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Silver in the Sagebrush

Virginia City, NV

By

Gary B. Speck

 

 

 

           

The “Richest Place on Earth” sprawls across Nevada State Highway (SH) 341, 23 miles southeast of Reno, and 15 miles northeast of Carson City.  Here in the mid 1850s, California’s fading gold rush, enticed a large number of disenfranchised miners to re-explore the desert region east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to try their luck.  They remembered the mountains and hills on their treks west only a few years before.  Maybe they also held gold? 

 

Prospecting miners arrived, and scattered deposits of gold were found throughout the region.  In the mountains northeast of Lake Bigler (Tahoe), fairly rich placer gold deposits created astir of excitement.  But a thick, blue metallic sand gunked up the operations, making the gold processing a bit difficult.  In 1859, out of curiosity, a miner sent a sample of the stuff over the hills to Grass Valley, California to be assayed.  When the results came back, few could believe the assay report.  That nasty blue stuff was an absolute bonanza.  It was silver ore assaying $3-4000 per ton of ore.

 

Word of the silver bonanza in Washoe’s sagebrush hills spread like a flu epidemic throughout the moribund California gold region.  Cries of “Ho for Washoe” echoed across the Western Sierra foothills and river canyons.  The stampede was on, in reverse.  The miners raced east over the Sierras to Washoe (as the Virginia City area mines were called), and a new town popped up on the dry east slope of Mount Davidson.  Four years later (1863), Virginia City was a thriving metropolis with over 10,000 people that never slept.  Off and on through the 1860s and early 1870s, cyclical booms and busts drew folks to and pushed them away from the Washoe diggings. However, the initial 1859-1860 rush and ensuing flush times were just a quiet precursor to what was about to happen.           

 

In February 1873, deep in the Consolidated Virginia Mine, a large ore-body of super-rich silver ore was discovered.  Known as the “Big Bonanza”, this was the discovery that rocked the mining world.  The price of Con-Virginia stock skyrocketed.  Other mines’ stock followed suit, and Virginia City’s population rose to 25,000, with 50 dry goods stores, 20 laundries, over 100 saloons, and hundreds of other businesses.  It was the largest city between San Francisco and St. Louis, and was THE place to hobnob with scores of millionaires and near millionaires.  The fabulous mines created more millionaires and political power players than any other mining rush in the country, including the California Motherlode!

 

Beginning in 1860 almost every mining town in the West was called “The New Washoe”, “Bigger than Virginia” and “More Glorious than the Comstock”.  When 1873 and the Big Bonanza made news, the hype began again in earnest. 

 

But, it was just that.  Hype.  Pure Hype. 

 

Virginia City and her fantastically rich Comstock Lode mines was truly the queen bee in the hive.  None of the pretenders even came close.  In the fabulous years between 1873 and about 1880, nearly a half BILLION dollars in gold and silver was pried from the earth in a lode two miles long and a few hundred feet wide. 

 

One hundred and forty years after it was founded, this lively little town of 900 plus people plays on its rich, wild and boisterous past.  The flush days of rumbling stamp mills, a hundred plus saloons and a population 25 times as great as it is now have long since fallen into the recesses of history.  Alongside garish signs indicating “It happened here”, and “See the ---”, tourist shops fill space and sell trinkets where history happened.  The cemeteries on Silver Terrace contain more headstones than the living population.  Yet history flows so thick along the creaking boardwalks and covered canopies of brick building-lined C Street you can feel it.  It oozes from cracks between planks in the wood facades, crumbling mortar, and even the very air.   It flows from names like the Bucket of Blood Saloon, Territorial Enterprise, and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.

 

Who were the people who lived here 140 years ago? There were the Chinese laborers.  There were the nameless, forgotten miners, young men from all over the world busting their buns in the dark bowels of the earth, making others rich.  There were young forgotten girls selling their very souls for a little cash.  There were newlyweds.  There were weathered old-timers.  There were shopkeepers, saloon owners, mill workers, teamsters, butchers, bakers, blacksmiths, school teachers, pastors, young brides, old men, and thousands of others in search of an elusive dream.

