Virginia City, Nevada – history of the ghost town and things to do

Nestled high in the rugged mountains of Nevada lies Virginia City, a place steeped in history and brimming with tales of the Old West. As you wander through the Virginia City Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, you’ll find yourself transported back to the 19th century, where silver mines and rowdy saloons once reigned.

This charming town boasts an array of well-preserved historic buildings and sites, each with its own captivating story to tell.

From the elegant St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church to the picturesque St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, you’ll discover architectural gems that reflect the town’s rich past. The Parish House, The Territorial Enterprise, The Old Washoe Club, and The Knights of Pythias Building are among the buildings that continue to stand as testament to an era gone by.

As we embark on a journey through the historic heart of Virginia City, we’ll explore these sites and more, uncovering the unique history and character that define this fascinating destination.

A brief history of Virginia City

Virginia City, Nevada, holds a unique place in American history as a quintessential boomtown, born from the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode. This momentous event marked the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States, setting in motion an explosive period of growth and prosperity.

The town, perched at a staggering elevation of 6,200 feet on the eastern slopes of Mount Davidson, seemed to appear out of nowhere, attracting a rapidly increasing population of miners, entrepreneurs, and adventurers.

The Comstock Lode’s silver ore was a significant departure from the California Gold Rush a decade earlier, as silver was then considered equally valuable. In fact, the federal government purchased all production for coinage. However, silver’s demonetization in 1873, driven by a surplus in international markets, ultimately impacted Virginia City’s fortunes.

As the Comstock Lode’s wealth flowed, so did investments in San Francisco, effectively building the financial district and rejuvenating the city. Virginia City, in its prime, became one of the most populous cities in the American Southwest, with over 25,000 residents.

It boasted an array of modern amenities, including gas and sewer lines, grand hotels, theaters, churches, and newspapers, all constructed from brick. The town’s astonishing growth was driven by mining, transportation, and the reduction of silver ore.

Main Street of Virginia City in the 1870s at the height of the mining of the Comstock Lode - painted wood engraving
Main Street of Virginia City in the 1870s

However, Virginia City’s fortunes had their share of ups and downs. A series of devastating fires, the most notorious being the Great Fire of 1875, caused extensive damage and led to significant reconstruction efforts.

The city was rebuilt, and the mining industry continued to thrive, driven by the likes of the Irish Big Four – John Mackay, James Fair, James Clair Flood, and William S. O’Brien – who controlled the lucrative Consolidated Virginia mine, leading to a brief resurgence in the city’s population.

Yet, by the late 1870s, the Comstock Lode’s production started to wane, and the population dwindled, and it nearly became a ghost town. Harsh mining conditions, as well as the challenging environment in the mines, contributed to a lower life expectancy among miners. In 1935, new federal regulations on gold prices sparked a small revival, leading to the paving of its main streets.

Today, 19th-century establishments, like saloons and museums, along with historic mansions, cater to tourists. The Virginia and Truckee Railroad (1869), connected to the Comstock, has been partially revived, and the region holds a national historic district status. The legacy of Virginia City lives on in its historical landmarks, and the town’s dramatic rise and fall continue to captivate those who explore its rich history.

Virginia City Historic District

The Virginia City Historic District, designated as a National Historic Landmark, encompasses the former mining villages of Virginia City and Gold Hill within Storey County, as well as the historic towns of Dayton and Silver City to the south, situated in adjacent Lyon County, Nevada.

Bestowed with National Historic Landmark status in 1961, this district holds a unique distinction as one of only six such districts in the state of Nevada.

Virginia City, a pioneering example of frontier mining boom towns, serves as a testament to industrialization and urbanization, attributing its success to the momentous 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode.

The town’s layout forms an orderly grid, nestled 1,500 feet below the summit of Mount Davidson, adorned with two to three-story brick buildings, primarily housing saloons and shops. Virginia City stands as the inaugural silver rush town, marking its place in history as the first to employ large-scale industrial mining methods.

Within just one year of its inception, the booming town boasted an impressive array of 42 saloons, 42 stores, 6 restaurants, 3 hotels, and 868 dwellings, accommodating a populace of 2,345 residents. In its zenith during 1863, the town teemed with a population of 15,000.

However, the district encountered a series of devastating fires, notably the Great Fire of 1875, which wrought damages amounting to $12,000,000.

