Virginia City’s place in American Old West history is truly unique. Beginning in 1859 when gold was found at the head of Six-Mile Canyon by two gullible miners named Pat McLaughlin and Peter O’Reilly, the first industrial city was born. A fellow miner named Henry Comstock stumbled upon their find and claimed it was on his property. McLaughlin and O’Reilly believed him, thus assuring Comstock a place in the annals of history when his discovery was named.
People quickly started calling the massive body of gold and silver that was found “The Comstock Lode.” Resulting in what today would be worth billions of dollars, practically overnight Virginia City became a highly urbanized and industrial setting. Together with the smaller (and appropriately named) neighboring town of Gold Hill, by the early 1870s Virginia City’s population reached 30,000, making it one of the largest communities in the country.
For the next half century the city’s mining industry would hold the attention of the world as it poured more than $700 million in gold and silver into the ever-expanding nation. During the peak of the boom times Virginia City was a boisterous town with everything going on 24 hours a day. Celebrities visited, Shakespearean plays were performed, the red-light district thrived, there were five police precincts and the first miner’s union in the country was formed. The town’s International Hotel was six stories high and featured the West’s first elevator, which at the time was referred to as a “rising room.”
Widely known as the most important settlement between Denver and San Francisco, the riches pulled from Virginia City’s earth turned grubby prospectors into instant millionaires. They in turn built mansions and imported the finest furniture and fashions from Europe and the Orient.
There was even a young man named Samuel Clemens who began his writing career for the Territorial Enterprise. Working as a reporter here in Virginia City, Mr. Clemens first used the famous pen name that he would be known by for the rest of his illustrious career: Mark Twain.
There was sort of one problem early on though that slowed work in the mines: a sticky, blue/gray mud clung to miners’ picks and shovels. But when this mud was tested it proved to be silver ore, which was worth a little over $2,000 a ton. Soon gold mixed with high-quality silver ore was recovered in quantities large enough to draw the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. After the Civil war the county was broke economically and lacked silver and gold to make up into the U.S. dollar. The Comstock Mines and particularly the Big Bonanza Mine behind the hotel were the source for the first U.S. currency after the Civil War.
Due to the Silver panic of 1880 which kept silver at .50 per ounce good times were clearly over. By the time the Great Depression rolled around, Virginia City had become a small town of only several hundred people.
During the late ‘50s the NBC television western Bonanza breathed new life into Virginia City. Airing from 1959 to 1973, the enormous popularity of the show attracted tourists from around the world. The show’s popularity influenced the city’s businesses, which quickly included amenities for travelers like restaurants, saloons, and shops along the main strip.
Today Virginia City is within America’s largest designated historical districts in the U.S. and is maintained in its original condition. In keeping with tradition, Virginia City does not have any chain stores or fast food restaurants. C Street, the main business street, is lined with 1860s and 1870s buildings that house specialty shops of all kinds, allowing this historic town to maintain the style and charm of its famed mining days.