Virginia City, Nevada
The Comstock Lode - Gold and Silver
Virginia City lies in extreme western Nevada nestled on the eastern slopes of the Virginia range, in the shadow of Mount Davidson. From Reno take Highway 395 to exit 57B, then climb along scenic route 341, known as the Geiger Grade. Keep an eye out for wild horses as you traverse the mountain road. Pause at the scenic overlook halfway up the Geiger Grade route through parts of the Toiyabe Forest, to view the eastern Sierras, Washoe Valley and Mount Rose. From Carson City take Highway 50 east to Highway 341, the Comstock Highway, pass through Devil’s Gate at Silver City, past Gold Hill and the Virginia and Truckee Railroad tracks to enter Virginia City from the south.
A video overview of Virgina City
“Even the devil would be homesick in Nevada,” opined Mark Twain after his short sojourn in the sagebrush territory destined to become the Silver State. Mark Twain is arguably Virginia City’s most famous early resident. He developed his writing style and adopted his famous penname in an almost two-year stay in booming Virginia City from late 1862 to May, 1864. Virginia City sprang up after the discovery of the Comstock Lode of silver ore in 1859. Thousands of people, Twain included, journeyed to Virginia City to make their fortune in the mines or simply to mine the miners.
The Comstock Lode discovery and subsequent growth of Virginia City is unequaled in the history of the American West. More money was produced by the Comstock Lode than the entire California Gold Rush a decade before. By 1876 Nevada produced over half of all the precious metals in the United States; over 400 million in the coinage of the day coming from Virginia City’s mines. The wealth supported the Northern cause during the Civil War and flooded the world monetary markets compelling significant economic change.
The town, steeply set on the side of a mountain, perches precariously over miles of tunnels and shafts remaining from the mining glory days. C Street is the main thoroughfare while streets lettered B and A, home of the town’s wealthy, are up the hill. D Street to R Street continue down the hill, originally home to the redlight district, V&T Railroad depot, the Chinese quarter, Paiute wikiups, and ore stamp mills. The remnants of the mines are scattered throughout the town.
Virginia City became the mother camp to all subsequent silver mining discoveries in the American West. Technological discoveries, for and by Virginia City’s citizens, enabled mining to succeed on the Comstock, and were quickly spread to other finds. Square set timbering prevented cave-ins of large caverns and allowed mining at depth. Air was supplied by root blowers and Cornish pumps removed water. Stamp mills and the Washoe Pan milling process reduced the ore for precious metal removal. Burleigh machine drills, wire woven rope, miners’ safety cages and the safety clutch for those cages were new discoveries for the Comstock mines and provided for the exploitation of the riches. The infamous Sutro tunnel proposed a safety evacuation route and ore transportation outlet to the mines. Virginia City’s rich ore body, dubbed the Comstock Lode, pioneered technological advancements that were used many times over in later mines.
Silver dominated the town to such a degree that in 1876 one observer reported that in Virginia City, “every activity has to do with the mining, transportation, or reduction of silver ore, or the melting and assaying of silver bullion.” Silver was the monetary equal of gold at the time of discovery, when silver assayed out at twice the value of the gold therein; both metals occurred together geologically. Soon the Comstock boasted some of the deepest mines in the world.
Dominated by San Francisco moneyed interests, Virginia City became the sophisticated interior partner of San Francisco with fine restaurants, fashion, theater, and cosmopolitan charm. Mine owners who made a killing in the Comstock mines spent their wealth in San Francisco where a stock market existed for the exploitation of Comstock mining. The 1860s sleepy port of San Francisco, revitalized by the silver discovery, was, in effect, built by Virginia City. Virginia City became a place that had to be seen to be believed.
