Tradition holds that Virginia City, one of the oldest established communities in Nevada, took its name from James Finney who was known as “Old Virginy.” Finney wasn’t even his name - he supposedly changed it from Fennimore after killing a man in his home state of Virginia. Virginia City sprang up virtually overnight after the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver strike in the United States, was revealed in 1859.
The silver had been unearthed accidentally a couple of years earlier by gold miners who were frustrated by heavy blue-black material that was clogging their gold-mining apparatus. Henry Tompkins Paige Comstock was left in charge of the prospecting cabin while the miners set out for San Francisco with samples to raise investors. They never made it over the Sierra Nevada mountains and Comstock claimed the cabin and land. But being an uneducated man he never really knew what he had. He eventually sold his mining shares for $11,000 and lost the money in business. In 1870 while prospecting in Montana Comstock put a revolver to his head and killed himself.
There were far more losers than winners in the rush to the Comstock but the winners won very big at “the richest place on earth.” There was somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 residents during the height of the boomtown, who could keep count, and Virginia City was the most important town in the West between Denver and San Francisco. But it was all over almost as soon as it began. The Comstock Lode was playing out by the end of the 1870s and the mines were closed before the dawn of the 20th century.
Disappearing silver was not the only calamity to befall Virginia City in the 1870s. There had been four destructive fires since the town was built in 1859 but a fifth, that began early on the morning of October 26, 1875 when a coal oil lamp was knocked over in a boarding house on A Street, dwarfed them all. When strong winds finished whipping the flames around town 33 blocks of structures were leveled, including most of the town’s business district.
The population dipped into the hundreds and the town slumbered for the better part of 70 years but never quite vanished from the map. It was, of all things, television that jolted Virginia City back to life with the popularity of the western Bonanza in the 1960s. Although the Cartwrights were ranchers and not miners curious viewers began showing up to see that town near the Ponderosa Ranch where Little Joe was always getting in trouble in - Virginia City.
Many of the old buildings and an authentic Wild West flavor were still there to greet the visitors. Today most of the development centers on C Street with plenty of historic saloons sprinkled in among the souvenir purveyors. The steep hills on either side of C Street deflect many explorations but our walking tour will go above and below C Street before we are through. And if that isn’t a hardy enough route, we will begin outside of the town center, down south aways, where the most tangible evidence of Virginia City’s reign as the “richest place on earth” still stands...
Fourth Ward School
537 South C Street
The southern entrance to Virginia City is anchored by this treasured souvenir of Virginia City’s days as the richest place on earth. The combination grammar and high school was built in the flamboyant Second Empire style in 1876 at the cost of $100,000, financed by the town’s mining companies and businesses. Big enough for more than 1,000 students, attendees could enjoy a central heating system with hot water piped to all four floors and spring-loaded self-flushing toilets. The school was in continuous use until 1936 and then sat vacant until a complete overhaul.
BELOW THE PARKING LOT ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE SCHOOL, ACROSS D STREET IS...
565 South D Street
Carved into a steep hillside, this Italianate brick mansion was constructed between 1861 and 1863 as the head office of the Chollar Mine and residence of the mine superintendent. It was originally raised above the nearby mine but the building began to sink as the mine settled and it was dismantled in 1870 and reassembled here. Billy Chollar discovered the Chollar Silver Lode but lost his mine and his home to the Bank of California and disappeared from Virginia City. Inside the mansion is a 164-square foot arched vault that once stored millions of dollars in gold and silver bullion.
YOU CAN EITHER LEAVE YOUR CAR PARKED HERE AND BEGIN AN EXTENDED WALK NORTH ON C STREET INTO TOWN OR DRIVE CLOSER AND PARK ALONG C STREET, PAST FLOWERY STREET, TO CONTINUE YOUR TOUR ON FOOT.
First Presbyterian Church
196 South C Street
This wooden Carpenter Gothic-flavored church was the town’s only house of worship to survive the Great Fire of 1875. It was constructed in 1867, five years after the congregation organized, with $12,000 raised from mining stocks.
164 South C Street
Built in 1859, the Tahoe House was once the type of hotel where the rich and famous signed the guest book. Mark Twain was a frequent guest.
