Then and Now: Virginia City

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BY CLAY MITCHELL, photos by MARILYN NEWTON

In 1850, gold was reported near a station along the Carson River in what today is Dayton, Nevada. Mormon pioneers on their way to California had found a little “color” in their pans but continued on to California, believing tales of unimaginable riches further west. A small mining camp soon developed and in January and June of 1859, twin vein discoveries at Gold Hill and Virginia City cemented the Comstock Lode as a cache of riches that would change the history of the West, the United States, and the world.

The early discoverers sold their claims for vast sums of money. Those sums were later dwarfed by the value of the gold and silver produced from the holdings. They were also dwarfed by the wealth both gained and lost on Comstock mining stock speculation, a favored pastime in Victorian San Francisco. The beneficiaries of Virginia City’s wealth financed significant technological innovation, particularly in mining related fields. Fortunes attached to names like Hearst, Sutro, and Mackay were made on the Comstock.

Virginia City’s population and importance helped drive the successful effort for Nevada statehood in 1864. Virginia City and neighboring Gold Hill both became bustling commercial centers, boasting close to 30,000 combined residents from all over the world at their mid-1870s peak. Their combined history has been a story of boom and bust from their earliest days, tied to the discovery and depletion of the precious metals that lie beneath. What makes them uncommon is their longevity and relative opulence in the Wild West. The average mining camp lasted for two to three years. Virginia City prospered for 25 years and was once called “The Richest City in America.”

At it’s peak, Virginia City had over 100 saloons, six churches, five newspapers, three theaters, two hospitals, an opera house, and a railroad running as many as 30 trains each day. Some of the mines plunged as deep as 3,200 feet, producing more than $400 million in the coinage of the day – most of it when gold was pegged at $21 per ounce and silver priced under a dollar. By 1876, Nevada produced more than half of all the precious metals in the United States. The wealth supported the Northern cause during the Civil War. The shiny metals-as-commodities also affected world monetary markets.

Virginia City today is a vibrant slice of Americana, thriving on connections to its past through both tourism and, to a lesser extent, modern-day mining. Less busy than in its heyday, the city is still imbued with a deep sense of pride and purpose. It is a story-filled and still authentic western mining town that was once – and may again be – a place of great importance.

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