Despite its historical significance and continued attraction, the district faces preservation challenges. Threats include potential subsidence of inactive mining pits, vandalism within cemeteries, erosion risks, and the deleterious impact of ongoing tourism.

Neglect of privately-owned, unused buildings further compounds the preservation issues confronting the district’s rich historical heritage.

The Way It Was Museum

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The Way It Was Museum, nestled in the heart of historic Virginia City on the iconic C Street, offers visitors a captivating journey into Nevada’s past. With a remarkable collection of rare photographs, mining artifacts, and a comprehensive range of Comstock memorabilia, this museum is a treasure trove of the state’s rich Western heritage.

The museum’s historic photography and vintage costumes vividly depict the lives of real Comstock miners, providing an authentic glimpse into their daily experiences.

An intricate scale model reveals the vast underground network of mine shafts and adits that still sprawl beneath Virginia City. For a deeper understanding of mining, visitors can explore a working model and cutaway of a genuine silver and gold mine.

One of the highlights at The Way It Was Museum is a 16-minute video hosted by Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen, who eloquently narrate the tales of life on the early American frontier.

The museum also delves into Mark Twain’s contributions to the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, the notorious gunslingers, the intriguing stories of the ladies of the night, the exclusive Millionaires Club, and the everyday individuals who persevered and defied the odds on the Comstock.

Proudly boasting the most complete collection of Comstock memorabilia worldwide, The Way It Was Museum is an essential stop for those eager to unravel the extraordinary history of the American West in Virginia City.

St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church

St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church, is a cherished parish under the Diocese of Reno. This historic church, serving as both a place of worship and housing a museum, has deep roots tracing back to the mid-19th century when the first Catholic church was constructed in 1860 by Fr. Hugh Gallagher.

Rebuilt by Fr. Patrick Manogue after the initial church succumbed to the elements, the current St. Mary in the Mountains Church was dedicated on July 17, 1864, by Bishop Eugene O’Connell of Grass Valley. Notably, Manogue later became the first Bishop of Sacramento.

In response to an influx of Irish immigrants during the mining boom, a larger brick church was constructed across the street and dedicated by Bishop O’Connell on November 20, 1870, playing a crucial role in the community. Despite enduring the Great Fire of 1875, it was promptly rebuilt the following year.

In 1982, the church acquired a charming 1898 William Schuelke pipe organ, which adds a harmonious note to its history. This instrument, originally from Gjerpens Lutheran Church in Valders, Wisconsin, now graces St. Mary’s, remaining an integral part of the church’s musical heritage.

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

St. Paul the Prospector Episcopal Church
St. Paul the Prospector Episcopal Church

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, an enduring presence in Virginia City, stands as a striking example of Carpenter Gothic-style architecture. This historic church, located at F and Taylor Streets, was constructed in 1876 to replace its predecessor, which fell victim to the flames in 1875.

Founded on September 1, 1861, St. Paul’s Parish remains an active congregation within the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada. Its steadfast existence and architectural beauty contribute to the rich historical tapestry of Virginia City.

As a contributing property in the esteemed Virginia City Historic District, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church shares in the distinction of this National Historic Landmark, designated as such in 1961.

Additionally, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. This recognition underscores the church’s significance not only within the local community but also on a national scale, serving as a testament to the enduring spiritual and historical legacy of Virginia City.

The Parish House

The Parish House, an impeccably preserved Italianate-style residence, graces the heart of Virginia City, at 109 S. F St. Constructed in 1876, this historic house occupies a place of distinction within the Virginia City Historic District, enjoying individual recognition on the National Register of Historic Places since 1993.

The significance of the Parish House is twofold. First, it is intrinsically associated with notable individuals who called it home. Residents included Goodwin Jones, an engineer for the Caledonia Mine, Robert Patterson, proprietor of the International Saloon, Dr. Thomas McDonald, a physician, and John McGrath, a prominent merchant on C Street. Their stories are intertwined with the prosperous history of the Comstock Lode.

Additionally, the architectural importance of the Parish House, constructed by mining engineer Goodwin Jones, endures as a testament to his engineering prowess. Meticulously designed, the house exhibits strong foundations rooted in mining timbers, redwood exterior walls, and the robust, rough-cut fur framing that speaks to its enduring quality.

