"My theory in anything you do is to keep exploring, keep digging deeper to find new stuff." Blythe Danner
State 22: Nevada - November 24, 2017
We woke up in a Walmart in Fernley, Nevada ready for a brand new day. Today, we drive 40 miles Southwest to visit the Cross Country Couple's "Historic Location"; Virginia City, Nevada. In 1859, the biggest silver deposit discovery in the US history; was found in North Western Nevada; the Comstock Lode. Claims were stated, hundreds of mines opened, and thousands flocked to the area. Virginia City was founded nearby, and by 1875, the population had swelled to 25,000 people! Between 1859 to 1878, over $320,000,000 of silver was mined from the Comstock Lode in Virginia City leading to Nevada being known as the Silver State even to this very day! In 1880, the mines output of silver ore decreased, and people moved out of Virginia City. For decades Virginia City teetered on the brink of existence! In 1961, Virginia City, NV was declared a National Historic Landmark, and since has been carefully preserved to retain its authentic heritage as the town that put Nevada on the map! Instead of miners migrating to the region to strike it rich, today tourists flock to the Virginia City to experience the Old American West and connect with the very origins of the state of Nevada.
Virginia City, Nevada is a town which has had more comebacks than Mike Tyson. It began as a mining town, then a gambling town, then a famous western TV town aka Bonanza, and is now a historic and tourist town! By the way, it never stopped being a gambling town! What is most interesting about Virginia City, is it's extremely authentic 19th century old west appearance! With the exception of paved streets, automobiles, and electricity, you could believe you were walking down Main Street in 19th century Nevada! It is actually that authentic and believable!
As usual, we first stopped by the visitor’s center, and spoke with a nice and helpful older lady, whom provided us with a town map, and shared with us a bit of history about the visitor center. Apparently, this building also has had many previous lives. It started as a saloon during the town's 19th century mining days, during prohibition it became a speak easy masquerading as an ice cream parlor, after prohibition it became a legitimate ice cream parlor. When the owners of the ice cream parlor retired, the building became the Virginia City visitor center, and ironically, I saw a sign on the door which read “Please finish your ice cream prior to entering." LOL! Apparently many famous people have sat at this very bar in the now visitor center whom include: Thomas Edison, Herbert Hoover, Charles Lindbergh, Joe Dimaggio, Eleanore Roosevelt, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, and the entire cast of Bonanza. With map in hand, we set off to discover Virginia City, Nevada!
It was not good enough to merely walk through the streets of the town where Nevada first started! Nevada was a state birthed from the silver mines beneath the streets of Virginia City. If I wanted to truly experience Nevada’s origins, then I need to explore a 19th century silver mine! Since we were visiting in late November, all of the mine tours were closed for the season except for the Ponderosa Mine located in the Ponderosa Saloon. Upon exiting the visitor center, off we went in search of the Ponderosa Saloon and Mine. Upon entering the saloon, I walked to the very back and purchased my ticket. The reviews stated the mine was extremely narrow with a very low clearance, so Lori decided to sit this adventure out as she is a tad bit claustrophobic. I approached the entrance to the mine, and purchased my ticket for $8.00. Since the next tour was in 20 minutes, we wandered around the saloon taking in our unfamiliar environment. Nearby, on an old wood plank stage, an old man played an old guitar and sang an old western song! He was actually quite talented! Back in the 19th century, the Ponderosa Saloon used to be the Bank of California. The saloon still features the original walk-in bank vault where the mined gold and silver was once stored! Please see the pictures below.
After exiting the bank vault, I heard the guide call for the next tour. I left Lori listening to the old western singer, and made my way to the back of the saloon excited to tour a Nevada silver mine!!! Although there were hundreds of mines throughout 19th century Virginia City, only 12 ended up being profitable. The mine I was about to enter was The Best and Belcher Mine, and it was not one of the lucky 12! When the Ponderosa Saloon opened back in the 1970’s, they dug a short tunnel from the saloon to connect to the sealed off mine. After electrifying, reinforcing, and installing emergency exits, the Best and Belcher Mine finally struck gold by offering mine tours to the public!
A group of 25 were lined up single file, and the old rickety double wooden doors to the entrance of the mine opened before for us with an eeery creaky squeal. Our guide shared he was a retired miner. From his worn out work boots, soot covered overalls, wirey gray hair, and miners hat I tended to believe him! Our guide hobbled to the front of the line, went over a few rules, offered hard hats to the vertically gifted which I graciously obliged at 6’1. Long at last, we were led deep into the mine!
The experience consisted of a 25-minute guided walking tour through the silver mine with over 300 pieces of antique mining equipment on display. The guide did an excellent job describing each, and what life was like for a 19th century Virginia City silver miner. One of the most interesting aspects of the tour was visiting the powder room. This is where all of the miners went to freshen up, and touch up their makeup before reporting for work! Just kidding!!!! LOL!!! The powder room was where the explosives used for the mining operation was once stored. Back in the 1970’s when the mine was being revamped for tours, the construction workers discovered 3 cases of dynamite in the powder room! Apparently, the longer dynamite sits the more unstable it becomes, and these 3 cases of dynamite had been sitting there for over 120 years!!! The mine was evacuated, and the bomb squad removed the explosives without incident.
