Virginia City holds a special place in the history of the West and America. The first truly industrial city in the West began in the late 1850's. Gold was found at the head of Six-Mile Canyon in 1859 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 assured Comstock a place in history when the giant lode was named. 

Following the gold up the canyon an outcropping of gold in quartz was found. Another miner, James Finney, nicknamed "Old Virginny" from his birthplace, is reported to have named the town during a drunken celebration. He dropped a bottle of whiskey on the ground and christened 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 sticky blue-gray mud that clung to picks and shovels. When the mud was assayed, it proved to be silver ore worth over $2,000 a ton - in 1859 dollars! Gold mixed with high quality silver ore was recovered in quantities large enough to catch the eye of President Abe Lincoln. He needed the gold and silver to keep the Union solvent during the Civil War.

On October 31, 1864 Lincoln made Nevada a state although it did not contain enough people to constitutionally authorize statehood. Despite the grim working conditions, workers flocked to Virginia City to stake their share of the new wealth (the Sutro Tunnel, one of seven major shafts reaching the Comstock Lode, is shown below).

The resulting boom turned Virginny Town into Virginia City, the most important settlement between Denver and San Francisco; and the grubby prospectors into instant millionaires who built mansions, imported furniture and fashions from Europe and the Orient, and financed the Civil War. With the gold and silver came the building of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which ran from Reno to Carson City to Virginia City and later to Minden.

The investments made in mining on the Comstock in the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's (such as the Ward Shaft, above) fueled the building of San Francisco. Wm. Ralston and Crocker, founders of the Bank of California made their money in Virginia City. Names like Leland Stanford, George Hearst, John Mackay, Wm. Flood and many others made their fortunes in Comstock mining.

The explosive growth of Virginia City's affluence brought handsome new structures to the new mining town, including familiar features like the Piper Opera House, Storey County Courthouse, grand new churches and mansions and the Fourth Ward School (above), which survives today as a museum. Among the notable residents were Mark Twain and Brete Harte, who both wrote for the Territorial Enterprise, Nevada's first newspaper. A devastating fire nearly obliterated Virginia City in 1875, destroying over 2,000 structures, but the town rebuilt itself in just a year. Many of the buildings standing today date back to that time.

At the peak of its glory, Virginia City (bustling 'C' Street is pictured above, near the turn of the century) was a boisterous town with something going on 24 hours a day both above and below ground for its nearly 30,000 residents. There were visiting celebrities, Shakespearean plays, opium dens, newspapers, competing fire companies, fraternal organizations, 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.

The Comstock Lode yielded more than $400 million in gold and silver and remains the richest known U.S. silver deposit. The excavations along the fissures the vein descended more than 3200 feet until the inflow of hot water, plus the halt in silver dollar coinage, brought operations to an end in 1898.

By the early 1900s ('C' Street, above, below), most of the mining activity in Virginia City had played out, and the town began to fall on hard times. Without the scores of grand buildings that had been constructed during the boom times, Virginia City might have disappeared without a trace, as many other Nevada mining towns already had. Instead, the town lingered on, gradually losing population and building stock.

The arrival of the automobile also left Virginia City isolated. While the Virginia & Truckee Railroad had once put the town on the map, and efficiently connected the city with nearby Reno and Carson City, the roads to Virginia City were a different matter. The steep Geiger Grade between Reno and Virginia City had little potential as a modern highway route, and the town was soon bypassed by an economy increasingly tied to highways. The steep grade from Carson City through Silver City and Gold Hill was similarly constrained by rough mountain terrain.

Fire was the greatest threat to aging buildings of old Virginia City (above). Here, a structure along 'C' Street has been destroyed in the early 1900s, seriously damaging buildings on either side. Sadly, the magnificent, 165 room International Hotel (in the background, above) was also destroyed by fire shortly thereafter, in 1915.

By the mid-1900s, Virginia City had begun to fall into disrepair, and seemed headed for oblivion as just another ghost town in the American West (above). Structures like Piper's Opera House (below) where celebrities like Lilly Langtree, Maude Adams, Edwin Booth and Lotta Crabtree once performed for the miners and elite of Virginia City, were now in serious disrepair. By the late 1950s, though, tourism began to revive the old town. The twisting route from Reno up the Geiger Grade was now appreciated for its scenic quality, as Virginia City itself was popularized in the TV western "Bonanza".

Today, Virginia City continues to evolve as a tourist destination. Many of the surviving mansions such as The Castle, the Mackay and the Savage stand as monuments to the opulence of life on the Comstock, and are popular attractions. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad runs again from Virginia City to Gold Hill, carrying passengers on a thrilling ride behind a vintage steam engine.

Virginia City is the largest federally designated Historical District in America, and is now officially maintained in nearly original condition. 'C' Street, the city's commercial row, is still lined with 1860's and 1870's buildings that now house specialty shops of all kinds in buildings that are largely maintained or restored.

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Virginia City history compiled and expanded from public online sources, including Desert USA, Don Bush, the Virginia City Visioneers and Chic DiFranca; historic images are from postcards in the public domain.