From the windows of the living room, the Parish House offers views of St. Mary’s Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, symbolizing the harmonious coexistence of various communities in this historically rich neighborhood.

The Territorial Enterprise

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The Territorial Enterprise, a historic newspaper established by William Jernegan and Alfred James on December 18, 1858, holds a significant place in the annals of Virginia City, Nevada.

Initially published in Genoa within Utah Territory for its first two years, the paper found its way to Carson City, the territorial capital, in 1859 under new ownership.

However, the newspaper’s journey didn’t stop there. In 1860, Joseph T. Goodman and Dennis E. McCarthy steered the publication toward Virginia City, where it would become a literary haven.

The likes of renowned author Mark Twain and writer Dan DeQuille contributed their talents to the Territorial Enterprise during the 1860s. The young Sam Clemens even filled in for DeQuille while the latter visited his family in Iowa.

Conveniently located just steps from the Enterprise offices, Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille shared a room at 25 North B St. in Virginia City, marking the birth of a lifelong friendship.

Over the years, the paper passed through different hands, including ownership by the Blake family during the 1890s through the 1920s. After experiencing periods of hiatus, the Territorial Enterprise was resurrected first by Helen Crawford Dorst in 1946, and later by Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg in 1952.

The paper and its rich history continue to be celebrated through the Territorial Enterprise Historical and Educational Foundation, dedicated to preserving its legacy. Furthermore, the Mark Twain Museum at the Territorial Enterprise, housed in the original Enterprise building in Virginia City, allows visitors to step back in time and explore the very desk where Mark Twain, in his role as editor, penned the captivating stories that graced the newspaper’s pages.

The Red Dog Saloon

Red Dog Saloon painting
Red Dog Saloon painting

The Red Dog Saloon, is not just a bar and live music venue but a place steeped in the annals of psychedelic music history. In the early 1960s, folk music enthusiast Mark Unobsky, in collaboration with Chandler A. Laughlin III and Don Works, transformed Henry Comstock’s house into a folk club. Little did they know, this unassuming venue would play a pivotal role in the burgeoning psychedelic music scene.

The turning point came in April 1963 when Laughlin orchestrated a Native American peyote ceremony, blending the psychedelic experience with traditional spiritual values. This gathering marked the genesis of a unique musical movement. As the summer of 1965 rolled around, Laughlin recruited an array of folk and psychedelic rock talents to perform.

This was the birth of “The Red Dog Experience,” a novel concept where the boundaries between performers and the audience blurred. It was in this innovative setting that musical experimentation and Bill Ham’s pioneering light shows found their canvas.

The Red Dog Saloon holds the distinction of being the first place where a psychedelic rock band, The Charlatans, played live while under the influence of LSD. The music, the lights, and the atmosphere combined to create a legendary experience.

Today, the Red Dog Saloon remains a vibrant part of Virginia City’s cultural landscape. It continues to host live music events, with Open Mic Wednesdays and weekend performances. This historic venue, with its rich history and ongoing musical tradition, stands as a testament to the enduring spirit of creativity and innovation.

Piper’s Opera House

Piper’s Opera House is a historic venue with a captivating past. Constructed in 1885, it has weathered fires and changing ownership, evolving into a vital part of the town’s heritage.

John Piper, a German immigrant, arrived in Virginia City during the 1860 Comstock Lode rush and became a prominent figure through business and politics. He also pioneered western combination companies, managing various theaters and hosting celebrated actors.

Despite enduring fires, including the Great Fire of 1875, the venue has displayed resilience. It burned down in 1878 but was swiftly rebuilt, and the current structure, erected in 1885, reflects this ability to adapt.

Over the years, Piper’s Opera House has hosted diverse cultural events, from musical performances to sports. It even served as a training facility for heavyweight boxing champion Gentleman Jim Corbett.

In the 1960s, Louise Zimmer Driggs commenced restoration efforts. Her work set the stage for the venue’s revival as a cultural hub. Carol Piper Marshall continued this legacy, expanding its entertainment offerings.

Today, Piper’s Opera House endures as a testament to Virginia City’s enduring spirit, preserving the rich tapestry of Nevada’s cultural history.

The Henry Piper House

The Henry Piper House is a cherished historical residence, earning its place on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). This exceptional house now serves as the B Street House Bed and Breakfast, making it the sole bed and breakfast establishment within an individually NRHP-listed house in Virginia City.

