Nevada: Virginia City Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This nineteenth century mining boomtown, the leading city in Nevada for twenty-five years, helped advance Nevada’s territorial status to statehood.

Site Office

Virginia City Chamber of Commerce

P.O. Box 464

Virginia City, NV 89440

ph.: (775) 847-0311

In 1859, thousands of Californians began invading Mount Davidson in northwestern Nevada, searching for a share of the Comstock Lode, a rich vein of gold and silver. By 1860 several mining camps had been converted into three small towns, Silver City, Gold Hill, and Virginia City, site of the northern section of the lode. During two decades of mining, the colorful frontier town would extract more than four hundred million dollars in gold and silver. The vast treasure at Comstock pushed San Francisco ahead of its competitors in world commerce, hastened Nevada’s elevation to statehood, and enriched the U.S. Treasury. Virginia City was a forerunner of many successful boomtowns–Boise, Idaho; Helena, Montana; and Leadville and Denver, Colorado–which attracted persons from diverse ethnic and professional backgrounds. It also served as the cornerstone for a new society that linked the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The area between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies became indispensable to the nation.

Early History

Before 1859 few miners explored the rocky, sage-brush-covered canyons of northwestern Nevada, then known as Washoe. Most simply used the Carson River Valley below Lake Tahoe as a place to rest on the way to California. In 1850, on Mount Davidson’s southern slope, several prospectors found traces of gold along the banks of a creek, and named the gulch Gold Canyon. Sparse amounts of the precious metal also had been found at Six-Mile Canyon, a gulch to the north of Mount Davidson. The difficulty of sifting gold from the area’s dense black mud discouraged any formal operations during the mid-1850’s. Less ambitious miners staked out small placer claims along the creek, making only three to four dollars a day, just enough to scrape by. Placer refers to the mineral deposits found near a body of water, lode to the primary vein of ore.

The Comstock Lode

Located between both gulches, at an altitude of 6,400 feet, was the Comstock Lode. In the early spring of 1859 a prospector named James Fennimore, or “Old Virginny,” Finney, reached the head of Gold Canyon and staked his claim on top of a knoll. Henry T. P. Comstock and several other men staked claims beside Fennimore’s, following the regulations for placer mining–fifty by four hundred feet per man. Soon the men began raking in twenty dollars a day atop Gold Hill, and they founded a small town named after the lucrative knoll.

Comstock happened to stake his claim above the southern end of the lode. At the head of Six Mile Canyon, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley discovered the northern end of the same lode, but Comstock claimed he owned the source of their gold, a spring atop Gold Hill. After Comstock threatened to keep them from digging, McLaughlin and O’Riley agreed to a new partnership with Comstock and his associate, Emanuel Penrod.

For two weeks the four men extracted as much gold as they could. Because their gold was “contaminated” with a pale metal substance, it sold for only eight dollars an ounce, half the price of California gold. Nonetheless, their daily profits soared, into hundreds of dollars. After a curious settler took a sample of the pale dust to be analyzed in Grass Valley, California, the miners discovered they had been throwing away silver–$3,000 a ton, plus $876 in gold. At a time when “good” ore brought $100, $3,876 was an astronomical figure.

The Washoe Gold Rush

The race to Washoe began. The financial panic of 1857 had created hard economic times in the East and Middle West. The unemployed traveled west for a better life, while in California, a surplus of prospectors and miners moved eastward. Comstock, O’Riley, McLaughlin, and Penrod, however, had shifted the status of their claim from placer to lode, entitling them to more land–a 1,500-foot share which they named the Ophir Mine. One night, legend says, as James Fennimore drunkenly staggered near the Ophir Mine, he tripped, dropped his whiskey bottle, and watched it shatter. He exclaimed “I christen this ground Virginia!” one explanation given for the name, Virginia City.

Columns of stakes, frame shanties, and canvas tents greeted the fortune-seekers who arrived; many had to turn back, because the available claims were snapped up quickly. Some newcomers, called “developers,” bought out claims at very low prices. Since many prospectors were interested in a quick return, and unwilling to take on risky investments, most only skimmed the surface of claims. After making a modest profit from a placer claim, the prospector would sell out to developers, who reaped the greatest profit.

