Monday, January 1, 2018

Virginia City has a heart of silver

The view from Virginia City, Nev., has changed little since its 19th-century bonanza.

Last summer I read Mark Twain's "Roughing It." Although it is not my favorite Twain book, his stories about his time in my former "back yard" provided me with a good excuse to get reacquainted with Virginia City on my recent trip to the U.S.

Today's Virginia City, Nev., is a small tourist town, tucked into the Sierra Nevada, about a 35-minute drive from Reno along winding roads. This quintessential boomtown sprang up when the country's first major silver deposits, known as the Comstock Lode, were discovered here. At its peak in the mid-1870s, the city had a population of 25,000. Its most famous resident was Samuel Clemens who some say "invented" Mark Twain during his two years in Virginia City (1862-1864). While living here, he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper.

C Street in Virginia City, Nev., contains souvenir shops, clothing stores, lively
saloons and several candy makers.

Today, the city has about 850 residents as well as wooden sidewalks and an fine assortment of historical 150-year-old buildings including mansions, churches, saloons and shops. On this late autumn weekday morning there are few visitors, but doors to the souvenir and candy shops, bars and restaurants are wide open.

A mural on the side of Grandma's Fudge shop in Virginia
City, Nev., honors the town's heyday.

Virginia City, Nev., is seen from the Silver Terrace Cemeteries. 

We take a silent stroll through the Silver Terrace cemeteries, a collection of graveyards where the miners, merchants and residents of 19th-century Virginia City are buried. The Catholic cemetery occupies a places of honor on a hilltop, and a sign points in the direction of the Jewish cemetery, located a few miles to the north. There are no famous people buried here, but tours are offered that bring the cemeteries' occupants to life.
Masons, pioneers, Odd Fellows, firemen and Knights of Pythias are among
those buried in Virginia City, Nev.

An iron fence surrounds a grave in Virginia City, Nev.

Shops, restaurants and saloons stand along wooden
sidewalks in Virginia City, Nev.

We pop into a few shops along C street, but resist the temptation to have Bloody Marys at the Bucket of Blood saloon. If we had brought along friends who had never visited Virginia City, we would have taken them to museums and monuments like the Fourth Ward School, Piper's Opera House, the Storey County Courthouse, the Comstock Firehouse Museum or The Way it Was Museum. (Most Virginia City attractions are closed in the winter.) First-time visitors shouldn't pass up the chance to tour a silver mine; the Ponderosa mine tour operates all year round and is accessed inside the saloon of the same name.

The Comstock Firehouse Museum in Virginia City, Nev., displays 19th-century
firefighting equipment. The Great Fire of 1875 caused $12 million in damage
and left thousands homeless.

Visitors can pan for gold from May to September at the Virginia City
Mining Co. in Virginia City, Nev.

Piper's Opera House in Virginia City, Nev., is one of the West's most significant
vintage theaters. President Grant, Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Al Jolson
were among its headliners. 

A camel stands in the Virginia City Visitor Center. Each September the
town hosts camel and ostrich races.

I stop in the local tourism office to pick up a map and other materials. The free map is unimpressive and hard-to-read, but the office itself is fantastic with red walls, a gold ceiling and fancy chandeliers as well as a life-size camel. Among Virginia City's annual events are International Camel and Ostrich Races (on Labor Day weekend), Outhouse Races ( in October) and the Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry (on Saint Patrick's Day). My European friends who are reading this blog post may not know that Rocky Mountain Oysters are definitely not oysters.

Built in 1867, the Carpenter Gothic-style First Presbyterian
Church is the oldest in Virginia City, Nev.

St. Mary's in the Mountains in Virginia City is Nevada's
oldest Catholic church.

After the fire destroyed the original church in 1875, St. Paul's
Episcopal Church was built the following year.  

Also built in 1876 after the Great Fire, the Storey County Courthouse is
Nevada’s oldest continuously operating courthouse. The ornate Victorian-era
building contains a Lady of Justice statue without her blindfold. 

The Miner's Union Hall in Virginia City, Nev., honors "the glory of solidarity
and fraternity." The union was essential to the mining industry and provided
care for disabled miners and deceased miners' widows and orphans.

A few years ago I spent a couple of days here on a work-related retreat, which included a scavenger hunt and a humiliating evening of karaoke. But my fondest memory of a Virginia City visit was with my dad and two sons about 20 years ago and included a ride on the Virginia & Truckee railroad. The V&T was rebuilt in 1974 and offers rides to Gold Hill and Carson City. During the peak of the silver boom, as many as 45 trains a day ran between Virginia City and Gold Hill, Silver City, Carson City and Reno.

St. Mary's of the Mountains and sagebrush-covered hillsides in Virginia City, Nev.

For more information about Virginia City, visit the website.

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