This Italianate row house stands as a rare example of a mid-range dwelling in Virginia City, a town that has seen many similar structures vanish over the years. Henry Piper, one of its notable residents, arrived in Virginia City in 1861 alongside his older brother, John.

The Pipers were not only involved in local politics but also operated Piper’s Opera House and the Piper’s Corner Saloon on B and Union Streets. Henry played a unique role as a “box herder” at Piper’s Opera House, managing the lively and spirited attendees who frequented the Opera House productions, including the demimonde women and exuberant young miners.

Following the devastating Great Fire of 1875, which ravaged much of Virginia City, the Henry Piper House emerged as a testament to resilience. Its construction was swiftly completed by December of that year.

Subsequently, the house underwent a meticulous transformation into a bed and breakfast from 2004 to 2007, earning it recognition with a Nevada state historic preservation award in 2008. In 2011, the house earned its well-deserved place on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Fourth Ward School

The Fourth Ward School - watercolor ink painting
The Fourth Ward School – watercolor ink painting

The Fourth Ward School, located at 537 South “C” Street in Virginia City, stands as a historical gem, originally designed in 1876 by architect C.M. Bennett in the Second Empire style.

This impressive four-story structure played a pivotal role in education, accommodating over 1000 students from grades 1 through 9. The school comprised three departments: primary, second grammar, and high school, with grades 10 through 12 later added by 1909.

It symbolized a pinnacle of educational advancement, featuring state-of-the-art amenities like heating, ventilation, and sanitation systems.

In 1936, the Fourth Ward School graduated its final class as its students moved to a new school built by the Works Progress Administration. Subsequently, the building fell into disrepair and remained dormant until 1986 when it was revitalized as the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum. This transformative venture earned recognition and a Nevada state historic preservation award in 2008.

Today, here is a museum offering insights into the Comstock’s rich heritage, 19th-century education, the life of Mark Twain, mining in the region, and even a fascinating letter printing press.

The Fourth Ward School Museum engages visitors with permanent and changing exhibits that delve into the region’s history, including a detailed look at the Comstock mining boom, life in the 1870s classroom, and innovations inspired by the local mining industry.

The museum’s commitment to preserving the past and educating the present makes it a vital asset for both the local community and history enthusiasts from around the world.

The King–McBride Mansion

The King–McBride Mansion, nestled at 26-28 S. Howard St. in Virginia City, is a splendid embodiment of Italianate-style architecture, bearing testimony to the town’s resilience after the devastating “Great Fire” of October 1875.

Constructed in 1876, this historic house, also known as King House, was rightly recognized when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.

This magnificent mansion holds a unique place in history as the creation of George King, a pivotal figure in the success of the Comstock Lode. It is a striking example of the high-style Italianate architectural preference embraced by prominent individuals in the Comstock region in the aftermath of the 1875 fire.

The 3-story mansion, constructed with a wooden frame, features an intricate design with two bays flanking the central portico and an irregular floor plan. Inside, visitors are greeted by an ornate walnut staircase, elegant marble fireplaces, and an impressive 19th-century clear glass skylight.

The mansion’s rich history is interwoven with illustrious names such as Bonanza king John Mackay, banker J. P. Martin, Judge Richard Rising, and mine Superintendent Charles Forman, all of whom resided near the King–McBride Mansion. While many of their homes succumbed to the Great Fire of 1875, the Mansion miraculously survived.

Over the years, the mansion saw various occupants and served different purposes, from being deeded to the Catholic Church to accommodating silent screen actress Bobbette Simpson.

Eventually, it came under the ownership of the McBride family, who preserved its historical significance. Today, the King–McBride Mansion stands as a private residence, not open to the public, but it remains an enduring symbol of Virginia City’s storied past.

The C. J. Prescott House

The C. J. Prescott House, located at 12 Hickey St. in Virginia City, stands as a cherished relic of the past. Built in 1864, it holds the honor of being one of the oldest extant houses in Virginia City, surviving the tumultuous pre-statehood era and even the devastating “Great Fire” of October 26, 1875.

This historic dwelling was the creation of C. J. Prescott, an entrepreneur who owned an early lumber company catering to the needs of the Comstock Lode. A 1+1⁄2-story wood-frame house, it proudly exhibits a vernacular Victorian/Italianate architectural style, distinguished by three chimneys and adorned with redwood shiplap siding.