Virginia & Truckee Car No. 13
119 South C Street
Using specifications supplied by the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, the Oxford Car Company built the only railroad car ever designed specifically to haul precious metals in 1874. Until 1939 Car No. 13 transported gold and silver ore from Virginia City to the United States mint in Carson City.
Nevada State Firemen’s Museum
117 South C Street
After being constructed as a saloon, this brick building was the station house for the Storey County Volunteer Fire Department until 1962. Members rehabilitated the building and opened the museum on July 4, 1979. Much of the restored equipment on display was retrieved from the barns and yards of local residents. The museum features a fire wagon made in 1839 in Philadelphia, the oldest firefighting apparatus in the state of Nevada.
Millionaires Club of the Washoe
112 South C Street
Dating to 1862, this is the oldest saloon in Virginia City. In 1875 the Millionaires Club organized here as a place where members could gather apart from the brothels and faro parlors that populated the town and enjoy a finer grade of whiskey and perhaps a more refined caliber of female acquaintance. The rival of exclusive men’s clubs in New York and San Francisco, the club entertained such 19th century luminaries as Ulysses S. Grant, Philip Sheridan, Thomas Edison and Mark Twain among others. Today the Old Washoe Club is considered the most haunted location in paranormally active Virginia City - a crypt once used to store frozen bodies resides next door.
Morris Pinschower Building
111 South C Street
Dating to 1862 this building housed everything from a hardware emporium to a livery to a Ford dealership and service station in its later years. “Colonel” Morris Pinschower was a German immigrant and something of a town eccentric, known around Virginia City for his crazy schemes, many involving the transport of potable drinking water from surrounding mountain lakes. He ran unsuccessfully three times for sheriff and spent his last days as a tailor.
Nevada Bank of San Francisco
109 South C Street at southeast corner of Taylor Street
The first bank started in Virginia City in 1860 when the Wells, Fargo & Co. Express and Banking Company opened its doors. In 1862 John A. Paxton and W.B. Thornburg constructed this vault for their private bank before moving on to Reese River in central Nevada after a few years. In 1876 the “Big Four” of Virginia City’s biggest silver strike, known as the Big Bonanza - miners John Mackay and James Fair, and stockbrokers James Flood and William O’Brien - set up the Nevada Bank here. Until it shuttered in April of 1895 the bank provided a small but vibrant presence for Virginia City in the international financial business.
Bank of California
106 South C Street at southwest corner of Taylor Street
The Bank of California organized in 1864 when 22 of the state’s leading businessmen contributed $100 a share for funds. That same year William Sharon moved to Virginia City to serve as the bank’s agent at this location, staking miners with money below the going rate that financed the greatest boom in mining history. Much of the more than one billion dollars (2012 money) in gold and silver wealth found in the surrounding hillsides passed through the Bank of California’s teller windows. Sharon, who had gone bust in real estate speculation during the 1849 California Gold Rush, parlayed the good fortune in Virginia City mining into a United States Senate seat in 1874. Sharon was more interested in the trappings of the office than the work - he rarely left his home in San Francisco to visit either Nevada or Washington; he presented no bills, made no speeches on the public record and voted in fewer than one percent of Senate roll calls.
Banner Brothers Building
86 South C Street at northwest corner of Taylor Street
Victor and Marcus Banner established a clothing store here in 1868 that was consumed by the 1875 conflagration that swept through Virginia City. The Banners rebuilt and continued in business until the late 1880s when E.J. Dwyer took over the operation for another generation. In 1934 William H. Marks bought the property and incorporated it into the Crystal Bar that had been in his family since the 1880s. Outfitted with gold-plated chandeliers and famous crystal glassware, the casino was one of Virginia City’s first tourist meccas.
53 South C Street at southeast corner of Union Street
W.L. Jernegan and Alfred James ushered Nevada’s first newspaper into existence in 1858 in Genoa. Their Territorial Enterprise was the first printed Nevada newspaper, anyway. The previous year a few handwritten issues of The Scorpion had been distributed. By 1860 the Enterprise was located in Virginia City and early in 1862 the paper set up operation here. In August of that year a young writer named Samuel Clemens was hired as a reporter, penning a column known as “Roughing It.” By the time he left the Territiorial Enterprise in 1864 the writer was using the name Mark Twain. The Great Fire of 1875 burned most of the upstairs in the paper’s offices but the water-powered press, composing tables and Twain’s desk that were in the basement survived unscathed. Twain’s columns, however, survive only as undated clippings in his personal scrapbooks and as reprints.
