VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. — Sweetwater John Bouie spoke with tears of the 20 years that his burro, Ginny, and he were the star attractions of this old mining town.
“Ginny just wandered into town one day," the white-bearded Bouie said last week as he leaned against the gift counter of Sandies General Store, in the old Territorial Enterprise building. “She was a wild burro, and I had to send the government $75 to keep her. But I've never made a better investment."
That was in the mid-1980s, after Sweetwater, as he prefers to be known, had retired as a prospector. (His buddy Badwater Bill, he said, had met an early demise, so a fellow citizen had dubbed him Sweetwater John.)
“Ginny and I went everywhere together," he said with a nostalgic smile.
In fact, they were ambassadors for this national historic landmark district on the eastern flank of Mount Davidson, 25 miles southeast of Reno at an elevation of 6,200 feet. They represented the town of fewer than 1,000 people at a year-round series of events, and their images graced postcards and photographs used to promote the pioneer spirit.
But Ginny had a drinking problem.
“The saloons, they all knew the old girl," said Sweetwater. “Sometimes she'd just bolt down the street and stick her nose in through the swinging doors of the Silver Queen or the Washoe Club. Old McBride — he owned the Bucket of Blood Saloon — he knew her weakness. Coca-Cola. Couldn't be Diet Coke, couldn't be Pepsi on account of she didn't like the bubbles. He'd see Ginny walk in the doors, grab her a Coke and pour it into her mouth."
The Comstock Lode
Sweetwater John might have had yarns to spin until closing hour, but he had other customers. It didn't take long to learn that his stories weren't all that unusual in this tourist town.
In fact, the very naming of Virginia City is the stuff of legend. As related to me by Jack Bellesi, veteran driver for the Virginia City Trolley Tours, it was baptized by a drunkard.
“Back in 1859, there was a miner, name of James Fennimore, who everybody knew as 'Old Virginny,'" Bellesi said. “Eight years earlier he had come from the state of Virginia to stake a claim. Old Virginny was stumbling back to his tent with a bottle of whisky one night when he tripped over a rock and fell, breaking the bottle. Not wanting his alcoholic treasure to go to waste, he stood up and poured the last drops of liquor onto the ground with the words, 'I christen this place Virginny Town.'"
The name stuck. It was, in fact, confirmed with a flourish at a public meeting later that same year — about the same time as the discovery of the Comstock Lode, which made Virginia City a household name throughout the West.
This was Bellesi's story: Placer miners Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O'Riley had just struck gold-bearing dirt at a tiny spring in Six Mile Canyon when they were confronted by Henry Comstock, a charlatan riding a blind horse. Comstock accused them of trespassing on his (non-existent) ranch claim, but he magnanimously offered to make the two men his partners should there be any significant amount of gold in the vein.
What's more, Comstock offered to ride down to Carson City, the territorial capital, on the very next day to file the formal mining claim. When he did so, it was in his name alone. He called the mine the Ophir. Only a few days later, the ground revealed a rich quartz vein.
By the time winter arrived, the Ophir had shipped 38 tons of gold ore to San Francisco, yielding a profit of more than $91,000, a huge sum at the time. But Comstock himself had already sold off his interest in the mine for $11,000 in August. He used $60 of the money to buy a wife from a passing Mormon traveler. She ran off and he squandered the rest.
Only a few claims initially yielded rich amounts of ore, but the mining district forever became known as the Comstock Lode. Profits crashed during the Civil War era, but by the later 1860s they had largely recovered. And in late 1872, a well was sunk that led into the largest pocket of high-grade ore ever discovered in North America — a quarter-mile directly beneath the streets of Virginia City, according to popular Nevada historian Douglas McDonald.
The Big Bonanza
The years 1873 to 1879 are referred to here as the Big Bonanza. In spite of an 1875 fire that destroyed 300 businesses and more than 2,000 buildings, the town grew to a population of more than 23,000 citizens. It was the largest city between Denver and San Francisco.
In its heyday, Virginia City boasted six schools, seven churches, 35 hotels and 110 saloons. Among the many structures that remain from that era are the Storey County Courthouse and Piper's Opera House, both built in 1876. Piper's hosted some of the finest performers in the world at that time, and charged miners $100 per ticket to see them. The city even had a $7 million water system that carried water 30 miles from a reservoir above Lake Tahoe.