Notably, the exterior colors – oxblood with gold and green trim – harken back to the original palette that graced the house in 1864.

The C. J. Prescott House not only enjoys individual recognition on the National Register of Historic Places, but it is also a contributing property within the esteemed Virginia City Historic District, designated as both a National Historic Landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site.

Its enduring presence is a testament to the rich tapestry of history that unfolds within the heart of Virginia City.

The Old Washoe Club

The Old Washoe Club, a three-story brick building in Virginia City’s historic district, has a rich and intriguing history. Established on June 1, 1875, it initially enjoyed rapid membership growth, but its zenith was short-lived.

In less than five months, a devastating fire, which consumed a large part of Virginia City, took its palatial club rooms in October 1875, leading to delinquency in membership stock assessments. On December 10, 1875, the club decided to offer delinquent shares at public sale on February 10, 1876, signaling a challenging period.

Prominent figures in Nevada history, such as Rollin M. Daggett, Charles DeLong, John P. Jones, William M. Stewart, and Henry M. Yerington, all found themselves among the delinquent members during this challenging time. Despite these difficulties, the club found a new home in 1876, where its quarters became even more elegant.

However, the economic downturn in the Comstock, compounded by a catastrophic underground fire in 1881, adversely affected mining production and the club’s membership, leading to reduced dues. By 1897, the Washoe Club ceased to exist. This marked the end of an era in Nevada’s history, just as its opening had marked the beginning.

Today, the Old Washoe Club is famous for its paranormal activity and is featured on ghost-hunting TV shows. It houses a creepy crypt and a museum dedicated to the building’s mysteries, making it a center for ghostly tales. While the second and third floors have sat empty for over a century, the stories of the past continue to haunt this remarkable place.

The Knights of Pythias Building

The Knights of Pythias Building, also known as the Knights of Pythias Hall, stands as a historical jewel within Virginia City. Erected in 1876 by Nevada Lodge No. 1 of the Knights of Pythias, this cast iron and stuccoed brick structure is a testament to the legacy of fraternal organizations on the Comstock.

It was a haven for not only Nevada Lodge No. 1 but also for Lincoln Lodge No. 6, established in 1874, and Triumph Lodge No. 11, founded in 1879.

This remarkable building is one of the few well-preserved false-fronted structures in Virginia City, retaining much of its original architectural charm. The Knights of Pythias Hall is a contributing property within the Virginia City Historic District, a National Historic Landmark since 1961 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.

The lodge’s upper floor served as a meeting hall while the ground floor was leased to various tenants. In 1880, the first floor was home to The Armory, and it was a hub of activity in the bustling city.

The Knights of Pythias Hall boasts striking features, including square iron supports on the ground floor and decorative brick pilasters on the second story. Graceful round-arched windows and remnants of a once-ornate metal cornice adorn the building. The arched parapet proudly displays the letters “K of P,” commemorating its original purpose.

The Virginia and Truckee Railroad

The Virginia and Truckee Railroad, once a vital commercial freight route, has transformed into a beloved tourist attraction that captivates visitors with its rich history and stunning views.

This heritage railroad, based in Virginia City, stretches over 14 miles, taking passengers on a nostalgic journey through the Comstock Lode mining communities and the breathtaking landscapes of northwestern Nevada.

Originally constructed in the late 19th century to serve the thriving Comstock Lode silver mines, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad played a pivotal role in transporting ore, lumber, and supplies between Virginia City, Carson City, and Minden. Its route featured remarkable engineering, including numerous tunnels and trestles, making it a marvel of its time.

The railroad’s heyday saw it bustling with activity, serving both freight and passengers, with a fleet of locomotives and freight cars. However, declining mining activities and the rise of automobiles led to its eventual abandonment in 1950.

In the 1970s, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad found a new lease on life as public interest in historic railroads grew. Private and public initiatives, including fundraising and extensive restoration efforts, breathed life back into the line.

Today, the section from Virginia City to Gold Hill has been rebuilt by private interests, while a portion from Gold Hill to Mound House was reconstructed with a combination of public funding and private donations.

The V&T Railroad now stands as a living museum, offering visitors a chance to relive the past. Riding its historic trains, travelers can immerse themselves in the charm of the Old West, appreciate the ingenious engineering of the railway, and soak in the breathtaking Nevada landscapes.

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