Virginia City: An American Silver Mining Boomtown

Virginia City developed as a boomtown after the January discovery in 1859 of the first major U.S. silver ore deposit known as the Comstock Lode.* Located in Storey County in the state of Nevada, the population reached around 25,000 in the mid-1870s and then declined after 1878. In addition, some people consider Virginia City to be the birthplace of Mark Twain as Samuel Clemens used the Twain name for the first time in that city in February 1863.

 
Virginia City

Location of Virginia City in Nevada. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Just as Clemens became known as Mark Twain, there are several stories about how Virginia City inherited its name. One of the most accepted stories is that a man by the name of James Fennimore, who was “one of [the] first discoverers of the mining locality and one of [the] most successful prospectors in the region [was involved].”[1] He was a native of the state of Virginia and therefore nicknamed “old Virginny” or “Old Virginia.” Legend has it that he christened the town after he tripped and broke a bottle of whiskey at a saloon entrance in the northern section of Gold Hill. How this happened was detailed in the 1880s in the Philadelphia Times:

“It was first called ‘Pleasant Hill,’ then ‘Mount Pleasant Point,’ and in August 1859, designated as ‘Ophir’ and in September as ‘Ophir Diggings.’ In October the place was first known as Virginia and got its name in this way: Old Virginia and a lot of the boys were out on a drunk, when Old Virginia fell down and broke his bottle, and when he got up he poured out the balance of the whisky on the ground and said: ‘I baptize this ground Virginia.’ Attempts were made to change the name … but Virginia stuck.”[2]

Samuel Clemens in 1871. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One miner, a Colonel James Dixon, claimed to have been in the region after the Comstock Lode had been found. He noted how the population exploded practically overnight.

“In a month the news went about that the richest diggings of all had been found, and the stampede of miners started that way. By January there were over five hundred miners on the scene. That was the beginning of Virginia City.”[3]

Although there might have been a great influx of eager miners, their lodgings were initially nothing more than tents or shanties. In fact, many miners lived in holes they excavated on the side of the mountain that they then roofed with sagebrush and earth. There were also no real hotel accommodations for the first winter of 1859-60, although eventually there would be Peter O’Riley’s stone hotel and another hotel known as the International Hotel that was “a little frame structure, capable of accommodating only a small number of persons, and those in the roughest style imaginable.”[4]  

When the first buildings were erected in Virginia City, they seemed to be like what Jemima Kindersley described in 1769 in Calcutta, India, where Eliza de Feuillide was born. Kindersley was an English travel writer and stated that Calcutta construction projects were done “without regard to the beauty or regularity of the town … [making it look like houses] had been thrown up in the air, and fallen down again by accident.”[5] Fortunately, Virginia City did not repeat Calcutta’s mistakes because order soon reigned, and streets were laid out so that those nearest the mine were A and B streets.

Virginia City

Birds eye view of Virginia City 1875. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The first structure that might have been considered a house in Virginia City did not appear until the summer of 1859. It was not created from wood but was rather a large canvas structure 18×40 feet and was erected by Lyman Jones, a pioneer miner.

“Soon several frame structures were removed from Johntown and from Dayton (then called ‘Chinatown’) to the ‘new diggings’ of ‘Ophir.’ Lumber from saw-mills in the foot-hills of the Sierras was then procured and a few small houses and offices erected. As there was no wagon road up the mountain to where the city now stands it was necessary to carry lumber up to the new diggings on horses, half packing and half dragging it from the valley, where it was delivered by wagons. Very soon, however, a wagon track was made up the mountain, and building them progressed more rapidly.”[6]

Between 1860 and 1861, Virginia City saw buildings being erected extremely fast. By 1862 the population had grown to about 4,000 people and to accommodate the rising population more buildings were erected between 1862 and 1863. However, because Virginia City was prone to fires, these new buildings were created from brick and stone to “fire-proof” them.

