One of the things that happens when you head out on a “make it up as you go” road trip is that you are constantly finding places to visit and things to do, that didn’t show up in any of your pre-trip research. Take Virginia City for example.
As we were heading to dinner in Reno, we grabbed a number of brochures and booklets on local attractions from one of the lobby racks. One that caught our eye was a pamphlet entitled “Step Back in Time – Virginia City, Nevada”. Upon further investigation, we learned that Virginia City was the most important city between Denver and the Pacific coast of California during the 19th century – and we’d never heard of it!
Google Maps told us that it was a 26 mile drive from Reno, through and up winding Rocky Mountain roads that would see us climb from 4400 feet above sea level to over 7,000 feet. We stopped half-way up to look back at Reno and the valley below.
The reason Virginia City was so important is that in 1859, it was the site of the first major silver deposit ever discovered in the United States. Subsequently named the Comstock lode, after the man who ultimately staked the claim on the site, more than one hundred millionaire prospectors emerged from the area, and many of them became the founding fathers of the city we know today as San Francisco. They used their new-found wealth to build mansions, hospitals, churches, schools and opera houses, some of which were lost in the 1906 earthquake and fire that devastated San Francisco, but many of which are still standing today.
At it’s peak, the population of Virginia City is said to have been anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000 making it one of the largest cities in the United States at that time. In fact, the wealth of the city was a primary source of funding for the U.S. Government during the Civil War as attested to by the local museum named after General Ulysses Grant. The three main mines produced $300 million dollars in (primarily) silver and gold deposits, and all told more than $400 million dollars of ore was mined in the area, before it was tapped out in 1898. And those dollar figures are in 19th century currency. Today those mines would have been worth billions of dollars.
Abraham Lincoln was so desperate to fund the Union’s efforts in the Civil War, that he granted Nevada statehood, even though the total population of Nevada didn’t qualify it as being large enough for consideration. Lincoln waived all the rules so he could have access to Virginia City’s money and some of the wealthy Union sympathisers that lived there.
The most famous person to be associated with Virginia City is Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and it is during his time as a reporter for the “Territorial Enterprise”, that he first used the pseudonym for which he became famous. His 1872 novel “Roughing It”, is set in and around Virginia City and is largely based on his experiences during the years he lived there – 1863-1869 by most accounts.
Following the discovery of the rich veins of silver in 1859, hundreds of structures were built in Virginia City including a six story hotel which featured the West’s first elevator, called a “rising room”. The town also had 22 saloons, three opium dens, several newspapers, competing fire companies, at least five police precincts, and a thriving red-light district. Much of what remains today was built between 1875 and 1877, since most of the original structures were destroyed by a series of fires between 1859 and 1875. One of those surviving buildings, Piper’s Opera House, which today is used for social events and weddings, was the hub of the local entertainment scene, although it is noted with pride that the local citizens played baseball as a favorite pastime, long before much of the rest of the country.
By the turn of the 20th century, Virginia City was reduced to not much more than a footnote in history as once the mines had dried up, there wasn’t much reason to stay and endure the harsh weather (blistering summer temperatures of well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), and today the permanent population stands at just 855. It holds the distinction of being the largest federally designated Historical District in America and the local citizenry continue to operate and maintain the stores and buildings on “C” Street, the main business street, which looks very much as it did in Mark Twain’s time.
The building/store that seemed to be generating the most traffic on the day we visited, was “Reds Old Fashioned Candies”. “Red” apprenticed as a candy maker for the Morrow’s Candy and Nut stores in 1930, and they sent him to San Francisco to open two locations. Red did not like the city, and ultimately left to start a family and his own candy business. He opened various stores throughout California before moving to Virginia City in 1962. It is the oldest operating candy store and factory in Nevada, and they make the most amazing brittle, hard candies and fudge, just to mention a few of the sugary delights. Talk about “candy heaven”. I could happily live out my days working in a store like that, although I’d eventually top out around 300 pounds from sampling the merchandise.