unless you are willing to spend at least twenty four hours there. The depth of its history, the allure of its gold mines, and the fun-loving tug of its saloons are too much for the mortal traveler. It is a place that a person can get lost in, even though its population today numbers less than seven hundred.
In short, it is a trip into the past, where men were gentlemen and women were ladies, no matter who they were in reality. To lose yourself in Virginia City means to give up on worrying, enjoy your family and friends (including the ones you haven't yet met in the cafes and the saloons) and rediscover your priorities as a fellow human being.
The town has remained apart from the world, hidden as it is in the Washoe Mountains, far from the incessant problems of the cities in our nation. The people who live there haven't changed much in a hundred years or more, and in fact, it isn't unusual to see them attired accordingly.
These are not costumes in the strict sense of that word. I have it on good assurance from several of the locals, that this is in fact, how they prefer to dress and their long frock coats, and gun belts (empty unless a shoot-out is scheduled) are part of their normal, everyday wardrobe. The ladies are attired to match, and many of their gowns are authentic, revealing their attractions in yards of silk and lace. This is indeed, the wild, wild west and Virginia City is Queen of it. Beautiful, aristocratic, rugged, untamed even today with bands of wild mustangs wandering the hills, hilarious, tragic and dramatic is the way I see it.
Virginia City began with a spree of partying that has yet to come to an end. In January of 1859, three men, Henry "Old Pancake" Comstock, John Bishop and James "Old Virginia" Finney, struck surface diggings at the top of Gold Hill Canyon, about a mile south of what would later come to be called Virginia City. A few other miners in the area moved up there to see what they could find and some of them made between $15 and $20 per day. Gold was also discovered in Six Mile Canyon, which runs parallel to Gold Hill and miners were soon working the diggings there as well.
Two of them were Irishmen, Peter O'Riley and Pat McLaughlin. They were working their own claim, and making about $1.50 per day, which wasn't enough to keep them in supplies. On June 1, 1859 they were ready to give up but they found some "black stuff." Ever the optimists, they decided it was worth washing along with the rest of their junk, and to their amazement, they discovered that it was encrusted with gold dust. They didn't realize that the "black stuff" they washed away in the pan was silver. All they saw was gold. They stayed at it all day and resolved to keep it a secret.
Their secret was short lived because that same evening, Henry "Old Pancake" Comstock showed up. He had been out looking for a stray horse, and had literally stumbled on them. He was no fool, and he immediately saw the pile of gold dust. Comstock was a shrewd businessman and if the story is accurate, a liar. He told O'Riley and McLaughlin that they were on his "ranch," which was absurd, but what did two young Irishmen know? They believed him and to avoid trouble, agreed to cut him and his friend, Penrod, in on their claim. This claim would later go down in history as one of the richest gold mines in the world, the Ophir.
In July, one of the miners took some of the "black stuff" up to Truckee to be assayed. "Silver! AND LOTS OF IT!" they pronounced. Soon the hills above and below Virginia City were swarming with miners. In November of 1859, James "Old Virginia" Finney was drunk with exhilaration, not to mention the liquid spirits he always had at hand. He fell down during a party and broke his whisky bottle when he hit the ground and proclaimed, "I baptize this land Virginia!"
It has been Virginia City ever since.
From 1859 to 1890, Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City, all within a three mile radius of each other, produced one of the largest gold strikes in history, giving birth to over $400 million dollars in gold and silver. Remember, that was the estimate in 1870! These three towns became known as "the Comstock," named after that crazy coot who tried to take advantage of the Irishmen and did! The names of the mines are colorful and are still remembered today, among them: the Ophir, the Chollar, the Imperial, the Yellowjacket, the Kentuck, the Crown Point, and the Belcher.
Miners came to the Comstock by the thousands, sometimes a thousand arriving on the same day. In no time at all, the town grew to about 30,000. Virginia City in its day, was one of the most extravagant, elite, elegant places to live on the Pacific Coast.
It boasted two opera houses, over 100 saloons, the best hotels and restaurants west of New York City, jewelers (surprise!), and it was no less than the home of the most influential paper outside of the New York Times, Territorial Enterprise.
One young man, disillusioned with mining, went to work for that paper in 1862. He caused so much trouble, and wrote such convincing hoaxes; in short, he was one of the best reporters the world would ever know, and he was run out of town. His name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. You may know him by his alias, Mark Twain.
It was in Virginia City that he found the name, out of his own childhood memories. Mark was in the habit of buying drinks for one friend at a time, even when all of his friends were present. When he ordered his drinks from the bar, he would invariably call out, "Barkeep! Mark Twain!" This was river talk from the Mississippi where he had been, at one time, an accomplished river boat pilot. Literally, it means, "two fathoms deep." To John Piper, the owner of the Piper Corner Saloon at the Piper Opera House, it meant, "Another round on my tab for me and my friend!" and John would gallantly serve up the drinks and then put two marks on his chalkboard next to Sam Clemens' name.
