Virginia City: Where past is present

Just before dawn, Virginia City is deserted; with the soft light and eerie quiet, it’s easy to imagine the livehard-play-hard life of the late 19th century.
Just before dawn, Virginia City is deserted; with the soft light and eerie quiet, it’s easy to imagine the livehard-play-hard life of the late 19th century.

The post-Gold Rush era in the West was a fascinating time of unbounded optimism, flamboyant entrepreneurs, rough and ready prospectors and a few instant millionaires.

But while there are a few surviving ghost towns that offer a taste of the period, very few living, breathing towns remain authentic enough, boisterous enough and rough enough to create a memorable experience.

Virginia City, Nev., is one of those places. And curiously, this town has a deep connection to San Luis Obispo County.

Gold was discovered here in the late 1850s, but the mining was hampered by the sticky blue-gray mud that adhered to everything. It turned out that mud contained silver — lots of it.

When news of the silver strike reached California, most of the gold miners thought it was an unimportant discovery.

But a few big risk-takers, including prospector and entrepreneur George Hearst, thought there might be more to it. He bought an interest in a small local claim, went back to California to raise the necessary capital, and returned to Virginia City to figure out how to extract the mineral profitably.

The Comstock, as it became known, turned out to be the most valuable single mineral discovery of all time — $400 million in 1860 dollars, or about $11.5 billion in today’s dollars.

The discovery was so large and the Union’s Civil War silver needs so great that President Lincoln made Nevada a state even though it lacked the required population.

George Hearst became one of the richest and most powerful men in the country; he married Phoebe Apperson, who later was one of the era’s most influential women. Their son, William Randolph Hearst, became the publishing and ranching tycoon who created Hearst Castle at San Simeon.

Meanwhile, Virginia City grew into the largest city between Denver and San Francisco and even had its own stock exchange.

Rough around the edges

Alas, like most mining towns, Virginia City started a slow decline about 1899 when the mines started to peter out. But unlike most towns of the era, enough people remained to keep the buildings occupied and there were no catastrophic fires.

So what you’ll find today are great examples of late 19th-century architecture, filled with going businesses, residences and fascinating museums.

That would be interesting enough, but you’ll also find locals who act like they’re descendants of the original miners— rough around the edges, dressed like they just came out of a mine or got cleaned up for a raucous Saturday night.

This isn’t an act for the tourists; these people have chosen this remote, barren place with horrific winters so they can live this life all the time. They’ll use practically any excuse to have a parade down Main Street or a Civil War reenactment. (They happen often during the summer.)

During the day there are tourists exploring almost everywhere and there’s a fun, festive atmosphere. But in the early morning hours the town is deserted. With the soft, dawn light and the eerie quiet, it’s easy to imagine you’re actually a part of the Virginia City’s heyday.

Dave Garth, who recently retired as president of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce, has also been a widely published adventure-travel and fine art photographer for more than 40 years. He visited Virginia City last summer.

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