Virginia City, NV

February 7, 2010

When opportunity knocks, I believe in grabbing it. This is how I found myself stashed away in a funky hotel room in Virginia City, Nevada, with my trusty corgi mix for a companion. I was eastbound on Interstate 80, heading once again to Wyoming. I’d have two weeks to experience Jackson Hole’s winter wonderland, my first non-summer visit. And yes, I packed both Uggs and toasty warm gloves, along with a multitude of additional cold weather paraphernalia.

A vigil over earned me a day of smooth sailing over Donner Pass, with clear, ice-free highways and chilly but bearable temperatures. Once in Nevada, twisting mountain roads carried us twenty-three miles southeast of Reno, boasting magnificent views along the way. Traffic was light, rest stops were plentiful, and we—canine and human—pulled into Virginia City in the late afternoon, landing at the foot of “C” Street, the historic mining town’s main drag.

My desire to visiting Virginia City had been based on photographic opportunities, as I knew the town was packed with possibilities. But once I arrived, it didn’t take long to realize the history of Virginia City was rich and colorful, well worth a visit with or without a camera.

With about an hour of daylight left, I decided it would be best to check into lodging before exploring. A perfect situation awaited me at The Silver Queen Hotel, which was both pet-friendly and located right in the heart of town. To make the choice even more enticing, I knew the hotel was a favorite among ghost hunters. With numerous accounts of hauntings, we were bound to have an interesting stay.

The Silver Queen herself reigns over the 1870s saloon with an aura of wealth. Part painting, part mosaic, she stands 16 feet tall and boasts 3261 silver dollars, as well as 28 gold twenty-dollar coins, all embedded with sparkling finesse. With a wedding chapel behind her, a dance floor in front of her, and a bar to her left, the eerie look on her face seems smug with tales untold.

Had I felt adventurous, I would have taken up the front desk’s offer of Room 11, the “haunted room,” as it was described to me. Based more on economy than fear, I took Room 7, instead, which was smaller, less expensive, and had a convenient street-level entrance from its “B Street” side, behind the hotel. As with the rest of the hotel, the room was authentically restored, furnished with an antique brass bed and oak dresser, peaceful without television or telephone. A private bath and shower were welcome modern additions.

With the car parked and bags unloaded, we set out on foot to learn about Virginia City’s history. Wandering along the wooden plank boardwalks, awnings and balconies hovering above, we peered in windows and read historic plaques. It was not hard to imagine the activity of the former mining days.

Silver and gold were first discovered by prospectors Pat McLaughlin and Peter O’Reilly in 1859 on the east side of Mount Davidson in Nevada’s Washoe Mountains. What came to be known as The Comstock Lode was named after Henry Comstock, who convinced the prospectors that he was entitled to a share of the claim. The Comstock Lode would become the richest known silver deposit in the U.S., also yielding a substantial amount of gold.

With the influx of fortune seekers, the area became a hub of activity. During the 1860s and 70s, Virginia City’s population grew to approximately 30,000, offering all the ingredients of an old western town, including churches, hotels, saloons, opium dens, and a prospering red light district. The walls of the local boarding houses and bars would undoubtedly have more than a few stories to tell.

Noticed by President Abraham Lincoln, the activity of The Comstock Lode helped finance the end of the Civil War and led to Nevada becoming a state in 1864. It essentially ended the California Gold Rush, as prospectors flocked to the area to lay claims.

Operating the lucrative underground mines required investment money. Much of this came from San Francisco, rewarding those investors with millionaire status. Mansions built by those made rich from The Comstock Lode can be seen today on Nob Hill. San Francisco’s first stock exchange, the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board, was organized to handle the trading of shares of silver mining companies.

Many benefitted from the wealth The Comstock Lode produced, including Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, and George Hearst, father of publishing baron William Randolph Hearst. While some became millionaires, still others sold out early and died poor. Henry Comstock was one of the less fortunate. Though his name remained attached to the lode, he moved on to prospect in other areas and eventually took his own life in Montana.

The Virginia and Truckee Railroad was built in 1869 to transport ore to quartz reduction mills in nearby Silver City and along the Carson River. On return trips, the railway carried wood for fuel and other supplies necessary for the mining process.

The “Great Fire of 1875” burned approximately three-fourths of the structures, but the town managed to get back on its feet within the following year and a half. Many buildings date to 1876 as a result of the massive rebuilding efforts.

The numerous veins of The Comstock Lode intertwined far below the earth’s surface, sending mining activities to new depths underground. The work conditions were extremely dangerous, plagued with cave-ins, flooding, and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. Out of necessity, Virginia City’s mines became instrumental in designing improved mining technology.

By the time the Great Depression rolled around, Virginia City was only a shadow of the bustling town it had been during its mining heydays. In a twist of fate during the 1960s, the popularity of the TV series “Bonanza” brought attention to the town. Though the series was filmed primarily on the backlot at Paramount Studios in So. Calif., with a few secondary locations, it succeeded in bringing visitors to the real Virginia City.

Another character linked to Virginia City is known not for his mining investments, but for his literary shenanigans. Author Samuel Clemens took on his pen name of Mark Twain while doing a stint as a local reporter for the Territorial Enterprise. His life in the colorful mining town is documented at the Mark Twain Museum. The author tells of his reporting days in “Roughing It.”

We returned to the hotel, this time entering from the main street and climbing a steep stairway that could easily take away a fit person’s breath even without factoring in the local 6200 ft. altitude. At the end of the narrow, gold-hued hallway we found our room and settled in for the night.

Whether it was because I opted out of Room 11 or simply because the resident spirits were feeling peaceful, I slept soundly. There were no mysterious footsteps outside the door and no glowing apparitions at the foot of the bed. Still, I admit to a certain aura within the building that was difficult to define. Perhaps it was just the inevitable sense of history that old buildings with interesting pasts seem to evoke. Perhaps.

Virginia City was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. This status helps maintain the historic structures much as they were over a century ago. Today the town is a popular tourist attraction with casinos, bed and breakfasts, museums, and a variety of other businesses. True, that means visitors will find an assortment of souvenirs and T-shirts for sale up and down the main street. But it also means a visit can mix fun with education, relaxation with a glimpse into the past.

On this visit, I was juggling a new camera, old laptop, freezing temperatures, leashed canine, and limited time. I missed out on much of what Virginia City has to offer: intriguing old churches, numerous cemeteries, educational museum exhibits, and tours of old mines and mansions.

Before moving on, we stopped at the Virginia City Visitor’s Center, housed in the former Crystal Bar. Here, below original tin ceilings and chandeliers, a very helpful Diamond Jim gave us additional area information and kindly posed for a picture with my traveling companion. With the day approaching noon, we left Virginia City and The Comstock Lode behind and headed back to catch Interstate 80 eastbound.