Through time, the ownership of Comstock mines changed from numerous independent mines to large monopolies. The Bank of California “Bank Crowd”, dominated by William Sharon in Virginia City and William Ralston in San Francisco, financed the mines and mills of the Comstock until they had a virtual monopoly. By manipulating stock through rumors and false reports of mining wealth, fortunes could be made in the stocks of Virginia City’s mines. Miners were actually locked in the mines, forbidden to leave until false reports of new leads spread far and fast, and stock prices rose precipitously. By the late 1860s, a group of Irish investors threatened the Bank Crowd’s control. John Mackay and partner James Fair began as common miners, working their way up to management positions in the mines. By purchasing mining stocks, they realized financial independence. Their partners, James Flood and William O’Brien, stayed in San Francisco and speculated in stock. The Irish Big Four, as the men were called, eventually controlled the Consolidated Virginia mine where the “Big Bonanza” ore chamber was discovered in 1873. The next few years saw the greatest profits on the Comstock, as the Bank Crowd lost control to the Irish big four. John Mackay became the richest man in the world, establishing the company that became AT&T, and laying the first transatlantic communications cable.
The mining industry gave Nevada its political leaders. William Sharon, of the Bank Crowd, was a US Senator as was James Fair. Senator John P. Jones, a mine superintendent, represented Nevada in the U.S. Senate for thirty years. Senator William Stewart, a leading mining attorney, developed mining law for the nation.
Virginia City still retained some of its frontier flavor even as mining made it an industrial center similar to the east coast. Immigrants flocked to Virginia City. Miners came from Cornwall, England where tin mines had similar hard rock technology. The English “Cousin Jacks” flourished as one of the largest ethnic groups. Irish and Germans dominated the saloon and mid-merchant levels, and not surprisingly, the ownership of much of the redlight district. The Chinese settled in large numbers in Virginia City, like other Pacific Coast towns, and similarly faced discrimination in employment. They were left niche occupations such as laundrymen and cooks, and supplied firewood to the town, carried on the backs of donkeys. Ethnic groups brought a touch of their home culture with them; leprechaun creatures called Tommyknockers were thought to populate the underground mines and were blamed for the knocking and creaking the miners heard. A bit of bread left in the mine appeased the Tommyknockers and ensured good luck and safe mining.
Congress passed the Mint Act, known as the “Crime of ’73,” and Virginia City’s fate was sealed. The act demonetized silver and ultimately negatively affected the silver mining industry by reducing the amount of silver purchased by the federal government, portending doom. The Comstock mining boom was effectively over by 1880. Virginia City declined, but never completely disappeared. The TV show Bonanza brought Virginia City’s history to a new generation. Today part of a National Historic District, Virginia City welcomes visitors craving an authentic old west experience. In 2009, the town was granted the prestigious Dozen Distinctive Destinations award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in part for the authentic retention of many Victorian buildings. Tourists pace the board walks, tour the museums and spend the night, hoping to glimpse a ghost from bygone bonanzas.
Things To Do
Walk in Mark Twain’s footsteps as you visit attractions preserved from Virginia City’s rebuilding effort after the Great Fire of 1875. Purchase an adventure pass from the visitor’s authority, corner of C and Taylor Streets, for many of the following venues:
Bats in the Belfry guided paranormal tours take guests on many behind-the-scenes locations in Virginia City where ghosts may be expected. Fee. Nightly tours. www.virginiacityghosttours.com
Bucket of Blood Saloon: Famous 100-mile view, music, dancing. Open daily. C Street at Union Street
Chollar Mine Tour: See square set timbering, tools, mine equipment, and silver ore on this underground guided tour of one of the Comstock’s earliest mines. Open Easter through October; 615 S. F Street Phone: 775-847-0155
Churches of Virginia City: The Presbyterian Church on C Street dates to the early 1860s and is Virginia City’s oldest standing religious structure. St Paul’s Episcopal on E and Taylor, behind St. Mary’s Catholic Church, is open for Sunday services and on special occasions when manned by volunteers. The original 1876 interior includes heating stoves and original wood paneling. St. Mary’s Catholic Church on E and Taylor is open daily, 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. A museum in the church basement tells the religious story of Virginia City.