One night, Mark came in as usual, but he was with two friends, Denis McCarthy, co-editor of the Enterprise and Dan DeQuille, a fellow reporter. Mark was depressed. There had been quite an uproar over a story he had written in the Territorial Enterprise called "The Massacre at Dutch Nick." He had made the whole thing up, intending it as a satire on the business practices of certain San Francisco companies and revenge on a bartender in Carson City whom he did not care for. People didn't get it. At first, they thought it was real and when they found out it was a hoax, his name was dragged through every manure pile on the Comstock. He was now casting about for a pen name, hoping it would help to calm the rising tide if people didn't see "Samuel Clemens" on his by-line.
When he walked into the saloon with his friends, Piper reportedly called out in friendly greeting, "McCarthy! Dan! and Mark Twain!"
The next day, the name appeared as his by-line in the Territorial Enterprise. Who would have thought that by walking into that particular saloon, on that particular occasion, in Virginia City, Nevada Territory, he would be walking into American History? He left Virginia City in 1864, and later wrote an American classic about his years on the Comstock entitled, "Roughing It."
Julia Bullette was another of Virginia City's more prominent citizens. She was probably the most famous madam in the world at the time, until her death in 1868. She was the sole owner of her 'house' and saloon, employing many of the world's unemployables in many capacities, not just prostitution. She was a charitable woman, donating a great deal of money over the years to many worthy causes, and it is a fact that she helped to nurse many miners through a deadly epidemic that had swept the town.
Her murder culminated in the swift hanging of John Millain, and because the good church ladies of Virginia City would not allow her to be buried in consecrated ground, she was laid to rest at the top of a hill overlooking the entire area, courtesy of the Virginia City Volunteer Fire Company No. 1. Many thought that was as close to Heaven as she would ever get, but her funeral was attended by nearly every man in town, some of the more forgiving ladies in the area and politicians and other notables from around the world.
It is with the hands of these and other people much like them, that Virginia City was built. You can see them still today, in the faces of those who live there, their kindness and generosity shining from them. They do everything slowly here, and no matter what they do, they do it the old fashioned way, from the way your hotel room is kept (spotless and charming), to the way your drink is served (reverently, with great regard for the customer). You will find that even without a movie theater, a skateboarding park, or a shopping mall, there is always something to do.
Favorite activities here include: browsing in the antique shops, visiting one of the many museums, horseback riding, taking one or all of the many educational and fascinating tours, having a snack, having a drink, chatting with the locals, looking in on one of the local artists, panning for (real!) gold, listening to a live band or single musician, riding the historic V&T train, taking a walk around the cemetery, or as I like to do, just sitting on the porch of one of the saloons and doing nothing but admire the view. It is all here, in a town of only seven hundred people.
Virginia City is also the largest historical landmark in America today. Her main street has been featured in countless films, picturesque and authentic. The sidewalks are still made of wood, and in some places are as old as circa 1875. The buildings that front 'C' Street are old and you can tell it in the way they lean, or refuse to hold paint. You can still read painted signs on the aging bricks. But it's pure charm and pure history. Some few of them are even older than the sidewalk, but the 'Great Fire of 1874' made short work of many of them. The town was completely rebuilt in less than a year.
You can take tours of the town either by bus, or horse drawn carriage. Museums line the main street, 'C' Street, and you can also tour the Chollar mine, the Mackay Mansion, the "Castle" and others. The Virginia-Truckee Railroad operates a small train between Virginia City and Gold Hill. The cemetery is always open for visitors (or lodgers, as the case may be) as are the churches. St. Mary's in the Mountains is still offering mass services on Saturday evenings and Sunday mornings. (Call for confession times.) The First Presbyterian and the Episcopal churches are also open to visitors. (Inquire at the Visitors Bureau on C Street.)
Despite devastating fires in the last hundred and thirty years and the decline of the gold and silver mines, Virginia City survives and the people who live here care for her as if she were a national treasure, which she is. She is a crown jewel in this desert of Nevada and she is worthy of every praise. Every child should have the experience of coming here and meeting "real gunfighters" like R.T. (The Marshall) and Jason (Doc Clearwater), who use blanks instead of bullets in their shows and take time to warn visiting children about real guns and talk with them about real life.
All the romance you can imagine, can be found here. You can get hitched if you want, with "no trouble a' tall" and locals have been known to throw parties for visiting couples, even attending the wedding and witnessing marriage certificates for them. Afterward, you can spend the night in wild, wild, west, Victorian splendor in a beautifully appointed room at one of the local bed and breakfast inns.
If you decide to do some prospecting of your own in Virginia City you will find many books for sale with a great deal of advice. More than one person has succumbed to gold fever here and ended up staying the rest of their lives because the real treasure of the Comstock is her people and the unspoiled beauty of the hills and mountains surrounding them. Without them, there would be no magic, no remembrance of a time that is truly American. Last weekend, I went up there as usual, and I was talking to one of my friends who lives there about writing this article. He laughed and said, "You should call it "the Land of Make Believe' ." I sighed and thought about how desperately I want to live there. I'll take it over reality any day.
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