Exploitation of the Comstock

For two decades the Comstock was explored and approximately thirty ore bodies were found. In 1873 the largest vein, the “Big Bonanza,” was discovered. The mines produced $1 million worth of metal in 1860, $6.24 million in 1862, and $15.79 million in 1864. Later figures varied, but the highest yield occurred in 1876 with $38.57 million, after miners extracted the greater part of the Big Bonanza. The Comstock output eventually reached $400 million dollars worth of gold and silver, or a block of ore equal in size to a modern freight car.

The area around the Comstock was dominated by its major industry. An underground network of mines required a large labor force, specialized equipment, mills, railroad yards, and foundries. There were problems with water, finance, and government. In 1859 and 1860, there was no political control. The Gold Hill Mining District had elected a justice of the peace and a constable, and established a code of conduct, but it was completely ignored.

Creation of Nevada Territory

On January 18, 1861, the Utah territorial legislature passed an act which incorporated Virginia City. With the organization of the Nevada Territory, new acts of incorporation were passed in December, 1862, and February, 1864, the latter establishing a mayor-council government. Virginia City’s growing wealth precipitated Nevada’s statehood in 1864. Consequently, on March 4, 1865, the Nevada legislature approved a more thorough act which provided for the election of a mayor, a board of four aldermen, a recorder, a treasurer, an assessor, and a chief of police. The aldermen were responsible for creating other offices, levying and collecting taxes, and fixing license fees on billiard tables and saloons. Only five years after the Comstock discovery, Virginia City had transformed Nevada.

To facilitate the import of machinery and supplies, and the export of ore, a railroad was built from Virginia City to Carson City in 1869. Most of the twenty-one-mile railway was blasted through solid rock. Later construction extended the curving railroad north, to the Central Pacific at Reno.

Boom Times in Virginia City

By 1870 the quality of life in Virginia City was comparable to that of eastern cities. The railroad delivered loads of furniture, ornamental woodwork, and stone for an opera house and the luxurious International Hotel, unrivaled between Chicago and San Francisco. First-class restaurants, theaters, churches, and schools afforded most of the citizens a comfortable lifestyle. The population of the Gold Hill-Virginia City area reached a peak of twenty-five thousand in the 1870’s.

Despite its riches, Virginia City was negligent in offering fire protection. Most of the wooden buildings were close to one another, the water supply was inadequate, and the firefighters were inexperienced volunteers. The most disastrous fire struck during the city’s most booming period. On October 26, 1875, a fire started in a lodging house and quickly spread to the business district. A strong wind, or “Washoe zephyr,” fanned the inferno westward, from the center of the city to the mine buildings. The fire burned four hundred feet down the Ophir shaft, destroying the hoisting works.

Before the blaze was snuffed out, it had destroyed three-quarters of the town, and forced the temporary closing of three major mines, the Consolidated-Virginia, the California, and the Ophir. Two thousand people were left homeless. Cyrenius B. McLellan, a famous Nevada artist, lost most of his work. Several important buildings were saved: the Fourth Ward School, the Presbyterian church, a brewery in Six-Mile Canyon, Piper’s Opera House, and the mansion of Robert N. Graves, superintendent of the Empire Mine.

Within a matter of months, however, the city rebuilt its businesses, mines, and homes, constructed a second water line, and improved its hydraulic system. By 1880 the rebuilt city was host to an array of businesses: twenty-two restaurants, twelve lodging houses, ten boarding houses, thirty-nine groceries, fifteen butcher shops, six furniture stores, seven tailoring establishments, seven millinery shops, six dry goods stores, eight pharmacies, and eleven dairies.

Multiethnic City

Virginia City’s population encompassed a wide variety of ethnic groups. Most of them formed national societies. The largest group, the Irish, formed three military companies–the Emmet Guard, the Sweeney Guard, and the Scarsfield Guard. Germans participated in several bands and the Turnverein societies, which met each Sunday at Von Bokkelen’s Beer Gardens. Each August, the Scottish Caledonian Society sponsored a “Gathering of the Clans.” The Italian Benevolent Society held picnics and balls, while many of the English performed in a choir and orchestra.

Mexicans, Chinese, Indians, and blacks were subject to discrimination, but they formed their own institutions and gradually assimilated into the social fabric of Virginia City. Blacks organized a Masonic lodge, a Baptist church, and an African Methodist Episcopal church. There were unsuccessful attempts to set up black schools, but by 1880 the public schools were educating black, Chinese, and Indian children.

