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Television doesn’t do Virginia City justice

Rick Chandler

Anyone familiar with television’s version of Virginia City – that which was portrayed on the “Bonanza” series – is usually surprised when confronted with the real thing.

“The real Virginia City was made of iron and brick, not the pecky cedar storefronts you see on television,” said Ronald M. James, author of “The Roar and the Silence: A History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode” (University of Nevada Press, 1998), the first comprehensive history in more than a century of the West’s signature mining town. “I was up there the other day, and I heard two tourists talking. The husband looked around, and said to his wife, ‘This isn’t as good as the one on TV.'”

Indeed, Virginia City is a surprise to tourists who expect to walk onto a movie set. The real thing is built on hills and steep grades, and a complete walking tour leaves people with heaving chests and a real appreciation for history. Virginia City was virtually carved into the side of Mt. Davidson. It was built to last, and it has – although the famed mining boomtown has redefined itself several times.



And that is the focus of James’ book – Virginia City, past and present, is a place which defies easy description.

“Virginia City was an extremely complex place,” said James, the state historic preservation officer for the state of Nevada Department of Museums, Library and Arts in Carson City. “At its height, it was a thriving, international city with all the contradictions and complexities one would expect in a big city.



“Virginia City was one of the more significant resources in the history of the West. They took billions of dollars of gold and silver from its hills. Yet there has been no comprehensive historical treatment since 1883.

“I decided, well, it’s been a hundred years. It’s time this was dealt with.”

James mines the rich history of his subject with the same determination of the original speculators, many of whom grew rich on the Comstock Lode.

Their stories are all there: such as that of John Mackay, an Irish immigrant who arrived in town from the gold fields of the western slope without a penny to his name. In only 14 years, Mackay owned several mines and was a millionaire – one of the richest men in the world.

Men also made their fortunes in the railroad and lumber industries, as well as banking and other endeavors. And there were other colorful characters, such as the illustrious Samuel Clemens, who adopted the pen name Mark Twain during a stint as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise – a Virginia City daily newspaper – in the 1860s.

But James’ book is not a mere snapshot of the wealthy and the famous. He fleshes out his subject in a way no other author has.

“I tried to ask the questions no other historian had asked,” James said. “Virginia City was very diverse, and I wanted to document that. A lot of people didn’t know about the city’s extensive Spanish-speaking community, for instance. And there was a general misperception of the role that women played there.

“Many people think that the first women to settle in Virginia City were prostitutes. But that wasn’t true. The first women were married. They had children and did laundry like most other women of the day.”

James’ work is also rich in the details – taking advantage of current technology to track all sorts of data about the region that had before been unavailable. He weaves printed documents, demographic analysis, newspaper accounts, archeological findings and unpublished manuscript records to bring the famous mining region into clear focus.

While most other mining towns in the West have long since vanished, Virginia City lives on. Why?

“Most mining towns were flashes in the pan,” James said. “When the money ran out, people left. But the Comstock Lode is extensive in a way most pockets of gold and silver are not.

“The original Comstock Lode produced for a solid 25 years, with quite a few years of hope after that. There were more discoveries off and on until 1942, when the federal government prohibited gold and silver mining because of the war effort.”

But Virginia City kept reinventing itself.

“Beginning as early as the 1930s, Virginia City began to blossom into a magnet for artists, literati and others wishing to experience the Wild West,” he said. “It became very bohemian. Then by the 1960s, a counterculture movement emerged. The Red Dog Saloon was a well-known hangout, featuring Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters came through the Comstock before Tom Wolfe wrote of their exploits in his “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

“The Charlatans became something of a house band at the Red Dog. When they returned to California, they brought back ‘the San Francisco Sound.’ “

The town experienced another boom when “Bonanza” hit the television airwaves.

“The TV show created a huge market for tourism (which lasts today),” James said. “It gave Virginia City a new lease on life, although the bohemian types were disgusted with what TV did to their town. Most of them left. But the tourists kept coming. The town is constantly transforming itself.”

James validates a few myths and explodes others. But one myth he is still not sure about involves the previously mentioned James Mackay.

Mackay, as legend has it, arrived in town with his partner, Jack O’Brien, hoping to get work in the Ophir mine. As they approached the city, O’Brien turned to Mackay and asked, “John have you got any money?” “Not a cent,” answered Mackay. O’Brien then said, “Well, I’ve only got a half dollar and here it goes.” With that, O’Brien hurled his coin into the sagebrush.

“The story may be fanciful …,” says James in “The Roar and the Silence.” “More than a part of actual history, however, the story illustrates the outlook that prevailed among many who first arrived at the strike … a cavalier attitude, combined with the idea that small stakes mattered little, formed the mind-set of Mackay and others.”

That feeling of freedom and unlimited possibilities survives to this day. More than 100 years after Mackay arrived in Virginia City, people are still exploring its mines, saloons and mansions.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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