Wandering the West
Last week I told you about a little-publicized town in Montana that is pretty well frozen in time in the 1860s and is now preserved as a historic landmark an example of an intact frontier town. The town’s name is Virginia City, about halfway between West Yellowstone and Butte. It’s from the same era as Park City, and offers a glimpse into what life was like when mining was king. You can’t get much of that feel here when every other storefront sells sushi and timeshares.
Turns out there is another place a lot like Virginia City, and its called Virginia City but this one is east of Lake Tahoe in Nevada. If you remember the old "Bonanza" TV show, Pa Cartwright or Hoss or Little Joe was always having to leave the Ponderosa to go to Virginia City for this or that.
Today there’s a lot to see. Virginia City started out as a gold discovery in 1859 and the prospectors poured in. The gold ran out fast but miners assayed the bluish-gray mud that stuck to their boots and found out it was worth $2,000 a ton! It contained silver ore and Virginia City became a 24-hour town of 30,000 people. Miners tunneled underground and used big hydraulic hoses to tear away entire hillsides to get at the ore. As a result, the hillsides surrounding Virginia City and nearby Gold Hill are pretty messed up from destructive mining practices. But the town itself has survived. It shares a similar history with Park City. A lot of wooden buildings went up fast, and a lot of fires reared up and burned the place down. The last big fire was in 1875, and the town that was rebuilt from those ashes is the town that exists today. If Pa Cartwright returned, he’d feel right at home because the place pretty much looks like it did back then.
On a recent return trip from Lake Tahoe, we swung through Virginia City, parked our car and walked C Street the main business district. The boardwalks passed by original 1875 buildings now hawking all kinds of tourist kitsch. Our favorite stop was at the Bucket of Blood Saloon pouring beer and booze since 1875 and still standing. It’s lined with photos and old advertising memorabilia and is still quenching thirsts. A few of the old barflies in the Bucket looked like holdovers from Hoss’s days. There was a guest book to sign and it was filled with German and Dutch names. The Germans and Dutch seem more intrigued by the remnants and scenery of the old West than any other nationalities. I run into them frequently in places like this.
Across from the Bucket of Blood, the newspaper offices of the "Territorial Enterprise" still stand. The Enterprise might have disappeared from history quickly if not for one of its earliest reporters. Samuel Clemens signed on and soon invented a pen name to call himself. "Mark Twain’s" first writings were published here in the Enterprise and you can still walk into his old office and look around. He wrote for a newspaper, but journalistic standards were a bit looser then and he made a lot of stuff up honing the skills that would make him a legend.
An early railroad, the Virginia and Truckee, once moved ore and people. Now there’s a remnant short-line train to take visitors around the Comstock Lode area. There are other ways to soak up the history, in a gambling museum, a mining museum, an art museum, and just by walking around in the living museum that is Virginia City. Like Park City, there’s a St. Mary’s here too St. Mary’s in the Mountains which was rebuilt after the 1875 fire. It’s big and spectacular, but too big for the number of parishioners around now, so it struggles to keep the doors open.
Virginia City, Nevada like Virginia City, Montana represents a mining town of the West that grew up after discoveries in the 1860s. Either is worth a visit if you’re a history buff, or just curious about what Park City must have been like in its mining era. There was a lot of interchange among all the Western mining towns. The same people who worked the Virginia Cities would pack up and move from boomtown to boomtown. George Hearst made his first fortune in the silver ore of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. Soon after he headed east to Park City, bought the Ontario Lode here and pulled another fortune out of it.
In both Virginia Cities, enough people hung on that the towns never became ghost towns subject to vandals, thieves and firebugs. Both survived long enough to be re-discovered by new generations with an appreciation for the past.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Park City to Virginia City, Nevada: 564 miles
Reno to Virginia City: 23 miles
Web sites: http://www.virginiacity-nv.org
Insider tip: To get the full historic experience, avoid the motels and try the 1859 Gold Hill Hotel, the 1876 Cobb Mansion, or the 1876 B Street House for an overnight stay.
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