18 South C Street
The Delta opened in 1875 and quickly gained a reputation among the 100 or so saloons in town for the high stakes wagered at its faro tables. $38,000 was known to be lost on the turn of a single card. It is most famously home to the “Suicide Table,” so called because three men are said to have ended their lives due to heavy reversals across its green cloth.
63 North C Street
For many in Virginia City water was of use only so much as it was needed to brew beer. In the boom days there were as many as six breweries producing to capacity. The Union Brewery began at 40 C Street before being destroyed by fire in 1865. It moved to this location in 1866 and was one of the longest continually operating saloons in Virginia City.
Red Dog Saloon
76 North C Street
While most of Virginia City history was made in the 1860s, the Red Dog Saloon’s importance dates to the 1960s as a touchstone for the development of psychedelic rock and the hippie culture. Under the guidance of Chandler A. Laughlin III all-nigh Native America peyote ceremonies found musical expression in performances at the Red Dog. Before their magic carpet ride to fame such acts as the Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead were all players in the “The Red Dog Experience.”
TURN LEFT ON SUTTON STREET AND WALK UP TO A STREET AND TURN LEFT.
2 South A Street
Neither Piper nor Beebe had anything to do with the construction of this two-story Italianate Victorian residence in 1876. Its creator was A.F. Mackay, one of the pioneer architect-builders in Virginia City and is the only Mackay structure still extant. It boasts such trademarks of the style as narrow windows, heavy cornice bracketing and exquisitely turned wooden decorative elements. Mackay and his family used the house until the 1880s and it was subsequently acquired by Edward Piper who ran his father’s famous theater operation. Piper died in 1907 and his widow Lavinia married Dan Connors, who took over the theater business. Connors, a bare-fisted prizefighter, had come to Nevada as a sportswriter to cover the Bob Fitzimmons-Jim Corbett fight in which Fitzimmons won the heavyweight title with a 14th round knockout in Carson City. Connors would introduce silent films to Virginia City. Lucius Beebe was also a newspaperman and he came to Nevada in 1940 to review the premier of the film, Virginia City, staring Errol Flynn. The movie got a thumbs down but Beebe gave the town rave reviews, stayed, bought this house and revived the historic Territorial Enterprise newspaper in his crusade to kickstart Virginia City.
18 South A Street
This is another house constructed in the wake of the Great Fire of 1875, by Herman J. Harris, a tobacconist and businessman on C Street. William Cobb, a miner, semi-professional baseball player, stage driver and Nevada Assemblyman and State Senator purchased the house in 1933 for $300 - less than what a weekend stay at today’s bed-and-breakfast will run you. His son Tyrus, named after the immortal baseball star, became a famed Nevada journalist, penning more than 2,000 “Cobbwebs” columns before his death in 1997 at the age of 82.
TURN LEFT ON TAYLOR STREET. TURN RIGHT ON B STREET.
Virginia & Gold Hill Water Company
130 South B Street
Early miners in Virginia City obtained the water they needed for free from small streams and canyon springs but when the population exploded to 30,000 overnight fresh water became a scarce and valuable commodity. Two companies, the Virginia Water Company and the Gold Hill Water Company, were formed to collect and distribute water. The two groups merged in 1862, laying water flumes and then iron pipes around town to supply water. In 1871 an audacious plan was launched to bring water from the Hobart Creek and Marlette Reservoir area 1,500 feet above Lake Tahoe on the west side of Washoe Valley. By 1873 two million gallons of water a day were flowing through seven miles of pipeline; a feat that has earned the Marlette Lake Water System status as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.
AND WALK UP TO A ROW OF SURVIVORS FROM MILLIONAIRE’S ROW.
