Historians have face of historic Comstock saloon owner
After a 2001 excavation that produced thousands of artifacts, historians and archaeologists have learned much about the Boston Saloon in Virginia City.
Now, thanks to Mark Twain Bookstore owner Joe Curtis, historians have added a key piece to the story of the historic saloon’s owner, William A.G. Brown – his photograph.
Brown, a black man, was an entrepreneur apparently quite successful in the heyday of the Comstock, which state Historic Preservation Officer Ron James says makes him somewhat of an enigma.
Curtis said obtaining the photo was pure chance.
“A guy came in I know from Southern California and offered it to me,” he said.
When Curtis saw the penciled label on the back saying, “William Brown, Boston Salon,” and he knew he had an important find.
“I just couldn’t let it go off the Comstock,” he said. “I probably paid too much for it.”
When asked how much, he said, “No, otherwise my wife will read it in the newspaper.”
Curtis said he had always wondered how a black man fit in with society and the business community on the Comstock of the 1860s and ’70s, but that the photo helped him understand.
The image is of a man in his 30s wearing a suit coat, neatly groomed with a mustache and light-colored eyes.
“I looked at that picture and I could see how he easily moved among the society at that time. He’s a good looking guy. He appears sophisticated, very proper. And he seems very light complicated.”
Brown was a free-born black from Massachusetts who moved to Virginia City in 1862. He opened the Boston in 1864.
He operated the saloon and restaurant for more than a decade, selling out in 1875.
James said the photo is a “remarkable find.”
“You can’t spend the decade a lot of us have spent with him without wondering what he looked like,” he said. “It’s like finally meeting a pen pal.”
From the excavation, archaeologists have found artifacts such as a two-foot tall ceramic water filter and the world’s oldest Tabasco bottle. They’ve learned about the saloon itself, its cutlery, china and glassware and the menu down to the different cuts of meat served. They even have a good idea of the clientele served by the historic saloon.
He said Brown operated one of the finer establishments on the Comstock in that period.
“Of all four saloons we’ve excavated, it had the best cuts of meat, the nicest crystal, a gas lighting system that had just been patented. … This is an astounding discovery,” he said. “To have a face for this imaginative Nevada entrepreneur is a tremendous step forward.”
James said Brown was fortunate to sell his business shortly before a fire that destroyed central Virginia City, including the Boston. But he said there is evidence Brown remained in the community as a landowner and businessman for a number of years after that. He said the photograph dates to the mid 1880s.
James said because of the discovery, the state museum has decided to extend its exhibit on saloon archaeology for an extra two months until June 18.
The exhibit at the state museum on Carson Street is titled “Havens in a Heartless World: Virginia City’s Saloons and the Archaeology of the Wild West.”
Curtis said the photo will have a permanent home in his collection of historic pictures of the Comstock.
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