“To find a petrified man, or break a stranger’s leg, or cave an imaginary mine, or discover some dead Indians in a Gold Hill tunnel, or massacre a family at Dutch Nick’s, were feats and calamities that we never hesitated about devising when the public needed matters of thrilling interest for breakfast. The seemingly tranquil Enterprise office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days.” Mark Twain on his creative days of writing “fake news” as a reporter for the “Territorial Enterprise” in Virginia City during the 1860s.
Quivera, our 21 foot RV, was whining again as I drove her up the curvy, steep Geiger Grade to Virginia City from Highway 395. “Stop complaining,” I told her, “or we will go explore more four-wheel drive dirt roads.” She piped down immediately.
The town is perched on the edge of Mt. Davidson at an elevation of 6, 140 feet, providing dramatic views of the surrounding country.
It all started with a gold rush in 1859. There was a lot, but it was mixed in with a chunky black rock that resisted being separated from the gold. As it turns out, the dark rock was silver ore and it was much more plentiful than the gold. The ore was part of the famed Comstock Lode, the first major silver strike in the US. It was a strike that would create several millionaires, help fund the building of San Francisco, provide the North with much needed cash during the Civil War, serve as an impetus for creating the state of Nevada, and lead to the founding of Virginia City.
Samuel Clemens arrived in Carson City, Nevada by stage coach in 1861 with his brother Orion who had been awarded a plum position as secretary to the Territorial Governor of Nevada. Orion had earned his appointment by working in Abe Lincoln’s campaign for President. He invited his brother along to serve as his own secretary. Samuel found the job a bit tame for his creative imagination, however, especially given all the ‘get rich quick’ schemes that were floating around in the West. His first effort was to run a logging operation at the still wild Lake Tahoe. Lumber was in high demand. That adventure ended with his campfire escaping and burning down the trees he planned to log— plus a substantial part of the surrounding forests. He then decided he would try his luck mining for gold and silver, an effort that had similar results for him, except he didn’t burn down any more forests.
The Territorial Enterprise newspaper out of Virginia City saved Clemens from his life of toil in 1862. It also provided him with his life-long calling. The editor had been impressed with several ‘letters to the editor’ he had written and invited him to write for the paper and serve as city editor in Virginia City. He was soon earning an impressive forty dollars a week and had taken on a pen name, Mark Twain. As he notes in Roughing It, his delightful book about his adventures in the West, he rarely took his pay. He didn’t need to. Reporting was a profitable business. There were hundreds of wildcat mines that stood little chance of making a profit. Not to worry. Miners would select a snazzy name and then print up fancy stock. A favorable article in the newspaper would almost guarantee that the stock could then be sold for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Miners lined up eagerly at Twain’s door hoping for positive articles and paying him in stock to assure that the article was written. Forty dollars a week was chump change.
Twain remained in Virginia City from 1862 to 1864 before heading west into California. Virginia City continued to grow and prosper into the late 1870s reaching a population of some 25,000 people. A massive fire wiped out the town in 1875 but it was rebuilt within a year. Most of the historical buildings found in Virginia City today are from the post-fire era. There are some beauties!
NEXT POST: We will journey up to Reno and visit one of the world’s most impressive auto museums— and see some really classy autos.