Strike It Big in This Old West Boom Town
There may no longer be silver in Virginia City’s hills, but there is a ton of history.
We have Virginia City to thank for the writings of Mark Twain. Back then he was just Samuel Clemens, following his brother Orion out West to this Nevada mining town. Here, prospectors could turn into millionaires overnight thanks to the rich silver Comstock Lode unearthed in 1859 (named for part-owner of the land Henry Comstock; nickname: “Old Pancake” because he… really liked pancakes).
The largest boom town west of Denver, the area’s population topped out at 25,000 (now down to just 1,200), with mining funds funneled into mansions, churches, opera houses, hospitals, and schools. Comstock silver was also used to build cities like San Francisco.
With silver stars in his eyes, Clemens tried his hand at prospecting but had no luck. In need of cash he took a job at the daily Virginia City newspaper Territorial Enterprise in 1862, and refined his storytelling skills by reporting on the town’s shenanigans. He adopted the pen name Mark Twain, a name he appropriated from a captain in his old riverboating days. And a writer was born.
A visit to Virginia City today, just 35 miles southwest of Reno, fully transports you back in time to when Clemens and his famous mustache roamed the streets. Nineteenth-century buildings are seemingly pulled right out of a Hollywood set (in fact, nearby is the now-shuttered Ponderosa Ranch based on TV’s Bonanza, which prominently featured the city). Wooden verandas jut out over boardwalks, channeling you past old-timey shops, historic saloons, and casinos where much of that boomtown money was made, lost, and fought over.
You’ll spot remnants of Twain’s four years here: On the town’s main C street, the Mark Twain Museum (currently closed for renovations) sits in the original Territorial Enterprise building, housing his old desk, chair, and books. Across the street, a 24-hour bar and casino constructed in 1863 bears his name. The hole-in-the-wall bar at the Gold Hill Hotel claims to be one of his former haunts, and on a return visit he lectured at the Piper’s Opera House (which has also hosted notables like President Grant, John Phillip Sousa, and Al Jolson on its stage).
That’s just scratching the surface of things to do in Virginia City. Here’s what to check out in this Nevada time warp.
Delve into the town’s mining heritage
You may never know what it’s like to go West in search of fortune, or go from rags to riches overnight. But you can get a taste of what life was like back then: The Way It Was Museum, the Mackay Mansion, and the Marshall Mint Museum all bring history to the forefront through furnishings, mining artifacts, photographs, silver and gold nuggets and medallions, and plenty of storytelling.
And the Fourth Ward School, an 1870s school turned museum, features a replica of an original classroom, a timeline of Mark Twain’s residency, an 1887 printing press, and a display on the Comstock Lode through time, as told through pictures and oral histories.
Meet Outlaw Dave, mining historian and caretaker of the Comstock Gold Mill, the only operating gold stamp mill in the country. Take a steam train ride on the short line Virginia & Truckee Train, passing by mine sites like Gould & Curry, Hale & Norcross, and the ornate Savage mine. Get down and dirty with tours of the Ponderosa Mine (complete with saloon out front and walk-in bank vault), or the prosperous Chollar mine, one of the leading producers of the Comstock. Drop 400 feet into its bowels to get a feel for where some miners struck it big.
Have a drink in an old-timey saloon
Another way to live like a miner: drink. In its heyday Virginia City had 115 saloons. Today the number is whittled down to ten, but many have preserved their 19th–century appearance, and each glass of whiskey is accompanied by a side of history.
The Delta Saloon and Casino on C Street is home to the Suicide Table, an allegedly-cursed game table that caused gamblers to off themselves after major losses. Three owners of the table are said to have committed suicide but only one has a name (sort of): history remembers him as “Black Jake” who lost $70,000 in one night, and shot himself. (The table is now under plexiglass. They’re taking no chances.)
Also on C Street, the Red Dog Saloon is housed in a building constructed by Henry Comstock himself, but its claim to fame as a music venue came about in the 1960s, when Janis Joplin appeared on stage.
Then there’s the Bucket of Blood Saloon, built after the Great Fire of 1875 destroyed a large portion of Virginia City. It was constructed from the remains of the Boston Saloon, the only Black-owned western saloon of the era, earning Bucket of Blood national landmark status.
The name is said to come from the mop buckets that turned red with blood shed in raucous bar fights. Whether or not that’s true, they do have a Bloody Mary they’re pretty proud of. For a true Virginia City experience, make it a “Bloody Mucker”—which subs the vodka for Nevada-made Cemetery Gin.
Get into ghosts
Any old mining town is gonna come with some spooks, but especially one with a cursed “Suicide Table.” Ghosts can be heard tapping on the windows of the 142-year-old Silver Queen Hotel, with spirited tours given on weekends. Apparitions have been reported at Piper’s Opera House, the Delta Saloon, the Silver Terrace Cemeteries, Mackay Mansion, St. Mary's Art Center (formerly a hospital), Storey County Courthouse, and the Gold Hill Hotel & Saloon, which sits in front of what was the Yellow Jacket mine where 37 miners were killed in a fire.
But the first stop for ghost hunters should be the Washoe Club, a museum and saloon once frequented by the social elite, with opulent chandeliers remaining from the past. It’s been a frequent stop of the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, who claims it as one of the most haunted places in the West. Feel it out for yourself with ghost tours, an overnight lockdown, ($400), or peruse the attached museum. Or saddle up to the bar and have a different kind of spirit, at the oldest saloon in Virginia City.
Check out a peculiar festival
Every September you’ll find some unusual creatures roaming the fairgrounds in Virginia City, thanks to a feud between rival publications Territorial Enterprise (Mark Twain’s former employer) and the San Francisco Chronicle over six decades ago. In 1959, the Enterprise editor ran a fabricated story about camel races in Virginia City. The Chronicle editor took the bait and reprinted it. When they realized they’d been had, they borrowed camels from the San Francisco Zoo and sent them along with some jockeys to Virginia City to actually race, and thus the annual International Camel & Ostrich Races were born. The event is pretty much self-explanatory, except that there are also zebra races, and a “Hot Camel Nights” evening show on Friday. It goes down this year from September 9–11.
Later, brace yourselves and don't forget toilet paper. October 2 marks the World Championship Outhouse Races, an event that apparently dates back to a time when outdoor plumbing was outlawed on the Comstock. Residents in Virginia City took to the streets in protest, their outhouses dragging along behind them. Out of this messy spectacle came the outhouse races, where each fall, costumed contestants in groups of three push their homemade outhouses toward a toilet paper finish line. Presumably one pushes, one steers, and the third cleans up behind them.