Another interesting story shared, included miners and their canary! Back in the day, the miners carried a caged canary with them into the mine. They did so not because they worked long hours and needed a friend. A canary requires more oxygen than humans do, so if you find your canary dead, you better get out of the mine ASAP! Right before the end of the tour, the guide turned all of the electric lights off in the mine for 2 minutes! I literally could not see the hand in front of my face! Our guide then lit an oil lamp which barely offered a flicker of illumination, and said “this is the light by which the miners once worked” I can’t imagine using explosives, steam drills, and pick axes in such low levels of light! After turning the light in the mine back on, we were led back out of the mine. I knew in advance the mine’s walkways were narrow, and the clearance of the ceiling low. However, it wasn’t until I exited the mine that I discovered the pain of 25 minutes of contortion. I know people were shorter back in the day, but my neck and back were killing me! Please see the pictures below of my visit to the Ponderosa Silver Mine!
After meeting back up with Lori, we departed the saloon and continued our exploration of Virginia City. A few blocks away we came across a very interesting shop; The Virginia City Hat Maker. Upon entering we saw western hats of all shapes and sizes. There were beaver hats, top hats, cowboy hats and even a 10 gallon hat! However, what was most interesting about this shop was not the hats for sale, but the person who made them. My nose caught a pungent scent of burning leather, so I decided to follow the smell to see where it was coming from. In the back of the store, I met a Swiss man named Pascal Baboulin who was not only the shop’s owner, but he personally handmade every hat on display! If that wasn’t cool enough, he had a large table in front of him with dozens of hot hat molds. Now I know where that burning smell was coming from! After taking your heads measurements, he would actually make a custom hat for you on the spot while you watched! This was very interesting to see, and he graciously allowed me to take pictures of him hard at work! Nowadays, a quality hat is a grossly underutilized, fashionable and functional accessory, and I have been on the lookout for a quality hat for a very long time! Unfortunately, as a vegetarian, my conscience can’t condone wearing a hat made of leather and beaver. I guess I will keep searching for my hat! Please see the pictures below.
Another interesting stop was Delta Saloon featuring a table known as the suicide table. The gambling losses at this table are so great, it has resulted in 3 confirmed suicides over the past 140 years!
The 1876 Silver Dollar Hotel, Saloon and Wedding Chapel, was of specific interest and displays the picture of a woman whose dress is made entirely of 3,261 Silver Dollar Coins! Please see the pictures below.
In addition to being the home to the biggest silver strike in US history, Virginia City has another historical claim to fame. A young reporter named Samuel Clemens once wrote for the town’s newspaper; the Territorial Enterprise. Clemens would go on to become one of America's most famous authors, under the pen name he first used while reporting at the Enterprise; Mark Twain. I was excited to visit the exact building where Twain once worked, but unfortunately it was closed, vacant and up for sale. Please see the pictures below.
Other points of interest in Virginia City include: The restored 1876 four-story wooden school building which is the last one in the United States, Bucket of Blood Saloon, Red Dog Saloon, Piper’s Opera House, Combination Mine Shaft, Sugarloaf Mountain. Silver State Police Officers' Museum containing jail cells from the 1870s; The Way It Was museum, the Chollar Mine Tour, Silver Terrace Cemetery, Presbyterian Church dating to 1862, St. Mary's of the Mountain Catholic Church, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, and St. Mary's Art Center, and Virginia and Truckee Railroad horse-drawn carriage tours. You could literally spend days meandering all over town and still not see everything! Please see the additional pictures below of Virginia City.
Virginia City, NV was a fascinating and innovative approach to historical preservation. Instead of transforming the entire town into a museum, they successfully preserved the character and structures of the town while transforming it into a tourist destination. The old buildings that once housed hotels, general stores, and houses of ill repute, are now home to silver jewelry stores, museums, restaurants, and western clothing stores. Interestingly, the town's original post office still stands in the exact same place as it once did over 140 years ago!
In Virginia City, a wavy sea of weathered wood planks lines the sidewalks. The town's old wood buildings presented cracked, chipped and faded paint from decades of baking in the desert sun! The buildings balconies appear to be on the brink of collapsing. At first, I was wondering where the hell has the town's building inspector been for the past 100 years? After we wandered around town, had a drink in the saloons, visited the local hat maker, toured an abandon silver mine, we began to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for this town. Virginia City is a resilient, and historic time capsule town representing the 19th century Nevada way of life, and is one the best surviving tangible examples of the Old American West!
After departing Virginia City, we drove to a Walmart in Carson City, NV We have had a blast in Northern Nevada over the past three days, but tomorrow, we go back over the border to continue our exploration of California. We will be crossing back into southern Nevada, after we finish our 2 weeks in California.