Because of all the riches being pulled from the Comstock, the pockets of many of those in Virginia City were jingling with coins. This then attracted thousands more to pour into the city hoping to enrich themselves off the miners. It also meant that besides the honest and industrious, the sharper, the desperado, and the wicked, both male and female, were enticed to the city. Moreover, just like the Hell on Wheels of the railroads attracted trouble, crime came to Virginia City. In fact, it was reported:

“There were many desperate affrays, robberies, and murder. ‘Cutting and shooting scrapes’ were of almost daily and nightly occurrence in the street and in the saloons. At one time the nightly killings were so frequent that residents expected each morning to hear that there was ‘a man for breakfast.’”[7]

The Sacramento Bee also noted killings to be frequent in Virginia City stating in September 1863:

“Within a month upwards of a dozen men were shot, wounded or killed at Virginia City ― exhibiting a bad state of morals in that city. The Standard says it is absolutely dangerous to venture into a crowd, as no one knows how soon shooting may commence.”[8]

Virginia City - shoot out

Example of a shoot out in the West. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Shootings in Virginia City continued despite warnings to avoid crowds. One typical shooting incident that made it into the Gold Hill Daily News was reported in November 1864. Two men, John K. Sale and Charley Clintze, got into an “affray” and shot each other at Wood & Wilson’s saloon. Although both men were wounded, they survived. Details of the shootout was reported as follows:

“As near as we can ascertain the facts, the trouble originated on Wednesday morning last in the St. Nicholas Saloon, in which Clintze is bar-keeper. Sale having come into the saloon and took a drink, told a boy … to tell Clintze certain things and then passed through the saloon into the back yard. Coming back, he approached Clintze, who sat by the stove, called him by a vile name, drew his pistol and swore he could whip him (Clintze) … After considerable harsh talk on the part of Sale, his friends prevailed upon him to go away; and so the matter rested until last evening, when Clintze and three of friends went into Wood & Wilson’s to take a drink. After drinking, and while standing at the bar, Sale came out of a card room in the rear of the saloon and advanced through the passage, when seeing Clintze, he stopped. Clintze then making an attempt to take off his coat, Sale drew his pistol, (which is a self-cocking revolver of English make) and told Clintze to defend himself, and immediately fired, and then retreated into a room on the north side of the passage, receiving the fire of Clintze, who had also drawn a Colt’s six-shooter, and fired rappidly ― Sale shooting under cover of the jam of the door, from the inside, and Clintze, from the outside, shooting into the room at Sale. Nine shots were exchanged, Clintze receiving three, one in the right breast, near the nipple, and one in the second finger of each hand. The ball entered the fleshy part of the breast, and glancing, inflicted a serious flesh wound. Each of his fingers had to be amputated, but his condition is not pronounced dangerous … Sale received a slight wound in the hand, which is not of a serious nature.”[9]

Shootings between men were not the only crimes being committed. One horrible murder involved a colorful woman named Julia “Jule” Bulette. She was an English-born American who arrived in Virginia City in 1859 and because she was the only women, she was highly sought after by miners and quickly became a prostitute. Described as tall, slim, and beautiful, miners adored her, and she was soon able to open an elegant brothel. On the morning of 20 January 1867, her partially naked body was discovered in her bedroom strangled and bludgeoned. Citizens were stunned and on the day of her funeral thousands formed a procession to her grave in her honor. In addition, contemporary newspaper accounts of her death quickly captured people’s imagination and she was elevated from prostitute to courtesan to folk heroine.

Julia “Jule” Bulette. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Because so much money circulated in Virginia City it also enticed robbers to operate in the city. Besides the robberies that happened in town, the Sacramento Bee also noted in September 1865 that stagecoach and highway robberies were common in the vicinity of Virginia City and that “five cases occurred there inside of two days.”[10] Highway robberies may have in part happened because newspapers regularly reported that large amounts of “treasure” were being shipped out of the city, such as a shipment made by Wells Fargo to San Francisco in September 1865 worth $46,162.21.

With the all the shootings, murders, and robberies, law-biding Virginia City residents finally became fed up and took decisive action to correct the situation. According to William Wright, a nineteenth-century American author, journalist, and humorist known by his pen name Dan de Quille:

“[M]urders, robberies, and incendiary fires became so frequent that a ‘Vigilance Committee,’ known as ‘601,’ was organized and became active in the spring of 1871. It was the object of the organization to rid the town of all manner of evil-doers, and particularly of such desperate characters as almost without provocation killed peaceable citizens. After there had been two or three hangings by ‘601,’ and after many bad characters received ‘notices’ to leave (which all obeyed at once), the city again became quiet and orderly.”[11]

Dan de Quille. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One misfortune that happened in Virginia City during the years that it was a mining boomtown became known as the Great Fire of 1875. It began on 26 October 1875 when a lodging house near Taylor Street caught fire. The flames then ravaged the city spread rapidly north and south from the origination point and despite buildings supposedly being fireproof, they melted in the intense heat. Ultimately 2,000 buildings were destroyed, 10,000 people were left homeless, and loss of property was estimated to be $10,000,000. Details of the blaze were provided by San Francisco papers and reprinted by the Boston Post:

“The flames crossed Union and Sutton streets, covering a space of ten blocks, comprising, in the words of one despatch, ‘almost every decent building in the town.’ As the fire worked up C street, the office of the Territorial Enterprise and Chronicle were destroyed. Piper’s Opera House was next in flames, and it became evident that the railroad depot and the hoisting works of the Consolidate Virginia were in danger. The water supply was inadequate and the engines of little use, so recourse was had to blowing up buildings. It was too late, however, and in a few minutes the depot and the hoisting works were in flames. … Continuing to the north and east, the partially completed mill of the California mine and the Consolidate Virginia mill were soon in flames, which spread still further north to the Ophir Hoisting works, destroying them also, which is about the limit of the destruction in that direction, the fire dying out for want of fuel. From Taylor street, near which the fire originated, it spread southward against the winds, destroying the branch office of the Bank of California, Wells, Fargo & Co.’s express office, and everything else in its line. At this point the Gould & Curry works were in imminent danger, but fortunately were saved. In short, nearly the entire business portion is in ashes. The hotels, churches, county buildings, newspaper, telegraph and express office are all swept away.”[12]

After the conflagration some of the righteous stood at their pulpits and declared the Virginia City fire to have been caused by Divine intervention. In fact, Rev. Dr. Cunningham of San Francisco stated that the fire was “a visitation for sin and a moral tonic.”[13] He claimed that God had become impatient over the wickedness of the city and therefore gave the people a “foretaste” of what was to come if they did not change their ways. He also added:

“So far this (the fire) is an aid to the gospel, an aid to repentance from sin, and fleeing from wrath to come, and it furthers, like every other Divine judgment, the plan of salvation.”[14]

Citizens of Virginia City paid no heed to the religious judgement made by men like Cunningham and instead immediately got busy rebuilding their town. Citizens were so eager to rebuild it was noted that water was thrown upon remaining embers and the ruins immediately toted away. Rebuilding then began in earnest and became every resident’s preoccupation. They toiled “day and night until all the grounds of the burnt district had been again covered … [and] in less than thirty days … new works replaced those destroyed by fire … and in sixty days after the fire the business streets of the city were rebuilt, and with larger and finer structures than those that had been destroyed.”[15]

Although the city was rebuilt, the population began to decline by 1878 and by 1880 the bonanza was at an end. Today Virginia City continues to retain an authentic historic character partly because the city was declared a National Historic Landmark district in 1961. Among the interesting sites for visitors are the board sidewalks. There are also numerous buildings restored that date back to the 1860s and 1870s, such as the historic 1864 Union Brewery and saloon on 28 North C Street, frequented by Mark Twain. In addition, there are several saloons and Piper’s Opera House. Tourists can also visit the city’s historic Pioneer Cemetery and see Bulette’s grave.

Virginia City today

How Virginia City looks today. Author’s collection.

References:

  • [1] G. H. Smith, “The History of the Comstock Lode 1850-1920,” 37, no. 3 (1943): 16; University of Nevada Bulletin, p. 16.
  • [2] The Times, “The Comstock Lode,” November 25, 1883, p. 3.
  • [3] The Morning Journal-Courier, “The Fortune They Lost,” November 3, 1897, p. 7.
  • [4] D. de Quille, A History of the Comstock Silver Lode & Mines (Virginia, Nevada: F. Boegle, 1889), p. 48.
  • [5] E. Cotton, Calcutta, Old and New: A Historical & Descriptive Handbook to the City (Calcutta: W. Newman, 1907), p. 87.
  • [6] D. de Quille. 1889, p. 46.
  • [7] D. de Quille. 1889, p. 49–50.
  • [8] The Sacramento Bee, September 28, 1863, p. 1.
  • [9] Gold Hill Daily News, “Shooting,” November 18, 1864, p. 3.
  • [10] The Sacramento Bee, “Rough Gambling,” September 13, 1865, p. 2.
  • [11] D. de Quille. 1889, p. 50.
  • [12] Boston Post, “Conflagrations,” October 27, 1875, p. 2.
  • [13] The San Francisco Examiner, “A Woman’s Rebuke,” November 17, 1875, p. 2.
  • [14] Ibid.
  • [15] D. de Quille. 1889, p. 54–55.

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