Virginia City Vice

During the day Virginia City may have resembled a stable, cosmopolitan community, but at night the “Queen of the Comstock” was a frontier mining town like no other. An extensive red-light district flourished amid noisy saloons, gambling houses, and pool rooms. Stage celebrities such as Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, and Lotta Crabtree entertained packed theaters. Drinking was a common pastime for miners. Some men consumed a quart of whiskey a day, causing one observer to say, “Heavy drinking was the curse of the Comstock.” In 1880, 200,000 gallons of alcohol were shipped by railroad to Virginia City. The arrest rate in Virginia City was high; the most common charges included drunk and disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, fighting, and sleeping on the sidewalk.

News about the notorious mining town spread quickly, attracting many visitors. The most prominent visitors included presidents Benjamin Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Ulysses S. Grant; politicians James G. Blaine and Schuyler Colfax; Civil War generals Philip Sheridan and William Tecumseh Sherman; the inventor Thomas A. Edison; the famous minister Henry Ward Beecher; the agnostic Robert Ingersoll; humorist Artemus Ward; and suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Samuel Langhorne Clemens started using his pen name, Mark Twain, as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise, Virginia City’s leading newspaper.

In 1866 the miners formed a union and soon established relatively fair working regulations: an eight-hour shift and a daily salary of four dollars for underground work. The miners’ wages were among the highest in U.S. industry during the 1860’s and 1870’s, but their working conditions were frightening. In 1867 a photographer named Timothy O’Sullivan exposed the nether world of the Comstock in a haunting portfolio. His eerie pictures showed miners engaged in lonely, arduous work in a place that was, as he said, “hundreds of feet below daylight.”

Dan De Quille

One of the first writers to describe the miners’ environment was William Wright, alias Dan De Quille, a reporter and editor for the Territorial Enterprise. In 1876 De Quille finished a major reference piece about the Comstock, The History of the Big Bonanza. He provided a vivid description of a silver mine:

Almost the first thing that attracts our attention upon entering the place is the mouth of the main shaft. We see rushing up through several square openings in the floor great volumes of steam. This steam appears to be hissing hot, and rushes almost to the roof of the building. We are surprised to see men coolly ascending and descending the very heart of these columns of steam.

De Quille himself braved the underground descent.

At the depth of from 1,500 to 2,000 feet the rock is so hot that it is painful to the naked hand. In many places, from crevices in the rock or from holes drilled into it, streams of hot water gush out. In these places the thermometer often shows a temperature of from 120 degrees to 130 degrees.

In April, 1877, the Territorial Enterprise reported that miner John Exley slipped into a pool of water that had reached a temperature of 160 degrees. He sank waist-deep for only a few seconds, but his burns were so severe that he soon died.

Conditions in the Mines

Iron cages used for transporting men, timber, silver, and debris presented several dangers. An arm, leg, or head extended beyond the speeding cage was ripped off instantly. Sometimes timber or tools fell down a shaft. In 1880, at the surface of the New Yellow Jacket Mine, a cage containing steel drills caught on an obstruction and spilled its contents. After falling half a mile, the drills struck eight men in another cage, killing five and injuring three. In a bizarre accident, a dog failed to leap across a shaft, plummeted three hundred feet, and landed on two men, killing them.

Most deaths resulted from falls down the deep shafts. As miners were hoisted to the surface after a day of exhaustive work, sometimes a man became faint, fell out of the cage, and ricocheted to the bottom. Other miners would have to retrieve the remains. Numerous men were killed in cave-ins, a likely event if the timbers supporting the shafts were not installed properly. In addition, the thick sheets of clay in the Comstock swelled when exposed to air, causing the timbers to buckle under the pressure. Sometimes groaning timbers warned the men of a cave-in up to a day or two beforehand. Nevertheless, miners had to continue working. Of the perhaps ten thousand men who worked in the underground Comstock, at least three hundred were killed and six hundred maimed or disabled.

As the digging continued, larger pumps were needed to stem the increased flooding, and more tunnels were dug eastward to allow water–which reached ever-hotter temperatures as the mines went deeper–to drain down Mount Davidson. Engineer Adolph Sutro devised an extensive deep tunnel system to facilitate the effort, but the system was not finished. By 1882, the mine shafts had reached a depth of three thousand feet. The suffocating heat was so severe that miners were unable to work more than fifteen minutes out of every hour. Gloves had to be worn as protection from the heat of the wooden pick handles, and an average worker consumed ninety-five pounds of ice a day. Officials of the U.S. Mint questioned the advisability of keeping the mines open, given the difficult working conditions and the fact that the yield had lessened severely.

