Virginia City, Nevada
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“Virginia City” redirects here. For other uses, see Virginia City (disambiguation).
|Virginia City, Nevada|
|View of Virginia City, July 2016|
|Motto(s): “Step Back in Time”|
|Virginia CityLocation within the State of Nevada|
|Coordinates: 39°18′37″N 119°38′58″WCoordinates: 39°18′37″N 119°38′58″W|
|• Total||0.8 sq mi (2.2 km2)|
|• Land||0.8 sq mi (2.2 km2)|
|• Water||0 sq mi (0 km2)|
|Elevation||6,150 ft (1,874 m)|
|• Density||930/sq mi (360/km2)|
|Time zone||UTC−8 (Pacific (PST))|
|• Summer (DST)||UTC−7 (PDT)|
|GNIS feature ID||0856420|
Virginia City is a census-designated place (CDP) that is the county seat of Storey County, Nevada, and the largest community in the county. The city is a part of the Reno–Sparks Metropolitan Statistical Area.
Virginia City developed as a boomtown with the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States, with numerous mines opening. The population peaked in the mid-1870s, with an estimated 25,000 residents. The mines’ output declined after 1878, and the population declined as a result. As of the 2020 Census, the population of Virginia City was 787.
- 4Arts and culture
- 7Notable people
- 8In popular culture
- 11External links
View of Virginia City, Nevada, from a nearby hillside, 1867–68
Artist depiction of Virginia City, c. 1875
Main article: Comstock Lode
Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin are credited with the discovery of the Comstock Lode. Henry T. P. Comstock‘s name was associated with the discovery through his own machinations. According to folklore, James Fennimore, nicknamed Old Virginny Finney, christened the town when he tripped and broke a bottle of whiskey at a saloon entrance in the northern section of Gold Hill, soon to become Virginia City.
In another story, the Ophir Diggings were named in honor of Finney as he was “one of the first discoverers of that mining locality, and one of the most successful prospectors in that region.” Finney “was the best judge of placer ground in Gold Canyon,” locating the quartz footwall of the Ophir on 22 February 1858, the placers on Little Gold Hill on 28 January 1859, and the placers below Ophir in 1857.
After the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859, the town developed seemingly overnight on the eastern slopes of Mount Davidson, perched at a 6200-foot elevation. Below the town were dug intricate tunnels and shafts for silver mining. The Comstock Lode discovery and subsequent growth of Virginia City was unequaled by the history of other precious metal discoveries.
Virginia City’s silver ore discoveries were not part of the California Gold Rush, which occurred 10 years before. At the time of the discovery of the Comstock Lode, silver was considered the monetary equal of gold, and all production was purchased by the federal government for use in coinage. In 1873, silver was demonetized by the government, in large part due to the flood of silver into international markets from the silver mines of Virginia City.
Timbering the Mines of the Comstock, sketch by Dan DeQuille, 1877.
Technical problems plagued the early mining efforts, requiring the development of new mining technology to support the challenge. German engineer Philip Deidesheimer created a timbering system for mining tunnels called square sets, which enabled the retrieval of huge amounts of silver ore in a safe manner. Square set timbering, roots blowers, stamp mills, the Washoe Pan milling process, Cornish pumps, Burleigh machine drills, wire woven rope, miners’ safety cages and the safety clutch for those cages; even the Sutro tunnel all had a place in supporting the exploitation of the rich ore body. As technological advancements, these were used many times over in later mining applications. In 1876 one observer reported that in Virginia City, “every activity has to do with the mining, transportation, or reduction of silver ore, or the melting and assaying of silver bullion.” By 1876 Nevada produced over half of all the precious metals in the United States. The Comstock produced silver and gold ore valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. The wealth supported the Northern cause during the American Civil War and flooded the world monetary markets, resulting in economic changes.
Many tons of rich gold and silver ore, such as the example shown here, built and supported Virginia City
Like many cities and towns in Nevada, Virginia City was a mining boomtown; it developed virtually overnight as a result of miners rushing to the Comstock Lode silver strike of 1859. But, Virginia City far surpassed all others for its peak of population, technological advancements developed there, and for providing the population base upon which Nevada qualified for statehood. The riches of the Comstock Lode inspired men to hunt for silver mines throughout Nevada and other parts of the American West.
Virginia City population increased from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. It fluctuated depending on mining output. US Census figures do not reflect all of these frequent changes. Nonetheless, Virginia City overnight became one of the largest cities in the American Southwest. For the 1880 United States census, Virginia City was even larger than some of today’s largest cities of the entire US, such as Phoenix, San Diego, Jacksonville, and even Dallas. The city included gas and sewer lines, the one hundred room International Hotel with elevator, three theatres, the Maguire Opera House, four churches, and three daily newspapers. Many of the homes and buildings were made of brick.
With this center of wealth, many important local politicians and businessmen came from the mining camp. At its peak after the Big Bonanza of 1873 Virginia City had a population of over 25,000 residents and was called the richest city in the United States. Dominated by San Francisco moneyed interests, Virginia City was heralded as the sophisticated interior partner of San Francisco. “San Francisco on the coast and Virginia City inland” became the mantra of west coast Victorian entrepreneurs. Early Virginia City settlers were in large part the backwash from San Francisco and the California Gold Rush, ten years before. Mine owners who made a killing in the Comstock mines spent most of their wealth in San Francisco.
