Have you ever imagined living in another time? I know I have. Traveling makes it easy to visualize myself in another time and place. On my recent trip to Reno, I visited Virginia City. I was immediately transported back to the late 1800s, when this mining town was booming with activity.
The main stretch of road runs through the heart of the city, lined with Victorian-style buildings. I envisioned a line of workers heading towards the shafts and tunnels of the mines, preparing for a long day underground. And I could see myself walking along the wooden sidewalks, dressed to the nines for an evening at the nearby tavern.
Virginia City’s glory days are a distant memory, but the importance of what happened here lives on in the structures that remain.
A Brief History of Virginia City
Virginia City, once called the Richest Place on Earth, was established in 1859 with the discovery of the Comstock Lode by Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin. The Comstock name came from Henry T.P. Comstock, who managed to attach himself to the founding. The Lode was the first major silver deposit in the country. After it was discovered, several mines opened, and the town seemed to boom overnight.
According to folklore, Virginia City got its name when James Fennimore, “Old Virginny Finney,” tripped and broke a bottle of whiskey outside a saloon on Gold Hill. He christened the spot Virginia City. It’s a fitting start to a city that, at one point, became home to almost 100 bars.
Mining dominated the economy in Virginia City. Within a few months of the Comstock Lode discovery, dozens of mines popped up, and thousands of tunnels were built in the mountain below the town. Mining drove up the population and wealth of the area in a matter of years. By 1875, Virginia City had a population of over 25,000 people, and the mines were producing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of silver and gold ore.
Virginia City’s other claim to fame, apart from its impressive mining industry, is Mark Twain. It was back in 1863 in Virginia City when Samuel Clemens first used his soon-to-be-famous pen name. He was a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper and wrote for the publication for two years.
As with any great mining boom, the success came to an end in the 1880s. Most of the mines had been bled dry of their profitable minerals. The population declined as people left to find fortune elsewhere.
Present Day Virginia City
Virginia City is significantly smaller today, with a population of about 1,200 people. Many of the original buildings erected back in the 1870s still stand today, with a few refurbishments. The traditional look and feel the city draws thousands of people every year. It’s easy to see why. The rickety sidewalks, eclectic stores and restaurants, and various nods to the past transport you back to a different time. But don’t take my word for it, let the pictures speak for themselves.
If You Visit Virginia City
Location: 40 minutes southeast of Reno
Things to Do:
- Trolley Tour – 20 minute narrated tour of Virginia City that provides a brief overview of the city’s history and a look at some of its famed sites. ($5 for adults, $3 for children under 12)
- Mine Tour – What better way to get in touch with the city’s past than by stepping into what made it great? Enjoy one of the many mine tours open to the public. I took the Ponderosa Mine Tour. However, there are several others to choose from.
- The Way It Was Museum – Discover more about mining than you ever imagined at this small museum at the edge of town. It holds the most complete collection of Comstock mining artifacts in the world. (admission: $2.50 for adults; children 11 and under are free)
- Visit a Saloon – You can’t go to Virginia City without pulling up a seat at one of its famed saloons. Grab a drink at the Bucket of Blood; experience the oldest property in the city, the Delta Saloon; or see where psychedelic rock got its start at the Red Dog Saloon.
Have you ever visited Virginia City or a place like it? Tell me about your experience!
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