The Phoenix One Journals Stories from the dawn of RoadTrip America
October 18, 1998
Virginia City, Nevada
Taking a slight detour off Highway 395 in Nevada, we turned west at Carson City and headed north into the mountains on Highway 341. The narrow road rises gradually at first, and then climbs sharply up the steep grade. At Silver City, a truck route veers off to the right, and a strongly-worded sign directed RVs to take it, too. A few miles later, the Phoenix One crawled into Virginia City.
A more unlikely place to build a city never existed. The ridge below Cedar Hill and Mount Davidson is narrow, dry, and a fault line runs through it. Such a spot would never inspire urban development today.
But back in 1859, when two prospectors discovered a quartz outcropping larded with gold on the side of Sun Mountain, things were different. By the time Henry Comstock had given his name to the richest ore body ever discovered, Virginia City was well on her way to becoming a boom town.
By 1876, the town had seen glory days of a kind the world will never know again. Virginia City was renowned the world over for her wealth. The Comstock had financed the end of the Civil War and brought Nevada statehood. Over a quarter of a billion dollars worth of gold and silver had been mined from under her streets, and 25,000 people still called the place home. Even a devastating fire in 1875 didn't end the bonanza days, and many of the town's lavish buildings were replaced with structures even grander. Who knew at the time that Virginia City's boom was on its downhill slope, and that by the turn of the century, her residents would number less than six thousand?
It was a fast rise to glory, and an even faster fall. Geothermic activity had always been a major challenge for Comstock mining engineers, and ultimately hot water, hot mud, and steam won the battle. Geologists today estimate that as much as 80% of the Comstock Lode still lies untouched, but the cost to reach it exceeds the current price of gold and silver. For more information about the Comstock Lode, visit the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology online: www.nbmg.unr.edu.
Fewer than a thousand residents call Virginia City home these days, and many of them consider it their privilege and duty to preserve the history and heritage of their remarkable community. Their whole city is a museum, the kind of place where you might find Mark Twain's money belt in your attic. In fact, Tom and Becky Purkey did just that when they were restoring their Victorian home on B Street. Samuel Clemens, who arrived in Virginia City during her heyday, assumed the pen name Mark Twain while he was working for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper.
Pat & Peggy Whitten
Our first stop was at the Virginia City RV Park, not only because we planned to stay there, but also because it's owned by friends we met on our fist visit, Peggy and Pat Whitten. It's hard to imagine an RV park having historical value, but in Virginia City, the unlikely is the norm.
is built near the site of the Ophir Mill, one of the first and most lucrative
of the Comstock. Our campsite overlooks the historic cemetery and has
a spectacular view down Seven-Mile Canyon.
Pat and Peggy invited us to join them at the Delta Saloon for "locals night." The Delta, a popular tourist destination, is open every day for lunch, but serves dinner only on Wednesdays. "We'll introduce you to everybody," they said, and they weren't exaggerating. By the time we'd finished our last bite of prime rib, we'd met "Sweetwater John," who delights tourists on C street by making rounds with his mule Jenny, and Sandy Radford, who owns a local haberdashery. We'd chatted with Doug Walling, who manages the coin press at the Marshall Mint, and we'd shaken hands with a passel of colorful "locals," including a woman who rides camels in the annual races at the rodeo ground and a chili cook-off champion.
In the morning, we took Marvin for a perambulation around the historic cemetery, and as we were leaving, we met Edw Martinez, who lives in Virginia City and teaches art at the University of Nevada at Reno. Edw showed us how to decipher vintage Nevada license plates, many of which are still in circulation even though an old county numbering system has been replaced with a statewide one. His plate reveals his Storey County residency.
On Thursday, Doug Walling gave us a tour of the Marshall Mint and Museum on C Street. Founded by Hugh Roy Marshall, the mint is known for its beautiful commemoratives and also for coins depicting angels. Doug minted a silver one-ounce coin just for us, and now the Archangel Michael rides in the Phoenix One. The museum houses one of the most eye-popping collections of naturally occurring gold and silver I've ever seen. One gold nugget weighs more than five pounds.
One of the most imposing buildings in Virginia City is the Fourth Ward School, which was built in 1876 and housed a thousand students. We visited the day local artists were hosting an exhibit of their works, and we also wandered through displays illustrating the life and times of Comstock miners and their families. At the peak of their production, Comstock mines operated twenty-four hours a day. The Fourth Ward School had two commencement ceremonies to enable all parents to see their children graduate.
Carol & John Tyson
North of Virginia City is the Rafter 7 Bar M Ranch, a working ranch owned by Carol and John Tyson. John Tyson is known far and wide for capturing the lifestyle and culture of Northern Nevada and California in television interviews. Carol has founded a group home for teenage girls at the ranch, and her successful programs have been emulated in other areas. The Rafter 7 Bar M Ranch, which boasts Texas longhorns and paint horses, welcomes visitors.
A vintage one-armed bandit in the Nevada Gambling Museum
As I've already said, Virginia City is itself a museum. It's also full of museums, and specialty stores that look like museums. A walk down C Street reveals establishments dedicated to gambling, firemen, Mark Twain, mining, general stores, schools, trains, and red light districts. We're still making our way through the treasure troves left behind from an era when the best and most expensive was imported from Europe to outfit "the richest place on earth" in appropriate style.
One of the best places in town to step into the past is Mark Twain Books. Formerly a museum, this store is located in one of C Street's oldest buildings, and it's owned by Joe and Eleanor Curtis. Joe is a native of Virginia City, and one of her most knowledgeable historians. He's often engaged by authors of textbooks and historical fiction as a consultant on Comstock lore. When he offered to take us on a tour of the city, we jumped at the chance.
Joe Curtis points out features of the Comstock
Joe took us to the knoll that is now the "city yard," a vantage point from which we could see the neighboring town of Gold Hill and a number of the old mines. He showed us the old ice house, which was packed with ice from a reservoir each winter. Temperatures in the mines were so high that miners had to sit in buckets of ice to cool themselves.
Joe also showed us the site where the first quartz outcroppings were discovered to contain gold, and he gave us a map identifying the location of most of the Comstock mines. "Many people think there was just one mine," he said, "But there were really more like two hundred. This place is honeycombed with tunnels."
One of Virginia City's treasures is the old Virginia & Truckee Railroad, the "Queen of the Short Lines." Bob Horton, the engineer, invited us to ride in the locomotive on its three-mile run to Gold Hill. I took a lot of pictures, but I'm afraid photography can't capture the sound and smell of an oil-burning steam engine hauling itself up a 4 ½ % grade. It's not Disneyland, and after the real thing, Disneyland will never be enough.
We spent an evening at the home of Tom and Becky Purkey, who were hosting a party in support of restoration efforts for the Fourth Ward School. Becky is a geologist, and the author of excellent Nevada natural history guide books.
A morning foray along B Street brought us to the former offices of the Virginia City Water Company, which is now an antique store managed by Joyce and Chester Petrocchi. Next door is an old livery stable that has been transformed into Uncle Patrick's Way Station, a grocery store operated by "Uncle Patrick" Hanley, who has lived in Virginia City for nearly three decades.
Marvin on the lookout for deer
We're still moseying around the city on the Comstock, still marveling at the remarkable set of circumstances that created this legendary citadel. New technologies, and especially new means of transportation and communication, mean that a town like Virginia will never rise again. Mining towns are things of history. In the case of Virginia City, we're fortunate that history is still alive and kicking.