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Carson City District - Sierra Front Field Office

Comstock National Historic District - Virginia City National Historic Landmark

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"By and by I was smitten with the silver fever...Plainly this was the road to fortune...I would have been more of less human if I had not gone mad like the rest." Mark Twain, Roughing It

Ten years after the first hell-bent rush for California gold, nuggets were found at the head of Nevada’s Six-Mile Canyon by two miners named Pat McLaughlin and Peter O'Reilly. A fellow miner, Henry Comstock, stumbled upon their find and claimed it was on his property. The gullible McLaughlin and O'Reilly believed him and that assured Henry a place in history when the giant Comstock Lode was named. Another miner, James Finney, nicknamed "Old Virginny" from his birthplace, is reported to have dropped a bottle of whiskey on the ground, christening the newly founded tent-and-dugout town on the slopes of Mt. Davidson "Old Virginny Town" in honor of himself.

The biggest problem in this grubstake paradise was the bothersome, sticky blue-gray mud that clung to picks, shovels and boots. When one smart miner had the mud was assayed, it proved to be silver ore worth over $2,000 a ton - in 1859 dollars! Word of the discovery spread like wildfire and lured California gold miners in a reverse migration back over the Sierra Nevada. A ramshackle town of tents and shacks sprang up overnight. Disputes over claims were common and were often settled by the revolver…

"Oh, it’s a lively place, you bet! I look out the winder every mornin’ just to see how many dead men are layin’ around. I declare to gracious the bullets flies around here sometimes like hailstones." Irish Chambermaid, Astor Hotel, Virginia City

Grubby prospectors became instant millionaires. Famous men like Ralston, Crocker, Stanford, Hearst, Mackay, and Flood made their fortunes in Comstock mining. Soon mansions, imported furniture and fashions from Europe, and the finest in food, drink and entertainment were commonplace. Virginia City quickly rivaled San Francisco in size and excess.

All the new wealth caught the eye of President Lincoln who needed gold and silver to pay Civil War expenses. On October 31, 1864, Lincoln made Nevada a state although it did not contain enough people to constitutionally authorize statehood.

Photo of gravestones in the cemetery on the north side of Virginia City.

Engineers made amazing breakthroughs to facilitate the silver removal. New honey-combed, square-set timbers became the industry standard to shore up mine shafts. Water pipes were stretched from the Lake Tahoe Basin to provide over 2 million gallons of fresh mountain water daily. A four mile long tunnel was blasted from solid rock by Adolph Sutro to drain over 10 million gallons of boiling, rancid water per day from the lower levels of the mines. And the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, "the crookedest railroad in the world" due to its dizzying descent of 1,600 feet in 13 miles, soon connected Virginia City to Carson City, Reno and the new transcontinental railroad.

At the peak of its glory around 1876, Virginia City was a boisterous town with something going on 24 hours a day (above and below ground) for its 30,000 residents. There were over 150 saloons.

What an era! Three churches, Shakespeare plays and dances at Piper’s Opera House, dog fights, opium dens, newspapers, competing fire companies, at least five police precincts, a thriving red-light district, and the first Miner's Union in the U.S. The International Hotel was six stories high and boasted the West's first elevator, called a "rising room." 

Today, the Virginia City National Historic Landmark (largest federally designated historical district in America), through a combination of federal, state and local grants and private contributions, is bringing back historical treasures like the Comstock cemeteries, Piper’s Opera House and the Fourth Ward School. Track for the Virginia & Truckee (V&T) Railroad runs again on from Virginia City and Gold Hill all the way down to the edge of Carson City.  And "C" Street, the main business avenue in Virginia City, is lined with 1870's buildings housing restaurants, bed and breakfast inns, motels, and specialty shops of all kinds.

Exploring the area by mountain bike, horseback or off-highway vehicle is popular. For your safety, view mining features from a distance unless they are specifically open to visitors. Abandoned buildings, mine shafts and tunnels are inviting but extremely hazardous; stay out and stay alive!