Virginia City, Nevada: A Taste of the Old West

Views On the Way to Virginia City
Views On the Way to Virginia City, Nevada. Noreen Kompanik photos.

Virginia City, Nevada: A Town Too Spirited to Die

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Virginia City residents sporting their western attire.
Virginia City residents sporting their western attire.

On a recent family trip to Lake Tahoe, we decided to venture out and explore a small western town that a local described as “a Nevada ghost town stuck in time.”

The drive was an adventure in itself with its winding mountain roads and stunning scenery.

Located just 20 miles southeast of Reno, Virginia City is no doubt one of the best known of Nevada’s early mining towns.

In its heyday, more than 10,000 people lived and worked in its gold and silver mines and supporting businesses.

But when the mines closed, a common recurring theme played out and workers moved on to more lucrative places and prospects.

Virginia Citys historic downtown mercantile
Virginia City’s historic downtown mercantile store.

But unlike other gold rush towns that disappeared into the desert dust, Virginia City lived on despite economic collapse, several fires, and other misfortunes.

Today, this gritty and fascinating town reflects a delicate balance between the present and the past. And oh, the intriguing tales we discovered here. To understand the Virginia City of today, we began with its storied and colorful past.

Underground tour of the Best and Belcher Mine
Underground tour of the Best and Belcher Mine

The Gold Rush

The cry of “there’s gold in them thar hills” echoed across the globe once gold was discovered out West. Virginia City was no different – home to numerous gold and silver mines including the world-renowned Comstock Lode and the “Big Bonanza,” the two richest mineral strikes of the entire West.

It was 1859 when Irish immigrants James McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley made the first gold discovery here. Soon hundreds of miners and prospectors arrived, and the city was awash in gold and silver.

Eventually, Virginia City grew to be the largest settlement in the district, so rich and diverse that it would rival San Francisco.

The mines truly made Virginia City a wealthy frontier town. Despite its remote, rudimentary, and harsh environment, this bustling community provided all the creature comforts – gourmet foods, fine whiskeys, and even Parisian fashions for the ladies.

At the height of its heyday, the city boasted over 100 saloons, and innumerable brothels, making Virginia City one wild and boisterous place in the Wild, Wild West.

Famous Newspaper Writer

Miners photo at Comstock Gold Mill
Miners in an old photo at Comstock Gold Mill

The frontier town even had its own newspaper, the “Territorial Enterprise.” It was home to several legendary writers, the most famous, Samuel Clemens who arrived in Virginia City in 1862. While working for the newspaper, he took on the pen name we all recognize as “Mark Twain.”

Railroad Comes to Virginia City

Construction of the Virginia and Truckee railroad began in 1869 providing a huge boon to the district. The railway brought more goods to the miners, merchantmen, and residents and hauled out large volumes of ore.

This in turn facilitated the building of more mills. Even today, this railroad is still in operation, transporting tourists on various routes in and out of Virginia City.

Life was good. The mines were generating inordinate wealth. Miners received good wages. Businesses prospered and the town continued to grow. So much so, that Virginia City was widely considered the most important industrial hub between Denver and San Francisco.

Old Washoe Club once a private millionaires club in Virginia City.
Old Washoe Club once a private millionaires club in Virginia City.

The “Big Bonanza” Find

In 1875, “The Great Fire” destroyed much of the city, leaving over 10,000 of its residents homeless. One would think a disaster of this magnitude would spark the demise of a prosperous existence, but Virginia City carried on and rebuilt with no expense spared.

The great riches of the Comstock silver lode and the Consolidated Virginia Mine’s “Big Bonanza” strike ensured the town’s continued prosperity.

Post-Mining Era

In the latter part of the 1800s, the ore harvested was practically exhausted or veins too deep to access.

Old Miner photo at Comstock Gold Mill
Old Miner photo at Comstock Gold Mill

Though the mines continued on a small scale for a while, eventually they were completely abandoned. The population dwindled, but the town continued to hold on.

It was the tourist industry beginning in the 1930s that saved Virginia City from a fate similar to most mining towns. When Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, it energized the travel industry even more.

Visitors at the time were becoming fascinated with the Old West, and many creative minds like artists and writers tired of a busier, manic metropolitan lifestyle were looking for more remote places to retreat, practice, and hone their craft.

After WWII, wealthy eclectic socialite Lucius Beebe moved to Virginia City from the East Coast and began purchasing and rehabilitating old buildings.

It didn’t take long for Hollywood to notice that the town and its environs made the ideal setting for Western movies.

And how fascinating when we realized that one of the most popular TV westerns, “Bonanza,” was set in the Tahoe/Virginia City area.

After a visit to Virginia City, we truly understand why this name was the chosen name for the series.

Strolling downtown Virginia City
Strolling downtown Virginia City

In 1961, the city was designated a National Historic Landmark for its preservation efforts keeping its true frontier and mining camp character alive. Today, its saloons, museums, historical sites, fascinating boutique shops, emporium, general store, and unique restaurants continue to draw tourists like us to its doors and into its heart.