Millionaires Row/The Castle
southwest side of B Street beyond Taylor Street
Many of the town’s finest homes were built along B Street, culminating at the end in the Castle. Robert N. Graves was superintendent of the Empire Mill & Mining Company who was realizing a monthly income of $80,000 from his shares in the Comstock ore fields at their peak of production but he gambled his fortune extensively in speculative mines and died nearly penniless. When he was flush in the 1860s he constructed this home copied from a castle in Normandy, France. The Graves home was considered one of the finest mansions in the West in its day.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS ON B STREET, CROSS TAYLOR STREET AND CONTINUE HEADING NORTH.
Storey County Courthouse
26 South B Street at southwest corner of Union Street
Storey County, formed in 1860, carries the name of Captain Edward Farris Storey, a Georgian who relocated to the West after serving in the Mexican War in 1846 when he was 18years old. As a rancher in Virginia City he organized a militia company against neighboring Indians during the Pyramid Lake War in 1860 where he was killed. This is the second hall of justice to stand on this site; the first was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1875. San Francisco architects Henry Kenitzer and George Raum designed the replacement in the high Italianate style that was the most opulent in Nevada. The price tag, including the adjacent jail, was $117,000. The venerable government building is one of only two 19th century state courthouses still in service.
Piper’s Opera House
12 North B Street at northwest corner of Union Street
This Italianate structure is the third to house John Piper’s stage, constructed in 1885. Virginia City got its first spacious entertainment hall in 1862 when Topcliffe’s was built on C Street. Tom Maguire constructed the D Street Theatre the following year which John Piper acquired in 1868. That theater perished in the 1875 conflagration and Piper’s next effort, located on B Street, burned as well, following a masked ball. Piper’s hosted all the nation’s most famous actors and lecturers in its day in between bearfights, roller skating and basketball games until it shuttered in 1929.
Knights of Pythius Building/Miner’s Union Hall
West side of B Street, between Union & Sutton Streets
This three-building block contains the best unaltered false-front structures left in Virginia City. “Nevada Lodge No. 1” of the Knights of Pythias was formed on March 23, 1873 and this cast iron and stuccoed brick building was constructed in 1875. It was also used the city’s other Knights of Pythias lodges: Lincoln Lodge No. 6 formed in 1874, and Triumph Lodge No. 11 formed in 1879. Like many fraternal buildings, the upper floor was used for the lodge hall while the first floor was rented out. Comstock Lode miners formed a “Miners’ Protective Association” in 1863 guaranteeing a daily wage of $4.00 for all work underground, a rate that the union managed to maintain more-or-less continually even through Virginia City’s declining years. Their original meeting hall burned in 1875 but this brick, false-fronted hall replaced it in 1876. Beginning in 1877 a library operated upstairs. It was the only public book-lending facility in Virginia City and the largest general library in Nevada with over 2,000 volumes. Non-union families paid 50 cents a month to gain access to the collection.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO UNION STREET AND TURN LEFT. WALK DOWN THE HILL AND CROSS C STREET. AT D STREET TURN RIGHT AND TURN LEFT ON TAYLOR STREET.
St. Mary’s in the Mountains
111 South E Street at southeast corner of Taylor Street
Father Hugh Gallagher launched the Catholic church in Nevada in 1860. His spare meetinghouse was literally blown down in a strong wind within two years. Patrick Manogue, with the benefits of newly uncovered Comstock riches was able to erect an increasingly grander brick church that came to boast a 127-foot spire, a 21-foot altar imported from France and a one-ton bell that was the largest in the region. Most of that was destroyed (the bell pulled through) in the Great Fire of 1875 and the current Gothic-styled church was constructed on the surviving lower walls of its ancestor.
CONTINUE ON TAYLOR STREET DOWN TO THE CORNER OF F STREET.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
87 F Street at northeast corner of Taylor Street
St. Paul’s Parish was founded on September 1, 1861 and its original meetinghouse was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1875. It was replaced with this wooden Carpenter Gothic-style church that has hosted services ever since.
