To our midwestern eyes, much of Nevada is rather god-forsaken looking. Sure some of the mountains and rolling hills are covered with a wide variety of colored minerals and the sagebrush is blooming a rich hue of gold at the moment, but much of it is dry and barren looking. What's important is what's under the ground. The Silver State earned its nickname long before the casinos began generating it. The Comstock Lode was the first major discovery of silver in the United States when it was found in 1859. Fortune hunters who had missed out on the California gold rush, arrived in hordes to seek their fortunes once again. Mark Twain soon discovered that he was not cut out to be a miner, and started his writing career here.
Mining takes a lot of equipment; at first all the supplies were hauled over the Sierras by men and animals. The mines in this area caved in readily and while there was little water on the surface, large geothermal heated pools under the ground scalded the first explorers and had to be pumped out. These demands caused the building of railroad lines which could bring in all the timbers and heavy equipment the mines required and haul all the silver out.
As is often the case, many of the folks who really made money here, mined the miners. Virginia City in the early 1870's was a mining metropolis with nearly 30,000 residents, more than 100 saloons, a multitude of banks, churches and theaters and the only elevator between Chicago and San Francisco. The wealth the mines produced was funneled into the building of San Francisco and the funding of the Union Army during the Civil War. Some mining still takes place here today, but the population took a real dive in about 1880 when the profits dwindled.
This is a familiar boom and bust story in the mining industry, but there was something special about Virginia City, which we visited today, because it still flourishes. Built on a steep hillside at an elevation of more than 6,000', it is beautiful. Take away the trappings of modern life like power lines, parking lots, and yellow curb striping and it looks very much as it probably did 150 years ago. There are wooden plank sidewalks, swinging wooden doors on C Street, and the narrow alleys are plastered with picturesque old signs. But what keeps it from looking like colonial Williamsburg are all the shops and bars located in those old buildings. Virginia City teeters on a tightrope between quaint and kitschy. Depending on where you look, both can be true. If you want knick-knacks, taffy, old-timey photographs of yourself, cheesy jewelry, T-shirts, and gun paraphenalia, you can find it here. Some of the old rail line has been restored and you can take a short ride around here or a long one all the way to Carson City. You can tour an old mine or participate in the annual Outhouse Races or the camel races. People come here to have fun.
Today we were impressed by the museum in the four-story restored Fourth Ward School, in the education business from 1876-1936. We flashed back to a similar school we had attended as kids with the creaky floors and blackboards so white they could no longer be erased. The Bucket of Blood Saloon was also nicely restored with Tiffany-style ceiling lamps, mirrors and tinned ceilings. Across the street the Suicide Table was a must-see. It got its name from the three owners of the gambling table who all lost their entire fortunes playing games of chance on it and did themselves in as a result. Shows still are put on in the old opera house and the firemen's museum holds special place of honor in a town where everything was incessantly burning down.
A fun place to spend the day.