 

In 1861, walking these same boardwalks and rubbing elbows with these thousands of forgotten people, an unknown young miner named Samuel made his mark on the world. He wasn’t particularly successful at the sweaty job of mining, and even admits it.

 

                        “We never found any ore that would yield more than

            fifty dollars a ton; and as the mills charged fifty dollars

            a ton for working ore and extracting the silver, our

            pocket-money melted steadily away and none returned to

            take its place.” *

 

Unsuccessful at mining, he tried working in a mill. 

                       

            “There is nothing so aggravating as silver milling.      

There never was any idle time in that mill. ... Of all   

recreations in the world, screening tailings on a hot

            day, with a long-handled shovel, is the most undesirable.” *

 

That didn’t work out either, so he landed a job as a cub reporter at the Territorial Enterprise for $25 per week.  For two years he labored at his wordsmithing, developing a writing style that turned him into one of America’s most well loved writers.  Young Samuel Langhorne Clemens became America’s most famous “nom-de-plume” -- Mark Twain.

 

Be it blatant tourist-grabbing glitz or the in-your-face rumblings of a raucous past, Virginia City is not a place to sit on a bench quietly contemplating subtle auras of the past. Here the gaudy excesses of miners turned multi-millionaires, John W. Mackay, James G. Fair, James C. Flood and William S. O’Brien smacks you upside the head with all the subtlety of a drill sergeant at basic training.  Huge mansions on “Millionaire’s Row”, the massive Fourth Ward School, and hundreds of buildings see to that.

 

Then there are the people.  Where else can you see “heeled” Marlboro Country gents decked out in black Levis and gun belts pushing carts full of jams and condiments into a store, all the while dodging little old blue-haired ladies wearing Reebock tennies and Hardrock Cafe tee-shirts.  Virginia City is an enigma, and sits right at the top of the list of must-see living mining towns.

 

Coming in from Reno provides the most dramatic view of the historic old mining town.  Head south on US 395, and about ten miles south of downtown, exit onto Virginia Street (SH 341).  12.9 miles later as you round the last corner, Virginia City rolls into view sprawling down and across the east slope of Mount Davidson.

 

At the northeast end of town, stop and visit the cemeteries spread across several low hills known as the Silver Terrace, are the resting places of probably over a thousand folks.  From unmarked and long forgotten graves, to unique marble angel obelisks, hundreds of monuments to death stand guard over Virginia City’s ghosts of the past. Here can be found 16 separate cemeteries for Catholics, Masons, Odd Fellows (IOOF), Knights of Pythias, Firemen, Chinese and Jewish folks, among many others.

 

At one time the cemeteries were green and park like, but time and the elements have taken their toll.  The names and dates hint at the life and death that once pulsed through this once vibrant community.  There is the marker for Helen M and John Clay Hampton who both died on the same bleak August day in 1888.  There were children who died in measles and influenza epidemics.  There were miners killed by cave-ins and mine fires.  There were folks murdered, run over, burned or fatally injured in other ways.

 

Wander around the streets of town.  Look at the unique architectural beauty of locally manufactured steel columns supporting two story brick stores, saloons and hotels.  Walk the back streets and look at the Odd Fellows Hall, Piper’s Opera House, and the Chollar Mansion.  Watch deer browse in the back yards of tumbled-down cabins, and listen to today’s children playing.

 

Above all, listen to the sounds of the past.  Virginia City is still alive.  It may have only 1/25th of the population it had in 1875, but its spirit is bigger. 

 

Here in the quiet, sunburned hills of western Nevada a bonanza was found, and the “Richest Place on Earth” made its mark.  Millionaires were made, and a nationally acclaimed writer began his career. 

 

As you follow the highways and byways in search of Ghost Town USA, heed the call “Ho for Washoe.”  Here in the sagebrush hills of western Nevada, you may find your own silver bonanza!

 

* Excerpts quoted from Roughing It, by Mark Twain.  This is a story of his adventures in Nevada and California between 1861-1866

 

This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for May 2000.

 

 

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FIRST POSTED:  May 01, 2000

LAST UPDATED: April 02, 2007

 

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