Western Radio Museum/Parish House
109 South F Street at southeast corner of Taylor Street
A mining engineer, Goodwin Jones, built this home in 1876 after the Great Fire of 1875. Its Italianate style, rendered in redwood boards, would have been a familiar sight on Virginia City streets at the time. The building was the Parish House for St. Mary’s of the Mountains for more than thirty years until 1970. Today it houses the Western Radio Museum, telling the story of wireless communications in Nevada. Mining baron John McKay poured the wealth from his Comstock fortune into the nascent telecommunications business and by the time of his death in 1902 two-thirds of the world was serviced by his cable.
TURN RIGHT ON F STREET AND CROSS WASHINGTON STREET.
F Street Depot
southwest corner of F and Washington streets
As the vast wealth of the Comstock Lode revealed itself in the 1860s it became apparent a railroad was needed to move the vast quantities of ore from the hillsides of Virginia City to the mills along the Carson River. The first 14-mile section of the line was completed in 1869 with a 2.2% grade down a 1,600-foot elevation drop. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad would eventually extend to Reno and connect with the Central Pacific Railroad. By 1873, as more rich silver deposits were discovered, the railroad was earning a profit of over $100,000 per month and became one of the most famous short-line railroads in America. The Virginia & Truckee was abandoned in 1950 after years of declining revenue and today operates as a heritage tourist railroad.
WALK BACK TO WASHINGTON STREET AND TURN LEFT. WALK BACK UP THE HILL TO D STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Gould and Curry Mining Company Office/Mackay Mansion
129 South D Street
This brick building, crafted in the Italianate style in 1860, was a survivor of the Great Fire of 1875. The first occupant was 39-year old George Hearst who was running a general store, farming and prospecting over in Nevada County, California. Learning of early silver assays in what would become the Comstock Lode, Hearst hustled over to the Washoe Valley and purchased a 1/6-interest in the Ophir Mine with $400 of borrowed funds. In short order Hearst and his partners mined 38 tons of high-grade silver ore, packed it across the Sierra on muleback, smelted it in San Francisco. His $91,000 profit (more than four million dollars in today’s dollars) became the foundation of the legendary Hearst family fortune. After the Great Fire the building served as the business headquarters and residence of Irish immigrant John Mackay, the most powerful of Virginia City’s “Silver Kings.” Mackay was another early player in the Comstock Lode, leaving the placer mines of California’s gold rush for Nevada silver. In 1873 Mackay and his partner James Fair were following a narrow sliver of low-grade ore in the Consolidated Virginia and California Mine. Persisting long after others would write off the vein, Fair discovered the Big Bonanza, a field of ore so rich it took several years to exhaust and yielded more than $60 million - well over a billion 2012 dollars. Mackay and his partners - the “Big Four” - came to control all of the major mines and much of the economic life of Virginia City. When he died, his estate left millions to the University of Nevada for the Mackay School of Mines.
IF YOU DROVE YOUR CAR FROM THE FOURTH WARD SCHOOL, TURN RIGHT ON FLOWERY STREET AND WALK UP TO C STREET. TURN RIGHT TO RETURN TO YOUR CAR. IF YOU WALKED INTO TOWN FROM THE SCHOOL, CONTINUE ON D STREET.
Savage Mining Company Office and Mansion
146 South D Street
This elegant French Second Empire mansion was constructed as the mine office for the Savage Mining Company and the residence for the superintendent in 1861, proof that the claim by R. Crale, C. Chase, H. Carmack, W. Surtevant, A.O. Savage and L.C. Savage of 1,800 feet along the Comstock Lode made two years earlier had paid off handsomely. Production in the mine was crippled when water was struck at 2,200 feet in 1876 but before the operation was shut down in 1909 more than $18 million of ore was extracted. During a visit to Virginia City in 1879, Ulysses S. Grant addressed the people from the second floor balcony following a parade in his honor.
C. J. Prescott House
12 Hickey Street at southeast corner of D Street
Not all the money in Virginia City was made in silver - it took massive quantities of timber to build the mines and C.J. Prescott operated one of the first lumber companies on the Comstock. His 1860s home was a blend of the popular Greek Revival, Italianate and Gothic styles and is a rare wooden survivor of the Great Fire of 1875. After the conflagration most buildings in town were raised solely in the Italianate style.
CONTINUE ON D STREET DOWN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE FOURTH WARD SCHOOL.