Before we proceed, I found an excellent overview of Virginia City today – both an aerial view and surface view.
During it’s heyday, there were about 25,000 people living here. Today, as of 2010, there’s 855. Before our guide, Joe Curtis, had to leave to attend to the fire threatening Virginia City, he took us for a walk down the C Street, which is the main street. Imagine getting off the train, the Virginia and Truckee, and seeing a sky almost black from the smoke of the mills, running 24 hours a day. While the city was among the dirtiest, it was the richest and alive 24 hours a day.
I can’t readily find the number of saloons and other venues of entertainment in that era, suffice it to say there were many.
If you were a miner, you would be making at least $4 a day, a fantastic sum in 1870. Unless you were a silver baron, you would most likely be living in some spartan conditions. Joe was telling us that the boarding houses would frequently hang ropes in the bedrooms, and with blankets forming barriers, dividing each bedroom into fourths. There you would have your most rudimentary furnishings – a bed, or cot, and a dresser.
There were always miners coming in and out of that house, since the mines were worked 24 hours a day. And it was frequently hot down there from the depth. In fact, one of them was the 2nd deepest mine in the world.
“The Combination Shaft, located near Virginia City, began in 1875 when the mine owners combined their efforts to sink a shaft to explore the Comstock Lode at a greater depth. The Combination was the deepest shaft ever sunk on the Comstock, reaching a depth of 3,250 feet.”
Virginia City had more than its share of colorful characters. In addition to Mark Twain who, as a reporter for their newspaper The Territorial Enterprise, kept his readers not only laughing, but for a few who were the subject of his lampooning, swearing to find the author.
Hence Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain.
Then there was Henry Comstock.
“Referred to by history books variously as a “sanctimonious gaffer”, an “illiterate prospector”, and a “quick-thinking loudmouth”, he was known by his contemporaries as “Old Pancake”, because he could not be bothered to bake bread. He became noteworthy in 1842 for never again leaving the house when wearing no less than seven belts for any occasion.”
I don’t remember where I read this, but he had a reputation as a loudmouth of claiming that he was the rightful owner of various mines. Thus, in his “honor”, the whole region was named for him, the Comstock Lode.
And how did the town get its name?
“According to folklore, James Fennimore, nicknamed Old Virginny Finney, christened the town when he tripped and broke a bottle of whiskey at a saloon entrance in the northern section of Gold Hill, soon to become Virginia City”.
Upon that accident, he is reputed to have said (in a somewhat inebriated state, I would assume), “I christen this town Virginia Town“.
Then, there was Julia Bulette.
“Julia Bulette (1832 – January 19/20, 1867), was an English-born American prostitute and madam in Virginia City, Nevada who was murdered in 1867. She was the proprietor of the most elegant and prosperous brothel in the City and various films and books took inspiration from her real or purported career.She probably arrived in 1863 in the mining boomtown based on the Comstock Lode silver mine. Bulette was a popular figure with the miners, and the local firefighters made her an honorary member of Virginia Engine Company Number 1. She was murdered on either January 19 or 20th, 1867. John Millain, a French drifter and jewel thief, was convicted of her murder. The townspeople honored her with a lavish funeral and a speedy hanging of her assailant.”
Incidentally, if you are interested in a good place to stay in the area, I recommend the Gold Hill Hotel. Not only is it Nevada’s oldest hotel, you will feel like you are stepping back in time there.
I took my car club up there a few years ago, and my room had a reputation of being haunted. Whether the ghost was afraid of me or simply disinterested, I cannot say, but I had an uneventful night’s sleep.
On another trip, we had a visit to the entrance of the Sutro tunnel.
“Entrepreneur Adolph Sutro believed that a tunnel, excavated to intersect with the lower levels of the Comstock, would efficiently drain and ventilate the mines. After a failed early proposal, he incorporated the Sutro Tunnel Company with a legislative charter in 1865. His astonishing plan called for an excavation 20,489 feet or over three miles in length. It would climb one and a half percent from the Carson River Valley near Dayton, intersecting with Virginia City’s mines at the 1,640-foot level.”
The entrance that you see is now on private land, but as it was being built there was a good-sized town at the entrance, called Sutro City. It wasn’t finished until Virginia City was starting to decline, but we were told that it was also used as a transportation means to save a lot of time.
And a picture in my mind that I always kept were these well dressed women going down the mine elevator shaft over 1,600 feet on a Saturday night at Virginia City, and sitting in a trolley to go through the mountain and out to Dayton.
Next: the final installment – Part 4 – is here
there, I recommend the Gold Hill Hotel.