Today I took the train, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, up to Virginia City. The ride takes about an hour and a half to cover maybe 20 miles which averages about 14 miles per hour up the mountain to the head of Six-mile Canyon where Virginia City is located. The ride up was hot, but not as bad as the ride down later in the afternoon after walking the streets of Virginia City.
A little of the history of Virginia City is in order. Virginia City was transformed into the most important industrial city between Denver and San Francisco around the Civil War and much of the rest of the 19th Century. Prospectors came from all over the world to strike it rich by mining the Comstock Lode. It was the first major discovery of silver ore in the US when it was discovered in the late 1850’s. The first efforts at mining in what is now called Gold Canyon were a group of Mormons on their way to California, but held up on the east side of the Sierra’s by deep snow in the passes. They found gold in the gravel along the river banks by panning, but as soon as the snow melted they headed to California because they figured they could find more in California. Later miners gradually moved up the canyon as they found more gold. The first settlement was Johnstown and miners that lived there also found gold in Six-mile Canyon. Both Gold and Six-mile Canyons comprise what was to be called the Comstock Lode. The Grosh brothers from Pennsylvania were credited with finding both gold and silver ore in Six-Mile Canyon. They left Nevada for California to have samples of the ore analyzed and left a trunk with the rest of the ore samples and documents of their claim with Henry Comstock. To make a long story short, Grosh and his partner died a horrible death in the Sierra’s from the effects of frostbite and bad medical care while Comstock horned into a claim owned by several others who were working a mine thought to be that the Grosh brothers had discovered. None of the stories I’ve read really credit Comstock with the discovery or how it was actually named. All of those involved with the early discovery were never knew the size of the silver vein and died horrible deaths with no money.
Eventually the big bankers from California took control of the mining activities on the Comstock Lode and built the Virginia & Truckee. The “bank crowd” exported their profits to help build San Francisco. By the 1870’s some Irish immigrants invested all of their money on a claim that no one else was interested in and struck it rich. They became know as the Bonanza Group. Because of the size of the “Big Bonanza”, the group monopolized mining in Virginia City for the next 20 years.
Virginia City became the Queen of the Comstock and was the center of the mining industry for more than half a century, pouring over $700 million in gold and silver into an expanding US. The city peaked at about 25,000 people. The community built mansions, hospitals, churches, opera houses and schools, and imported furniture, fashions, and entertainment from Europe and the Orient. The gold and silver helped finance the Civil War.
I spent most of the time I had in Virginia City in the Fourth Ward School Museum. It was built in 1875 and served as Virginia City’s grammar school and high school until 1936. It’s 4 stories tall and had 13 classrooms and 2 study halls and was designed to accommodate as many as 1,025 students. It was replaced by a new structure new school constructed by the Works Progress Administration. The building wasn’t used for 50 years until community and preservation groups rehabilitated it and reopened it as a museum. The museum has a lot of items related to the operation of the school as well as the history of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode. One of the more interesting exhibits was about Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) who served as the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, the local newspaper. Interesting fact about his life was that he was born when Halley’s Comet passed the earth in 1835. In 1909, Twain was quoted as saying: "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together." He died one day after the comet reached its closest distance to earth in 1910. When he was born James Madison was still alive and he died the year before Ronald Reagan was born. I learned more about Mark Twain in about a half hour than I had ever known. He wrote much more than the “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn”. It sparked an interest in reading some of the many books and literary pieces he authored and try to visit Hannibal, MO on one of these trips to see where he grew up.
There’s a fireman’s Museum in town that covers the history of volunteer and paid fire department of Virginia City. I took a quick walk through and it was pretty interesting. There were 5 fire engines from the 1800’s that have been restored to nearly pristine condition. On was built in Philadelphia in 1839 and has led quite a life. It’s the oldest piece of firefighting apparatus in Nevada. The city suffered a huge fire in 1875 that burned down many buildings including the Catholic Church and destroyed or damaged a lot of firefighting equipment. Three firefighters died while fighting the fire. The museum also has a neat collection of fire extinguishers that include glass fire grenades, extinguishers that use carbon tetrachloride as an extinguishing agent and a whole array of water and chemical extinguishers in brass and steels containers. There was even an old J&J First Aid Kit. The Fireman’s Museum is well worth a half-hour and a donation.
After the museums, I headed back to the pick-up point for the ride to the train station. It was only 4 blocks and it was downhill all the way, but it was about a 45 degree angle so riding was the only choice given the temperature. I did stop off at the Creamery for a “black and white” milk shake. It was enough to cool me off for a while. There is a herd of wild horses that graze the slope of Six-mile Canyon around the area called American Flats and we were lucky enough to see about 50 on the way down. I even saw a family of quail skittering in a clearing in the sage brush. By the time we got to the bottom, I was worn out from the walking and the heat. Virginia City was an interesting place to visit and worth going back by car and spending more time exploring other areas as well as the legends of ghosts and spirits that supposedly still haunt many of the buildings and areas of the city.
Tomorrow we resume our trip south and will be back in California again.