The Virginia & Truckee Railroad (V&T RR), built in 1869-70, ran continually between Virginia City and quartz-reduction mills along the Carson River, 21 miles away, returning with wood for building construction, mining timbers and fuel. At the peak of operation, in 1876, 110 ore cars traveled back and forth 40 times a day, hauling 276,000 tons of ore in that year alone. That's according to the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Carson City, where tourists are still invited to ride the V&T RR to Virginia City from May into October.
As many as 90 mines operated in Virginia City at one time. By the time the Comstock Lode ran out in 1898, more than $400 million in gold and silver had been pulled from an area of only a few square miles. About $166 million of that came in the Big Bonanza years alone.
The discovery of the Comstock Lode is regarded as the single most important reason why Nevada was admitted to the Union in 1864, when its votes helped President Abraham Lincoln narrowly win reelection. And local historians like to say the wealth of the Comstock contributed more to the growth of San Francisco than did diminishing returns on California gold.
Comstock also helped to revolutionize mining technology around the world. Volcanic in origin, Virginia City's hills lock in geothermal heat that becomes ever more oppressive in shafts drilled more than a half-mile into the earth. But new inventions and engineering expertise met every challenge.
In winter, only one mine tour operates in Virginia City. (The Chollar Mine and Comstock Mill open summers only.) I donned a hard hat at the back of the Ponderosa Saloon and let guide Mark Lone Eagle direct me and a small group of other visitors into the shallow depths of the 1869 Best and Belcher Mine, which opens into the hillside directly behind.
I was glad for the hard hat, not out of fear of falling rocks or cave-ins, but to protect my noggin from the support beams that braced the tunnels through which we traveled. Frequently I found myself ducking beneath 150-year-old timbers. More than once I had my bell rung.
But it was worth the minor discomfort to spend 25 minutes learning about stopes, raises, winzes and drifts. Lone Eagle led our group past more than 300 pieces of mining equipment abandoned with the Best and Belcher dig in 1917.
Practically next door to the Ponderosa Saloon is the Washoe Club, the poster child for Virginia City's claim to be one of the three most haunted cities in America. (The other two, town fathers say, are Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.) Guided ghost tours of Virginia City begin here at the town's oldest saloon or at the Silver Queen Hotel, down the block. The latter is named for a 15-foot-tall painting of a woman in formal dress, embedded with 3,261 silver dollars — one for every foot of the shaft of the Combination Mine — minted in Carson City in the 1870s, along with 28 gold pieces that make up her belt.
Volunteer firefighters played an important role in early Virginia City. Across the street from the Washoe Club, the red-brick Comstock Firemen's Museum recalls not only the Great Fire of 1875, but also the workingman's favorite madam, Julie Bulette. The proverbial “hooker with a heart of gold," a Florence Nightingale to the crusty miners, she was murdered in 1867 to the indignation of thousands. Although churchgoers refused to allow her burial in the main cemetery, the firemen — having previously made her an honorary member of Engine Co. No. 1 — interred her in their own graveyard.
Two other museums caught my fancy during my visit. The Mackay Mansion was the home of Big Bonanza mining baron John Mackay (1831-1902), who arrived in Virginia City penniless in 1860 and over the next two decades built a fortune. Built by mining superintendent George Hearst, the father of flamboyant publisher William Randolph Hearst, the mansion retains original furnishings, from European carpets to the first flush toilet west of the Mississippi.
The Way It Was Museum is a small-town historical museum, exhibiting bric-a-brac from 19th-century homes and mining operations. Antique equipment and replicas help to interpret the technology of the times. Films on Virginia City history are shown in a small theater.
I was disappointed not to have been able to visit the Historic Fourth Ward School, a prominent landmark open only in summer and early fall. This four-story wooden schoolhouse, built in 1876 in the unique Victorian Second Empire style, served local children until 1936. Its restored classrooms now contain exhibits on pioneer education, local history and mining.
Substantial discounts on tickets for museums and other attractions are available to those who purchase them in advance at the Virginia City Visitor Center on C Street.
Streets of town
A spin around town with Virginia City Trolley Tours is the best way to start an exploration of the town today. Although small mining operations persist, the Virginia City economy today is almost entirely based upon tourism, as it has been since the 1950s.
Driving a 2˝-mile loop, Bellesi or another guide points out landmarks, tells stories and otherwise keeps patrons engaged until they're ready to set out exploring on foot. He points to the arena where the International Camel Races are held in September, explains that justice is not blind in Storey County (the courthouse statue of the Lady of Justice has no blindfold), and indicates the terminus of the V&T Railroad near the summer stagecoach depot.
