Virginia City, Nevada: Where Silver Ruled and Mark Twain Specialized in Fake News… The Highway 395 Series

Board sidewalks in Virginia City, Nevada that once kept the town’s residents out of the dirt, dust, horse poop and mud, now add an element of charm and authenticity to the old west town whose silver fortunes helped make Nevada a state and build San Francisco. The sign promised you could “See the Silver Queen dressed in 3,261 Silver Dollars.”

“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.

Twain took full advantage of people’s fascination with macabre as a journalist in Virginia City, creating events if the news of the day was boring. I wondered what he would have made of this woman’s skull I found staring out at me from one of the shops. I arbitrarily decided he would whip out a tale about a love affair gone wrong. Sex and murder are bound to draw the reader’s attention. Then I saw another skull in the window and decided the woman was yelling…
I suspect that Twain would have made an interesting story out of this Virginia City coach as well. My thought is that he would have tied it in to how long you had to wait to cross the main street that was clogged with ore carrying wagons.

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.

The hills behind the picaresque St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Virginia City seem to stretch off into infinity.
Another view of distant vistas. This one includes Sugarloaf Mountain. Dozens of mines once climbed up the slopes and spread throughout the Six Mile Canyon that stretches through this area.

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!

The Victorian Savage Mansion served as both a home and office for the Savage Mine. President Ulysses S. Grant gave a speech from the second floor balcony. The town’s main street runs above the house.
This is what the mansion looks like from above.
The Forth Ward School was a symbol of pride for Virginia City. Capable of holding over a thousand students, it utilized modern education techniques such as team teaching.
A side view of the Forth Ward School. It now serves as a museum. A major mine was located across the street.
This early photo of the Choller pit mine and the Fourth Ward School.
The Storey County Court House is another attractive building found in Virginia City.
A front view with the building date prominently displayed. A sign on the front door reported that DMV was closed on Friday. One other note: Justice is blind, right. Not here, she can see. Justice looked down on the streets of Virginia City and likely saw more than she wanted to.
The Piper Opera House is just down the road from the courthouse. I have always been intrigued by the number of early western boomtowns that featured opera houses.
This Presbyterian Church was one of the few buildings to survive the 1875 fire.
Both the imposing St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church and its smaller cousin, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, had to be rebuilt after the fire.
While we are talking fires, this was one of the early firehouses in Virginia City. It is now a museum housing various fire fighting equipment.
Such as this fancy fire truck. Apparently looks were as important, and possibly more so, than fire fighting capability.
I don’t know what this building was in its earlier life, but I found it appealing.
Another view of the building. It was up the steep hill from my RV campground. Just about everything in Virginia City is up or down a steep hill! The bright blue house behind the Jeweler’s shop made a fun contrast.
Any visit to Virginia City calls for a leisurely stroll up and down C Street, the towns main drag. This is what it looked like in 1866 before the fire caused it to be rebuilt.
Then, as now, the city had its fair share of saloons and then some! The Bucket of Blood Saloon refers to the buckets of water that had to be used each night to clean up the blood left behind by fighting miners.
Inside the Bucket of Blood Saloon today. I was impressed by the saloon’s expensive look. Photos of early Virginia City were featured beneath the bar. The one you can see featured a V&T train.
A mural in the center of town also features the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. Built in the 1870s, the railroad carried millions of dollars worth of gold ore to Carson City and Reno. Rebuilt in 1974, the V&T now carries tourist from Virginia City to nearby Gold Hill or farther afield to Carson City in ornate cars pulled by vintage steam and diesel engines. All aboard!
The mural, which definitely needs some loving care, also featured the Piper Opera House, a dancing girl, and what I assume were stained glass windows from one of the churches.
Continuing my stroll along C Street, I found this blacksmith shop.
The Crystal Bar.
The Red Dog Saloon. An upstairs windows offered painless dentistry. These were pre-novocaine days. I wondered how much booze would be required. Law offices offered ‘acquittals in most cases.’ A room was one dollar. For another dollar you could have a bath that came with an attendant. Did he/she wash your back?
This bar looked intriguing. I was tempted but 10 AM is a little early for me.
A building that apparently came without a saloon.
And another.
Some amusing signs I found along C Street.
And my favorite.
I couldn’t help but think of the TV series. In fact, Virginia City owes a lot to Bonanza. It was the go-to town for the Cartwrights. People who enjoyed the immensely popular series became interested in seeing the town, which gave Virginia City a substantial boost in tourism during its 14th season, 431 episode run.
The well-know map of the umpteen thousand acre Ponderosa that kicked off each episode of Bonanza. (Mark Twain’s fire, BTW, would have burned a portion of the Ponderosa had it been for real. The Cartwright family would have been after his hide.)
Virginia City’s most famous Madame, Julia Bulette, was even included in an episode of Bonanza. Little Joe falls in love with her and Ben disapproves, a natural reaction for a dad when your son falls in love with a lady of the evening. When Julia helps save numerous lives, which she did in real life, Ben relents. The Number 1 hat on the left was given to Julia by the town’s firemen who considered her a hero and a friend.
Any post about Virginia City should include something about the silver and gold mines. These are mine tailings. Mines were located almost everywhere, including under the city.
You hear a lot about stamp mills when you visit the early mining towns of the west such as Virginia City and Bodie. Here is the device that gives the mills their name. The steel booted rods act like pistons rising and falling to crush ore that is fed into a pan at the bottom. You can imagine the infernal noise created. Mark Twain worked feeding one of these machines. It was his job to use a sledgehammer to break up larger pieces of ore to throw into the pan. He lasted for a whole week and earned ten dollars for his 12 hour a day, six day a week job.
Mining is dangerous work. These square-set timbers developed for mining in Virginia City made it safer by providing more protection from cave-ins.
The mines reached a depth of over 3,000 feet, creating further challenges. One was keeping ahead of the underground water that constantly threatened to flood the shafts. The other was dealing with heat. As the depths increased, the temperature of the geo-thermal water increased. Falling in meant being scalded to death. Ambient temperatures in the mines reached up to 130 degrees F. One solution to the water problem was the Sutro Tunnel that was built at a painstaking pace of 3.2 inches per hour for approximately four miles and allowed up to four million gallons of water a day to be drained. The cart above was used by miners working on the tunnel.
I’ll finish my post with this view of a quiet day in Virginia City. If big crowds and lots of excitement are your thing, you might want to visit on the Fourth of July, as the sign recommends— or time travel back to the 1860s and 70s!

