DescriptionThe Virginia City of the early 1870s was the West's mining metropolis: nearly 30,000 residents, more than 100 saloons, a multitude of banks, churches and theaters, and last but not least, the only elevator between Chicago and San Francisco. The Comstock Lode—the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States—yielded untold riches and brought the rough-and-tumble town enormous prosperity. Ore extracted from the Consolidated Virginia Mine is estimated to have had a gross value of nearly $250 million, and wealth from mines that began producing in the late 1850s was funneled into such enterprises as helping to build the city of San Francisco and financing the Union Army during the Civil War.
Just getting here is an adventure. Virginia City is an approximate 45-minute drive from Reno via US 395 south to scenic SR 341, also known as the Geiger Grade Road. Ascending a steep slope in a series of switchbacks, the route is named for Dr. Davison M. Geiger, who financed construction of the original, perilous dirt road that once zigzagged up the mountain to the mining settlement in the early 1860s. About a third of the way up is a designated roadside pull-off, where a path leads to a rock promontory in which is embedded a bronze plaque of Dr. Geiger. Climb the steps to the top of this perch for impressive views of the surrounding rugged hills, some bare and others cloaked with pine trees.
Built on a steep hillside, Virginia City affectionately earns the term “tourist trap.” Take away the concessions to modern life—power lines, parked SUVs, yellow curb striping—and it looks much as it probably did some 150 years ago. Yes, there are plank sidewalks and swinging wood doors along C Street, the main drag, and narrow alleys are plastered with picturesque old signs. The mountain setting, at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, is beautiful.
Small museums are devoted to preserving an illustrious past. Housed within the only remaining four-story wooden school structure in the United States, the Fourth Ward School Museum, 537 S. C St., has a preserved 1870s classroom and videos about Virginia City history and the Fourth Ward School. Guided tours are available by reservation May-Oct.; phone (775) 847-0975. Elegant original furnishings and Tiffany sterling silver can be seen at the Mackay Mansion Museum, 129 S. D St. Tours include the house's mining office, formal parlor, dining room, bedrooms and Chinese laundry; phone (775) 847-0373.
Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise, 53 S. C St., includes the author and raconteur's desk, chair, books, and pressroom furnishings and equipment. Twain and writer Bret Harte were notable residents during Virginia City's boom days; both worked as reporters on the Territorial Enterprise, Nevada's first newspaper and one known on occasion for fancifully embellishing the news.
You'll know you're at The Way It Was Museum when you spot the bronze statue of two horses hitched to a piece of mining equipment out front. Displays include Comstock artifacts and minerals, mule train mine cars and a collection of costumed dolls, and a 16-minute video recounts the history of the lode, Piper's Opera House and Twain's connection to town; phone (775) 847-0766. The Ponderosa Mine Tour, 106 S. C St. in the Ponderosa Saloon, is a guided 25-minute underground excursion on which you'll see such mine workings as tunnels, crosscuts, winzes and shafts, as well as a collection of antique equipment.
Saint Mary's in the Mountains, at Taylor and E streets, is a brick church rebuilt on the site of a church destroyed by fire in 1875. The restored building can be visited daily.
The original Bucket of Blood saloon, at C and Union streets, also was destroyed by the fire that burned down more than half of Virginia City's buildings, but it was quickly rebuilt. Tiffany-style ceiling lamps, mirrors and gilt-framed photos all conjure up a bygone era. Miller High Life is the brew of choice, and you might well meet some locals attired in Wild West garb if you hang around long enough.
It stands to reason that an old mining town would be just the place to hold a quirky event, and Virginia City celebrates several of them. The International Camel Races began as a hoax. Camels were brought to the Comstock Lode to haul salt and general supplies, but the ill-tempered and smelly beasts were turned loose in the hills when the arrival of the railroad supplanted pack animals. A fictitious account of the town's “camel races” was published in 1959, and it's since become one of Nevada's major events, taking place in early September; it now includes ostrich races.
The Virginia City World Championship Outhouse Races, held at the beginning of October, is another Comstock tradition in which teams of costumed racers—including a designated “rider”—push, pull or otherwise drag an outhouse to the finish line. The Chili on the Comstock Chili Cook-Off in early May attracts serious chili chefs. The event also features activities for the kids.
Visitor InfoVirginia City Tourism Commission 86 S. C St. VIRGINIA CITY, NV 89440. Phone:(775)847-7500 or (800)718-7587
Things to SeeComstock Firemen's Museum