Walking the streets of Virginia City requires careful footwork. Most sidewalks are wooden boardwalks, quaint but uneven and potentially hazardous. Still, they lead to blocks of fascinating buildings filled with interesting shops and people, especially in the four central blocks of C Street (Nevada State Highway 341).
I was a bit surprised when the Western hatmaker in the Pioneer Emporium began speaking with me in a soft French accent. Pascal Baboulin told me that he had come from Europe to study in the United States and, old story, met and married the love of his life. That was nine years ago. Now he fashions fine hats from rabbit and beaver felt, and he loves his work almost as much as he does his family.
I grabbed a hearty sandwich at Red's Candy & Sandwich Parlor, where candy makers were hard at work on peanut brittle. When I crossed the street, a young Kashmiri woman offered me a piece of candy outside Virginia City Mercantile. Suha Ahmad invited me inside and said she and her husband, Tariq, own Kashmir American Enterprises, offering imports from India a few blocks away. Within this store, however, I found mainly warehouse-size quantities of sweets and sodas, as well as a rear area offering reproduction posters from the '60s and '70s.
The posters included memories of Big Brother and the Holding Company. Big Brother was the house band at Virginia City's Red Dog Saloon in the mid-'60s when a throaty Texas blues singer named Janis Joplin dropped in. When they reassembled in San Francisco in 1968, they became one of the era's seminal psychedelic bands.
Indeed, saloons are part of the lore and legend of Virginia City, and the Red Dog — still featuring bands like the Fillmore Zone, a local Grateful Dead cover group — is just one of them. Another favorite is the Delta Saloon and Casino, which displays the infamous “Suicide Table" where more than one gambler turned a gun on himself after suffering heavy losses playing faro.
In the Bucket of Blood Saloon, town docent Mark Pavelek, dressed as a brigadier general of the late 1850s, offered me a shot of rye whisky. “It's what we drink here," said Pavelek, who works weekdays as a machinist for the Papé Group in Reno. But historical reenactments have been his passion for many years, he said — especially since he took a bride, who introduced herself as “Honey." She was a tourist from Southern California when they met at the Bucket.
Pavelek excused himself for another two-step around the dance floor with Honey. After all, David John and the Comstock Cowboys had the crowd, a mix of locals and tourists, in a foot-stomping frenzy. The Cowboys play weekend afternoons year-round at the Bucket, whose name — again, according to local legend — came after a bar employee mopped the floor following a brawl between miners disputing a claim.
At its peak of prosperity, Virginia City had four daily newspapers. One of them, the Territorial Enterprise, was the most influential in Nevada. It had been established as a weekly in Washoe Valley in 1858, moved to Virginia City in 1860 and improved to a daily a year later. In 1862, it attracted an eager and wittily acerbic young writer named Samuel L. Clemens.
According to Nevada historian Douglas McDonald, “His stories told of blatantly false massacres, impossible scientific discoveries, and highly inflated mining strikes. His technique of either coloring true stories to make them sound more exciting, or fabricating news events out of whole cloth when times were a little slow, is a Comstock tradition which has endured for more than a century."
It was in Virginia City that Clemens began using the name by which he is known today around the world: Mark Twain. Although he remained at the Enterprise for only 20 months — he left in May 1864 — his time in Nevada was the launching pad from which he grew to fame as a humorist and storyteller. He later recounted his Virginia City sojourn in the book “Roughing It."
A highlight of Twain's stay in Virginia City was the delivery of modern typesetting machinery to the newspaper in 1863. Visitors to the town can still find that linotype machine in the basement of the Mark Twain Museum, along with other antique printing equipment and a corner toilet with the notation, “Mark Twain Sat Here."
The museum is down a narrow set of stairs beneath Sandies General Store. And the man who'll point the way, once he finishes telling you another story, is none other than Sweetwater John Bouie.
In modern times, probably no cultural phenomenon has brought more attention to Virginia City than “Bonanza," the long-running NBC television series (1959-1973). Starring Lorne Greene (“Pa Cartwright"), Dan Blocker (“Hoss") and Michael Landon (“Little Joe"), the program was set on the 600,000-acre Ponderosa Ranch that stretched from the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe all the way to Carson City and the Washoe Valley.
It was an almost-weekly event for the family to drive its wagon into Virginia City for supplies. Today, the Virginia City Visitor Center displays a map of the Cartwrights' Ponderosa, as do other establishments in the tourist town.