Stuck in a Time Warp

There’s something mesmerizing about a town that seems timeless. Gaslights created from 1800s originals still line its main street. The compact downtown with its rustic boardwalk resembles a timeworn set from a Wild West movie. Only this is the real deal.

For a small town, Virginia City boasts an impressive 17 museums. And while it was impossible for us to experience them all, we loved the ones we chose during our visit.

The Comstock Gold Mill is a must-do for a more in-depth history lesson of gold mining here. The Historic Fourth Ward School & Archives closely resembles the house from the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds.” This 1876 building still retains its original veneer, desks, books, and maps, and letterpress.

Visiting a Gold Mine

Mining equipment inside Best and Melcher Mine
Mining equipment inside Best and Melcher Mine

No visit to Virginia City is complete without a mine tour. Donning hard hats and flashlights, we descended into the underground shaft of the Best & Belcher Mine for a fascinating travel-through-history lesson. This once-forgotten mine is now accessed through the Ponderosa Saloon.

Owners discovered that the mine’s original shaft entrance was but a short distance from the saloon. So, they dug a connecting tunnel, and as a result, visitors can now imbibe and then access the shafts by guided tour.

Traveling through its underground tunnels, we had the chance to walk in the miner’s shoes. However, it was daunting to realize though we had flashlights, the miners navigated the stopes, levels, drifts, and crosscuts by only candlelight, working in near-darkness ten to twelve hours a day.

Over 300 pieces of mining equipment are scattered throughout the shafts, most just left behind by workers exiting the now-abandoned mine for the very last time. It was a riveting and somber experience.

Marsten House Parlor decorated for Halloween
Mackay Mansion parlor decorated for Halloween

Ghostly Happenings

Built by George Hearst in 1860, the Mackay Mansion is a Victorian beauty with picturesque grounds and a lovely outdoor gazebo.

Though it’s one of the few structures that survived the numerous fires, the home still retains most of its original furnishings and is known for its strong paranormal activity.

Guests have reported seeing two young girls running on the staircase, a maid working in the parlor, and an apparition known as the “Shadow Man” in the upstairs rooms.

Whether you believe it or not, the house definitely exudes an eerie feeling. It didn’t help that we were there during Halloween weekend when it was decorated at its ghostly best.

Haunted Marsten House Dining room
Haunted Mackay Mansion dining room

Another supposed ghost-hunters delight is the Silver Queen Hotel located in the heart of downtown. The 143-year-old inn contains 28 authentically beautifully restored rooms, so they still have no phones or televisions. Some rooms sport 16-foot ceilings and original claw-foot bathtubs. Standing in the lobby of this historic gem, we couldn’t help but wonder “if only these walls could speak.”

Piper’s Opera House, built in the 1880s and twice burned, attracted some of Europe’s most famous visitors and performers. It has also welcomed the likes of President Grant, Buffalo Bill, Al Jolson, and Mark Twain.

Locals say it harbors a few ghostly inhabitants as well. Renowned as one of the most significant vintage theaters on the West Coast, the playhouse still hosts live performances, though it is currently undergoing significant restoration.

Our most mysterious and disturbing experience had to be a tour of the three-storied dilapidated and largely abandoned Old Washoe Club.

Built in 1870 as a luxury bar known as the “Millionaire’s Club” the once-opulent venue was of no surprise, an exclusive meeting place for the wealthy men of Virginia City. With a brothel located just up a spiral staircase and a larger freezer called “The Crypt,” it’s of no surprise strange occurrences happened here throughout its storied past.

Prostitutes unexpectedly disappeared, an explosion killed 12 people in 1873, multiple suicides ensued (some over huge gambling debts), and many bodies were stored in the Crypt during a pandemic.

Virginia Truckee Railroad photo courtesy of Virginia City NV
Virginia Truckee Railroad photo courtesy of Virginia City NV

The haunted Washoe Club was actually featured on Ghost Adventures three times (season 4, episode 8; season 16, episode 7; and their original documentary that aired in 2004), and other paranormal crews have visited on multiple occasions. Though we ourselves never witnessed any manifestations during our visit, an offer to return and spend the night at this torturous place did not tempt us.

Some Virginia City Locals bellying up to the bar
Some Virginia City Locals bellying up to the bar.

Dining and Drinking in History

After our morning of historic touring, we were famished, done with ghost stories, and ready to sit down for some grub and a different type of “spirit.”

Lunch at the Palace Restaurant and Saloon featured, as expected, Western saloon-type fare. The menu is extensive, but we heard their specialties were burgers and Reubens and with a multitude of choices, we figured we couldn’t go wrong. We were spot on.

Our sentiments are always “trust the locals. They know best.” This iconic saloon built in 1875 is located right in the heart of Main Street and features a wide variety of libations guaranteed to satiate any thirsty palate.

The presence of a bygone era can be felt everywhere in Virginia City. And like the spirits that are said to meander about its historic buildings, it’s the spirit of this fascinating town that has also refused to die.

Virginia City lives on thanks to an ongoing influx of new spirits–those creative souls who time and again breathed life into what could have been a dying town and returned it back to the land of the living.