A San Francisco stock market existed for the exploitation of Comstock mining. The Bank of California financed building the financial district of San Francisco with money from the Comstock mines. The influence of the Comstock lode rejuvenated what was the ragged little town of 1860 San Francisco. “Nearly all the profits of the Comstock were invested in San Francisco real estate and in the erection of fine buildings.” Thus, Virginia City built San Francisco. The Comstock’s success, measured in values of the time period, totaled “about $400 million.” Mining and its attraction of population was the economic factor that caused the separation of Nevada territory from Utah, and later justified and supported Nevada statehood.
Virginia City in the early 1870s and in 2007. The church at left is St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church. It was rebuilt in 1875 after a great fire burned down 90% of Virginia City. Historic photo is of the pre-fire church.
The mining industry dominated Virginia City, making it an industrial center similar to those of the east coast. But the city retained some of its frontier flavor. The social history of the town has emphasized the high number of immigrants among its residents. Miners largely from Cornwall, England, where tin mines had been developed based on hard rock technology, flooded the Comstock. The new English immigrants were one of the largest ethnic groups. Many of the miners who came to the city were Cornish or Irish. In 1870, Asians were 7.6% of the population, primarily Chinese workers who settled in many western towns after they had completed construction of the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese filled niche markets, such as laundry workers and cooks.
Through time, the numerous independent Comstock mines became consolidated under ownership of large monopolies. A group called the Bank Crowd, dominated by William Sharon in Virginia City and William Ralston in San Francisco, financed the mines and mills of the Comstock until they had a virtual monopoly. By manipulating stock through rumors and false reports of mining wealth, some men made fortunes from the stocks of Virginia City’s mines. When it appeared the Comstock Lode was finished, the city’s population declined sharply, with ten thousand leaving in 1864 and 1865. By the late 1860s, a group of Irish investors threatened the Bank Crowd’s control. John Mackay and partner James Fair began as common miners, working their way up to management positions in the mines. By purchasing stock in the mines, they realized financial independence. Their partners James Clair Flood and William S. O’Brien stayed in San Francisco and speculated in stock. The Irish Big Four (or Bonanza Kings), as the men were called, eventually controlled the Consolidated Virginia mine where the Big Bonanza was discovered in 1873. The next few years were some of the most profitable on the Comstock, as the Bank Crowd lost control to the Irish Big Four. Population reached 25,000 in 1875.
Mining operations were hindered by the extreme temperatures in the mines caused by natural hot springs. In winter the miners would snowshoe to the mines and then have to descend to work in high temperatures. These harsh conditions contributed to a low life expectancy, and earned miners the nickname of Hot Water Plugs. Adolph Sutro built the Sutro Tunnel to drain the hot spring waters to the valley below. But, by the time it was completed in 1879, the mines had substantially passed the intersection level, as their tunnels had been dug ever deeper. In 1879, the mines began to play out and the population fell to just under 11,000.
Great Fire of 1875
Between 1859 and 1875, Virginia City had numerous serious fires. The October 26, 1875 fire, dubbed the Great Fire, caused $12 million in damage. “The spectacle beggars description; the world was on fire…a square mile of roaring flames.” When a church caught fire, Mackay was heard to say, “Damn the church! We can build another if we can keep the fire from going down these shafts.” Though the Con. Virginia and Ophir hoisting works burned, the fire did not penetrate the Con. Virginia shaft and only reached 400 feet into the Ophir shaft. “Railroad car wheels were melted”, “brick buildings went down like paper boxes”, and two thousand were left homeless.
In ensuing months the city was rebuilt. A majority of the area now designated as the National Historic Landmark historic district dates to this later time period. However, the bonanza period was at an end by 1880
Virginia City and Mark Twain
Further information: Mark Twain in Nevada
View of Virginia City from Boot Hill
The writer and humorist Samuel Clemens, then a reporter on the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper first used the pen name Mark Twain in Virginia City in February 1863 Clemens lived in Virginia City and wrote for the Enterprise from fall 1862 until May 1864. His departure was to avoid a duel with a local newspaper editor upset over Clemens’ reporting. Clemens returned to the Comstock region twice on lecture tours, first in 1866 when he was mugged on the Divide. The muggers relieved Clemens of his watch and his money. The robbery turns out to have been a practical joke played on Clemens by his friends. He did not appreciate the joke, but he did retrieve his belongings—particularly his gold watch (worth $300), which had great sentimental value. Clemens’ book Roughing It (1872) includes this and other anecdotes about the city. Clemens’ second return occurred in 1868 at the time of the hanging of John Millian, who was convicted of murdering the well-liked madam Julia Bulette.
|hideClimate data for Virginia City, Nevada (normals 1981-2010)(extremes 1887-2020)|
|Record high °F (°C)||69|
|Average high °F (°C)||41.6|
|Daily mean °F (°C)||33.3|
|Average low °F (°C)||24.9|
|Record low °F (°C)||−1|
|Average precipitation inches (mm)||1.73|
|Average snowfall inches (cm)||11.3|
In the 21st century, Virginia City’s economy is based on tourism. Many residents own and work at the shops in town that cater to tourists, while others seek jobs in the surrounding cities. Virginia City, a National Historic Landmark District, draws more than 2 million visitors per year. It has numerous historic properties that are separately listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The tourism supports an eclectic assortment of fine and casual dining experiences. Many lodging properties offer options to tourists wanting to stay overnight. Several bed and breakfast facilities are based in restored historic homes including: the B Street House Bed and Breakfast, previously the Henry Piper House, which is listed on the National Register; Edith Palmer’s Country Inn and Core Restaurant in the restored 1860s Cider factory; and the 1876 Cobb Mansion.
Arts and culture
Virginia City is home to many interpretive museums and sites, including the Silver Terrace Cemetery, the Fourth Ward School Museum, the Pioneer Cemetery, the Fir
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