Decline of Virginia City

By the late 1870’s Virginia City was on a downhill slide, and by the end of the century mine production was averaging half a million dollars a year. Mining continued on the Comstock for decades with new refining processes, but most efforts yielded modest returns. The mines shut down in 1942, as the U.S. Government considered gold and silver as nonessential to World War II production.

The Comstock left a rich legacy–about twenty millionaires, and hundreds of other wealthy individuals, including those who speculated on the mines in the San Francisco stock market. John W. Mackay, who arrived in Virginia City as a poor miner, left with a tremendous fortune and founded the Postal Telegraph Company. John Percival Welch started his career as a stone mason, became superintendent of a mill, and later served in the U.S. Senate for thirty years. George Hearst, father of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, got his start in mining at the Comstock. He made huge profits with a share of the Ophir and went on to make greater fortunes at the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota and the Anaconda copper mine in Montana. Comstock and his original partners were beset by personal problems and bad business decisions, but many other mine owners became successful capitalists or politicians. The Comstock also proved invaluable to the mining industry: superintendents, foremen, mechanics, carpenters, and miners used their experience and skills to open new mines elsewhere in the United States, Canada, and overseas.

Modern Preservation Efforts and Tourism

After World War II, a new industry–tourism–sparked life into Virginia City. Lucius Beebe, a New York columnist and railroad buff, prompted the tourist boom when he moved to Virginia City in 1950. Beebe restored a fading mansion, named one of his railroad cars after the town, and revived the Territorial Enterprise in the style of Mark Twain. Renovations were also completed at Piper’s Opera House and the Fourth Ward School; museums, antique shops, and mansions offered tours and various exhibits. Publicity soared in the 1950’s with the debut of Bonanza, a popular television series set near Virginia City. The show revolved around a group of cattlemen rather than miners, but it increased interest in Virginia City just the same.

Virginia City offers dozens of fully restored, historic buildings to present-day visitors. The three-story, Second Empire-style Fourth Ward School is home to a visitor center and history museum. Historic homes include the Mackay Mansion, which was occupied–at different times–by George Hearst and John Mackay; the Chollar Mansion, originally built over the Chollar Mine; the Savage Mansion, built by a mining company of that name; and the Castle, built by Robert N. Graves, superintendent of the Empire Mine.

The Territorial Enterprise building houses the Mark Twain Museum, a collection of memorabilia affiliated with the city’s leading newspaper. The oldest saloon in town is the Old Washoe Club, where the “bonanza kings” celebrated their lucrative business deals. The Way It Was Museum offers mining artifacts, photographs, and various exhibits, including a model of the Comstock Lode directly below Virginia City. Other important public buildings that have been preserved include the Miner’s Union Hall and the Storey County Court House.

For Further Information
  • Ellen, Mary, and Al Glass. Touring Nevada: A Historic and Scenic Guide. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1983. Supplements a descriptive one-day tour of Virginia City with historical background. For those interested in visiting the Queen of the Comstock.
  • Elliot, Russell R. History of Nevada. 2d ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. A broader view of Virginia City. Political, economic, and social issues are meticulously explored as Elliot reveals the Comstock’s pervasive influence on Nevada and the West.
  • Hinckle, Warren, and Fredric Hobbs. The Richest Place on Earth: The Story of Virginia City and the Heyday of the Comstock Lode. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1978. A narrative account of the wild characters and escapades of Virginia City. Thoroughly researched, the dramatic yet light-hearted tale is more colorful than most sources. Hobbs’s expressive line-drawings are amazingly faithful to the story’s tone.
  • Toll, David W. The Complete Nevada Traveler: The Affectionate and Intimately Detailed Guidebook to the Most Interesting State in America. Virginia City, Nev.: Gold Hill, 1998. A guidebook offering anecdotes about the locations covered, including Virginia City. Includes maps and illustrations.
  • Twain, Mark. Roughing It. 1871. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. This embellished memoir of Mark Twain’s years in Nevada provides the most vivid depiction of Virginia City during its flush times ever published.
  • Wallace, Robert. The Miners. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1976. Takes a penetrating look at the rise and fall of the Comstock in Chapter 2, “A Lode to Outshine King Solomon’s Mines.” Assisted by old photographs and maps, Wallace vividly describes the physical and mental ordeals of being a miner. The reader gains an excellent understanding of the layout, technology, and complex workings of a mine.
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