Western Trips

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Virginia City Nevada And The Comstock Lode

Your Nevada vacation might include a fun visit to old Virginia City, the Silver Queen town of the 1800's.

The town is located in the Reno/Carson City area and offers a full day of stepping back into the times when mining dominated the Nevada landscape. It's a must visit on any Nevada road trip. Many times a visit to Nevada includes a vacation to Las Vegas. There is quite another story about the state of Nevada outside of Las Vegas and Virginia City is a great example. The story of Nevada goes back more than 150 years.

The photo at left is Virginia City, Nevada from the 1867-1868 period and is from the U.S. Government National Archives and Records Administration. The photo below it on the left is Virginia City in 1920.

The Comstock Lode

When you discuss the mining background of Virginia City you have to talk about the famed Comstock Lode. This was the first major discovery of silver ore in the U.S.and it happened right in Virginia City.

When the discovery was made public in 1859, people from everywhere traveled to the area to stake a claim. The population in the Virginia Mountain Range went through the roof. Huge wealth was dug from the earth and Virginia City was born. The silver rush was the biggest thing to happen since the 1849 California Gold Rush. The picture below right from Harper's Weekly shows the humor in how difficult it was to lead a mule team over the Sierra Nevada Mountains when word of the ore strikes got out. At one time Virginia City had a population of 40,000 people. Today it's America's largest Historic District.

Henry Comstock

Henry T.P. Comstock, whose name is associated with this mother lode, supposedly took over a cabin from the Grosh Brothers who perished in 1858.

There has always been controversy with this claim which was fairly common when this type of potential wealth is concerned. The most prevalent story is that Comstock learned of two prospectors that hit a silver strike on the land he had claimed and was using for grazing purposes. He was successful in negotiating himself and a partner of his into a partnership with the prospectors thus ensuring a piece of the find.

What Is A Claim Worth and Who Owns It?

What's interesting is that when someone staked a claim on either
a silver or gold strike, it wasn't really clear exactly how much ore was there to reap.

Investors popped up and for the most part they were needed for the capital required to get the ore out of the ground. Not an easy process. There isn't a figure available on how much capital was needed but it can be assumed it wasn't a small amount. An investor actually makes a bet on the potential. In essence it's like gambling. It's like taking a Las Vegas vacation and placing your bets. Perhaps this is how the idea of gambling first blossomed in the state of Nevada.

In any event, many wealthy people moved in and ended up taking the claims through litigation. There were many challenges to the claims made by original miners, a field day for lawyers.  One of those outsiders who was successful in gaining a large stake was George Hearst from the Hearst newspaper family.

There are a great many interesting and amusing side stories about Virginia City. One such story involves the young Mark Twain pictured to the right on a 1940 issue postage stamp in his honor.

A Colorful History Filled With Great Stories

The story is that Samuel Clemens then working for the Territorial Enterprise ( Nevada's first newspaper), chose Virginia City as the place to begin using the pen name Mark Twain. Virginia City is referred to by many as being the "birthplace" of Mark Twain. Prior to moving to Virginia City Samuel Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.  The young Mark Twain used some of his frontier experiences in Virginia City as a basis for some of his later writings.

Another story is how Henry Comstock ended up selling his 1/6 share for about $11,000. This was a pittance of what his share was really worth. He then went on to become a rather unsuccessful merchant and  prospector and reportedly committed suicide after going broke. Other accounts say he was shot in Bozeman, Montana in September 1870. No grave has ever been found. The mines in which Comstock sold his 1/6 th share for next to nothing ended up producing about $400 million dollars in silver and gold.

Virginia City Becomes a Major Western Town

The mines in Virginia City were so prosperous that the rich and famous were attracted there. They built mansions, imported fine furnishings from Europe and the Orient. Virginia City became the most important city between Denver and San Francisco.

The picture at left shows the Fourth Ward Schoolhouse (upper right) built in the 1800's. Magnificent structures like this were created at what was not too long beforehand a desolate and barren area. The wealth generated out of Virginia City helped finance the Civil War and helped build Victorian San Francisco.

The 1960's western TV series Bonanza takes place near Virginia City which is just a short distance east of Lake Tahoe. The TV series takes you back into history in it's ninth episode which involves Henry Comstock. In this episode the Cartwrights run into a prospector who says he has a claim signed over to him from Comstock which Ben Cartwright refutes. Hang on..there's more. Another episode of "Bonanza" is about the Cartwright family helping a Virginia City reporter, Samuel Clemens, investigate the shady goings on between a local judge and a railroad company.

A Growing Western Town Attracts Celebrities

Virginia City, Nevada also attracted entertainers and celebrities of the period. A town which grew relatively quickly to 40,000 obviously became a venue for singers, actors and performers off all kinds and there was money to spend. This was the time before Hollywood. Troupes of performers would travel the country to find audiences. A similar example was the explosive growth of Bisbee, Arizona at the turn of the century when large deposits of copper and silver were being mined there. Bisbee was a regular stop on the vaudeville circuit. Old time comedians such as Rosco "Fatty" Arbuckle ( later a movie actor) traveled to Bisbee to perform in the early 1900's. Mining was where the money was. You might be able to see an opera singer on the streets of Virginia City as easily as in New York.

With the tremendous amount of gold and silver in the area, the U.S. Government established a mint in Carson City, Nevada. This mint (pictured left) produced over a hundred issues of gold and silver coins between the years 1870 and 1893.

Visit Virginia City Nevada

The state of Nevada has plenty to offer the tourist. Las Vegas casinos and Reno Casinos are obviously a big attraction to many but visiting a place like old Virginia City offers an educational opportunity. Filled with museums, mine tours, elegant mansions and many more tourist sites, the Virginia City, Nevada area is an excellent addition to your western U.S. road trip.

You may also be interested in our Western Trips story of Rhyolite and Goldfield Nevada and their fast boom and bust.

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)

Nevada travel guides and Nevada maps are available from many online sources. Virginia City, Nevada travel guides are available as well. Check out the sites below.




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