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The heart of Nevada’s past is captured in this historic mining town.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Comstock Gold Mill)
Even the devil would be homesick in Nevada, opined Mark Twain after his short sojourn in the territory destined to become the Silver State. Twain developed his writing style and adopted his famous penname in an almost two-year stay in booming Virginia City, one of many noteworthy events in the mining town.
Perched on the eastern slopes of Mount Davidson, Virginia City sprang up after the discovery of the Comstock Lode of silver ore in 1859. The discovery and subsequent growth of the city holds our attention as unequaled to the history of other discoveries. By 1876, Nevada produced more than half of all the precious metals in the United States. The Comstock produced millions of dollars in silver and gold. The wealth supported the Union cause during the Civil War and flooded the world monetary markets.
Technological advances in mining marked the prosperity of the Comstock Lode. Square-set timbering, root blowers, stamp mills, the Washoe Pan milling process, Cornish pumps, Burleigh machine drills, wire-woven rope, miners’ safety cages and the safety clutch for those cages—even the Sutro tunnel—all played a role in the exploitation of the rich ore body and were used many times over in later mining applications. In 1876, one observer reported that in Virginia City, “Every activity has to do with the mining, transportation, or reduction of silver ore, or the melting and assaying of silver bullion.”
Dominated by San Francisco entrepreneurs, Virginia City was heralded as the sophisticated interior partner of the City by the Bay. “San Francisco on the coast and Virginia City inland” became the mantra of West Coast Victorian entrepreneurs. Early Virginia City settlers were in large part the backwash from San Francisco and the California Gold Rush of 1849. Mine owners who made fortunes in the Comstock mines spent their wealth in San Francisco, where a stock market existed for the exploitation of Comstock mining.
Through time, the ownership of Comstock claims changed from numerous independent mines to large conglomerates. The Bank Crowd dominated by William Sharon in Virginia City and William Ralston in San Francisco financed the mines and mills of the Comstock until they had a virtual monopoly. Manipulating stocks through rumors and false reports of mining wealth, fortunes could be made in the shares of Virginia City’s mines.
By the late 1860s, a group of Irish investors threatened the Bank Crowd’s control. John Mackay and partner James Fair began as common miners, working their way up to management positions. By purchasing stock in the mines, they realized financial independence.
Their partners, Flood and O’Brien, stayed in San Francisco and speculated in stock. The Irish Big Four, as the men were eventually known, controlled the Consolidated Virginia mine where the “Big Bonanza” was discovered in 1873. The next few years were some of the most profitable on the Comstock, as the Bank Crowd lost control to the Irish Big Four.
The mining industry gave Nevada many of its early political leaders. Sharon was a U.S. Senator, as was Fair. Senator John P. Jones, a mine superintendent, served for 30 years. William Stewart, a leading mining attorney, also served in the Senate and was instrumental in developing national mining law. Nevada’s first elected governor, Henry Blasdel, was a mill operator and mine superintendent in Virginia City.
The mining industry dominated Virginia City, making it an industrial center similar to those of the east coast. But Virginia City still retained some of its frontier flavor. The social history of the town has emphasized the immigrant nature of residents. Miners from Cornwall, England, where tin mines had similar hard-rock technology, flooded the Comstock mines.
Irish and Germans dominated the saloon and mid-merchant levels and the ownership of much of the red-light district. The Chinese settled in large numbers in Virginia City, not unlike other Western towns of significant population, and faced discrimination in employment, leaving them niche occupations such as laundrymen. Virginia City became a place that had to be seen to be believed.
Congress passed the Mint Act in 1873, which became known as the “Crime of 73.” The act demonetized silver and ultimately negatively affected the silver mining industry. Passed the same year as the Big Bonanza discovery, at first, the effect was not felt. The Comstock’s early years lulled people into believing the mining boom would never end as early depressions had been followed by even greater discoveries.
The Comstock mining boom was effectively over by 1880. Virginia City declined, but never completely disappeared. Today tourists walk the boardwalks, tour the museums, and spend the night, hoping to glimpse a ghost from bygone bonanzas.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Virginia City Convention & Tourism Authority
P.O. Box 920, Virginia City, NV 89440