Comstock Cemetery Tours: You control the tour; you may take the entire tour. It’s a medium level walk lasting about 1 ½ hours in total, you can take ½ the tour, and/or you can skip around. It is all up to you. You may also access on your computer. The best way to use the tour is to download ahead of time while you have access to Wi-Fi. Current hours 8am to 5pm. No nighttime entrance. Check their website for more information: http://www.comstockcf.com/audio-tour-information.html
Comstock Fireman’s Museum: Nevada’s finest collection of antique firefighting equipment. Eastern side, 125 S. C Street. Open May through October 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. by donation. Phone: 775-813-6911 for tours by special appointment during off-season Visit: www.comstockfiremuseum.com
Comstock History Center: Located on E and Union Streets corner. Houses the restored Dayton steam engine, number 18, from the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. Traveling exhibits change seasonally. Open year-round Thursday through Sunday by donation. Phone: 775-847-0419.
Comstock Modern Mining Tour: Guided tour with box lunch of modern Comstock Mining activities in Gold Hill. Tours every Thursday at 11:00 A.M. Contact Gold Hill Hotel 775-847-0111 for information.
Delta Saloon houses the suicide table named for three men who committed suicide after losses at this faro table. Saloon contains large Victorian oil lamp collection and old globe; corner C and Union Streets; open daily, year-round.
Fourth Ward School Museum: Beautiful four-story wooden second-empire style schoolhouse is the “last one standing” in the United States. A state-of-the-art construction completed in 1876, the school educated residents until graduating its last class in 1936. Today visit for a nominal fee for a concise local history, restored classroom, and a chance to ring the school bell. Located at 537 S. C Street; Daily May 1 through October 31, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Fee. Phone; 775-847-0975; www.fourthwardschool.org
Happy Hoofers: Enjoy a horse drawn carriage and narrated tour of Virginia City’s back streets. Headquartered on C Street. Fee. Seasonal.
Mackay Mansion: Tour John Mackay’s superintendent office on 291 S. D and Flowery Streets. Costumed tour narrator details John Mackay’s importance as one of the Irish Big Four mine owners. Daily 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. during the summer season; available by appointment during off-season. Fee. Phone: 775-847-0373; www.uniquitiesmackaymansion.com
Mark Twain Museum: Reports are that this museum is unfortunately permanently closed.
Pioneer Cemetery and walking tour: Kiosk at R and Washington Streets. Pick up a walking tour brochure from the visitor’s center on C and Taylor Streets, then park at the kiosk, read the explanatory information and hike the trail to Virginia City’s original 1860 pioneer cemetery, past the Sutro tunnel air shaft and mine shafts. Brochure explains sights and history of tour. Allow one hour minimum. Bring water in warm weather.
Piper’s Opera House: Historic Piper’s Opera House brought quality live entertainment to the mining town. Finished in 1885, one of the more modern buildings in town now hosts regular music and live presentations. See https://pipersoperahouse.com for scheduling. Tours offered daily during the summer season; weekends remainder of the year. Piper’s Old Corner Bar, one of the longest continuously operating bars in nineteenth-century Virginia City is now open daily. Phone: 775-847-0433 or toll free 888-422-1956
Ponderosa Saloon and Mine Tour: A 25-minute guided tour of the Best and Belcher mine operates from the back of the Ponderosa saloon at 106 South C Street. Open daily, year round. Fee.
Red Dog Saloon: Location of 1960s rock and roll band history; Janice Joplin sang here in 1966. Open daily; music, food. 76 N. C Street. https://www.reddogvc.rocks or 775-847-7474
St. Mary’s Art Center: 55 N. R Street: The building dates to 1875. It originally housed the Sisters of Charity hospital, and is currently restored as an art retreat and exhibition center. Permanent and traveling exhibits. Visit: www.stmarysartcenter.org. Phone: 775-847-7774, tours by appointment.
St. Mary’s Church: 111 E. Street. Building dates to 1876 on original site of earliest Nevada Catholic congregation. Museum in basement; open daily, free, donations accepted. Church sanctuary open daily 10:00 am to 5:00 p.m. Phone: 775-847-9099
Silver Queen Hotel/bar and original Territorial Enterprise newspaper office location: C Street between Union and Sutton Streets. www.silverqueenhotel.net; 775-847-0440
Silver Terrace Cemetery: Open dawn to dusk. Site of more inhabitants than the present-day Virginia City. Self-guided walking tours. Located behind RV Park off Carson and E Streets, follow short dirt road north to entrance.