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.

47 thoughts on “Virginia City, Nevada: Where Silver Ruled and Mark Twain Specialized in Fake News… The Highway 395 Series

  1. As fond as I am of Mark Twain’s writings, there’s obviously a lot about Twain I didn’t know. This is certainly a town to see — great old buildings and even some rebuilt ones, pretty mountain scenery, and history at every turn. Even enjoyed your quotes you found in the stores. Such a cool post!

    • Thanks Rusha. Glad you enjoyed the post! I enjoyed writing it and visiting the town. Lots of interesting history, made all the more so by Twain’s observations in “Roughing It.” Like you, I learned things about Twain I never knew. –Curt

  2. Your trip up 395 has given us lots of new places to see, and I enjoyed this post, Curt, even though you finally hit on one we had actually seen.
    We too enjoyed the city and in particular a tour of the mansion at the edge of town given to us by a lady who seemed as old as the town.

    • Always fun to revisit somewhere you have been and see it though another person’s eyes, Ray. At least it is for me. As old as the hills, eh? I think retirees often enjoy being docents. –Curt

  3. We were there with our kids on our cross country trip many years ago and I really enjoyed visiting. Thank you for all of these wonderful images. I loved seeing this town again through your eyes.

    • Thanks, Sylvia. The town has a fascinating history made all the more so with the Mark Twain connection. I think it would be a great place to take a family. There is lots of stuff to capture the imagination of kids as well as adults. –Curt

  4. Virginia City looks so much like Butte, MT. I guess mining towns of the time have a similar look. I’d like to explore Virginia City someday. Someday I’ll RV here, too.

    I loved all the Mark Twain references.

    • Growing up in California’s Gold Country, I have more than a passing acquaintance with early mining/boomtowns, Juliann, and you are right. There are lots of similarities.
      I enjoyed seeing the town through Twain’s eyes both from the perspective of a first-hand account and for it’s insights into Twain. –Curt

  5. Interesting place – picturesque in places. I think I have a copy of “Roughing It” from a Gutenberg Project collection I have, maybe I need to have a closer look.

  6. Came here from Crystal’s blog link and glad I did
    Excellent history post!
    Cool city and the bucket of blood saloon? What a name! And seems well maintained
    Also / I like those opera houses and never tire of seeing different ones
    Thanks for the laugh with the signs – the nap and the bacteria in water – lol

  7. Curt, precious metals never seem to locate themselves in convenient locations. And Virginia City doesn’t seem that convenient even by today’s standards. I had no idea that Twain got his start here. In those days, a trip this far west must have been rough. ~James

  8. Curt, Your blog article has a delightful title. Pictures are great, and the blog theme seems especially well laid out. You had it in you all the time. Glad you are doing this for everyone now.

  9. Been saving this up. Thanks for this lovely tour back in time to Virginia City. Mark Twain I gather was not a man of great integrity, chuckle. And clearly better suited to writing than manual labor.

    • I learned a lot about Twain that I didn’t know. It wasn’t quite what they teach you in English Lit, but he did include it in his book. I think he was a man of his times, Alison. Glad you enjoyed the visit. –Curt

  10. There’s a lot to love here, from the architecture to the history to the Twain that I haven’t read, and now intend to. But I’m dying to know: why did you choose ‘picaresque’ as the descriptor for St. Paul’s Episcopal? At first I thought it might be a typo, but the more I read about the town, and the goings-on there, the more I wondered whether there might be something of more than passing interest in that church’s history. Inquiring minds want to know!

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