Silver State National Peace Officer’s Museum: Once an actual physical museum, the museum is now only virtual. It still documents much of the history of lawmen in the region and is well worth taking a look at. www.peaceofficersmuseum.org
Storey County Courthouse: Beautiful 1876 Italianate courthouse at 26 S. B Street. Unique lady justice is pictured on the front exterior without blindfold. Open daily.
TnT Stagecoach Ride: Located on F Street one block south of the train depot. Bring the kids to ride the full-sized Concord stagecoach pulled by matching paint horses. Seasonal, check with visitor’s center at C and Taylor Streets for availability. Fee.
Virginia City Trolley Tour: A 25-minute narrated motorized tram/trolley tour of Virginia City. Fee. Open year round. Located in Delta Saloon parking lot on C Street next to the Bucket of Blood saloon.
Virginia and Truckee Railroad train ride: Ride the original standard gauge ore processing train completed from Virginia City to Carson City in 1869 with connections to the transcontinental in Reno in 1873. Weekends round trip leaves from Carson City Depot. On weekdays Virginia City roundtrip to Gold Hill for a 35-minute ride. Narration. Fee. Train depot at 166 F Street and Washington. Visit: www.virginiatruckee.com for complete schedule and ticket purchase. Steam train rides begin Memorial Day weekend. Phone: 775-847-0380
The Washoe Club Saloon is one of the oldest saloons in Virginia City dating back to the early 1860s. In the back of the saloon, which was a morgue at one time, is a museum devoted to the haunted history of the saloon. The Ghost Adventures TV show has filmed there several times and reportedly has a video of a ghostly apparition walking across the screen, as well as other data on paranormal activity. A 40-minute guided tour of all three floors of the Washoe Saloon building is available for a cost of 8 dollars for adults and 5 dollars for children; admission to the museum is included. Their website is: www.thewashoeclub.com.
Walking Tour, kiosk: See Pioneer Cemetery and R Street kiosk.
The Way It Was Museum: 111 N. C Street at Sutton Street. Large collection of Comstock mining artifacts, photos, maps, antiques. Open year round except Christmas. 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily. Fee.
Sonny Boys Tours: Take a guided tour of the northern Nevada wild horse range. Fee. www.renowildhorsetours.com
Refer to the events calendar at www.visitvirgniacitynv.com for a complete listing.
Population / Elevation
--- 1,000 people / 6,200 feet above sea level.
Weather / Climate
Virginia City lies about 1,200 ft above the valley floor of Reno and Carson City, at the highest levels of the Great Basin. At this elevation daytime temperatures remain mild during most of the year. The city enjoys clean air throughout much of the year, providing the famous 100-mile view and spectacular starry nights. Afternoon winds known as the Washoe Zephyr are quite common and bring nice cool evenings.
|Virginia City, Nevada - Monthly Climate Normals|
Many fine bed and breakfasts and independently run hotels, motels, and one RV park dot the Virginia City landscape. Virginia City hosts more than 200 rooms for overnight vacation stays.
Camping & RV Parks - There are numerous camping and RV accommodations in the area.
Resources & Nearby Attractions
Cities & Towns
- Reno, Nevada: 21 miles north.
- Carson City, Nevada: 17 miles southwest.
- South Lake Tahoe, Nevada: 52 miles southwest.
- Truckee, California: 48 miles west.
Parks & Monuments
- Dayton State Park: 10 miles south.
- Lake Tahoe Nevada State Park: 35 miles southwest.
- Washoe Lake State Park: 23 miles west.
- Mormon Station State Historic Park: 41 miles south.
- Bodie State Historic Park, California: 115 miles south.
Wilderness & Recreation Areas
- Toiyabe National Forest: 23 miles south.
- Lahontan State Recreation Area: 44 miles east.
- Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge: 55 miles east.
Historic & Points of Interest
- Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation: 55 miles north.
- Fort Churchill Historic State Monument: 52 miles east.
- Comstock National Historic District: 5 miles south.
- Grimes Point Hidden Cave Archeological Site: 57 miles east.
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