Was it a mistake for me to be your guide to Virginia City?
I know too much.
It’s helpful to be able to point out that B Street was once Virginia City’s Champs-Elysees. It’s just a parking lot now, but the main entrance to the International Hotel was on B Street, across from Piper’s Opera House. The Storey County Court House still dominates the next block south, and B Street is lined with mansions on the west side beyond that. Jim Fair lived on B Street, to give you an idea.
And C Street was the mercantile boulevard, the shopping street, busy with pedestrians dodging the horse-drawn traffic of all kinds. Wells Fargo’s office was on C Street along with stock brokers, banks and attorneys-at-law.
And over there, just outside that shop on the board sidewalk Bob McKinney was shot and killed by a Storey County deputy sheriff for brandishing a pen-knife. Bob was a local kid, a Viet Nam vet who came home from the Army a little strange. Over the years afterward he annoyed some people by fishing through the trash barrels on C Street for food, and the solution was to shoot him down in the street.
And that unblindfolded justice over the entrance to the Court House, how quaint that must appear to a visitor. I thought it was quaint once myself, before I saw the antics of our governing bodies as they struggled with the open pit mining threat to Gold Hill. I have been told to sit down and shut up by a County Commissioner in a public meeting and I have watched others being hustled out of Commission meetings for speaking out.
And I sat through the Commissioners’ selling out Gold Hill and giving up the Virginia City National Historic Landmark to pit mining without a qualm, for the benefit of the mining company.
How quaint is that?
I mention those things as a reminder that Virginia City is not a theme park or a movie set, and that the history we goggle over has never ended. This is a living community with real people living in it, some of them exhibiting the same unfortunate character flaws as the worst of the pioneers.
It’s hard to set all that aside and present Virginia City as simply a fascinating place, both for its astonishing history and for the unequalled collection of Victorian architecture and infrastructure left over for us to feast our eyes on. But I’ll try. The Court House itself is open during business hours for your inspection, with an elevator to bypass the steep stairs. It’s a beautiful building with high ceilings, affable employees and a peace officer museum toward the back.
In an effort to re-acquaint myself with the Virginia City awaiting visitors and block out the rest, Robin and Shorty and I made the drive there (one mile) early one morning in May and we discovered right away that people sleep late up there. The two coffee houses don’t open until 7 am and The Roasting House didn’t have enough customers to support a conversation until after 8.
And when the conversation did erupt, it was all about politics — not about the issues, but who was going to win the upcoming primary election. As two of the five people around the table were candidates facing elimination, this was not abstract speculation. A nice taste of drama to start the day . . . we don’t get that in Gold Hill.
While at The Roasting House I bought a copy of a booklet published by the Comstock Cemetery Foundation containing the selected obituaries of some of those buried in the Silver City, Gold Hill and Virginia City cemeteries. It is a curiously affecting souvenir from the past and provides a strong taste of the 19th century, before the AP Stylebook was drafted, when everything was personal. You’ll find two of the obituaries in a box further down the page.
What’s left of those glory years, apart from the structures that line the streets, has been put in museums, of which there are 16 in Virginia City. There were 17 until the Radio Museum closed recently, but 16 still seems like a lot, even when you’re welcoming a million visitors a year or more.
5 Years Ago in the NevadaGram
Around the penthouse apartment Joe Conforte is generally dressed in black silk pajamas, and the most startling sight of my visit was to see him one morning throwing a football across the living room to Rosa Angela, one of his personal assistants. She is an attractive blonde, and it was a delightfully surreal experience watching her receive Joe’s softly thrown passes and then lob the ball back to him. He does this as a therapeutic exercise in the aftermath of his heart attack, and even though he doesn’t run routes or go deep, he still throws a tight spiral. — Read the whole thing here
There is an aura of sadness about historical museums, it seems to me, with their emphasis on the vanished past, with everyday tools displayed behind glass, and pictures of the dead — whole families sometimes! — on the walls. There is no doubt that those people accomplished miracles, and a well-curated museum can be a big education in small things.
I am planning a museum crawl on Friday because on the First Friday of each month all 16 Museums in Virginia City waive their entrance fees, and I am going to give some of them a try.
One of these ‘museums’ is the collection of cemeteries called The Silver Terraces on Virginia City’s north side, and reading the obituaries had stirred our interest in it. It is being slowly restored to its former elegance, a process that began 40 years ago as a volunteer effort by Father Paul Meinecke of St. Mary’s in the Mountains.
In the Prime of Life and Usefulness
Dec 1 1869
Mrs. Bridget Curran, Aged about 45 years old got her hoops caught on the end of a shaft in the Sunderland mill lower Gold Hill about 10 1/2 o’clock today and wound round so tight that she was carried around 20 or 30 times, her head beating the floor every time. They had to stop the mill so as to get her loose, had to chop off the hoops with a hatchet. She was insensible and remained so till she died about 2 hours afterward. No bones were broken, died of concussion of the brain. Leaves a husband and 2 or 3 sons in Gold Hill. She went into the mill to get some condensed water from a barrel, where all the neighbors had the same privilege, good to wash or cook with, soft water.
January 4, 1877 Twice Buried.
Frankie Dall, who before her death was a woman of the town, died a natural death last Monday night in the house just north of the Imperial hoisting works. She was taken from that place by Wilson & Brown undertakers, and buried in a rough redwood box at the expense of the county. On Tuesday some of her old associates clubbed together and resolved to give the woman a decent burial. They took an express wagon and going to the graveyard dug up the unfortunate. The body was returned to the undertaking rooms of Wilson & Brown, where it was today laying in state. An elegant and expensive coffin has been purchased and the trappings of woe are as fine as can be procured. The outfit will cost $15. Tomorrow the second funeral will take place and it will no doubt be well attended. George Prior has taken a kindly interest in the matter, and has aided greatly in raising money to pay the necessary expenses.
— Alexis Dillon, editor
Father Meinecke rests here now himself, and the work he began continues under the auspices of the Comstock Cemetery Foundation.
There are 11 separate cemetery properties here, and 150 years ago, when the tracts were being developed — the Exempt Firemen were the first to stake their claim, in 1860 — the rugged hillside was transformed into a green and graceful park with picket fences between the tracts, and graveled tree-shaded boulevards between the fences. A ‘Sunday Drive’ in a rented buggy would include a visit to the Silver Terraces whether there was family interred here or not. This was Virginia City’s first park, and its first museum too.
Spring mornings are glorious on the Comstock (when there’s no blizzard), and much to Shorty’s satisfaction the cemeteries welcome properly picked-up-after dogs. Robin and Shorty and I strolled for most of an hour amongst the tombstones, meeting other visitors, including several walking dogs.
By the time we were back on C Street ready for an early lunch at the Bonanza Cafe with its expansive view from the back deck, I had scripted an ideal visit to Virginia City, which goes like this:
Plan ahead. If there is a particular event you will attend, then you know the dates available, or if you have kids to consider, you will tailor your visit to their interests. But if you want to absorb the essence of Virginia City for yourself, pick a date off-season, anything from early autumn to deep winter (the best) out to early Spring again.
There is one important exception: Parades. Perhaps because it is so photogenic and lends itself enticingly as a backdrop for photos of the passing procession, Virginia City is now the City of Parades.
I believe there are nearly a dozen over the course of a year, and they add a festive quality to the day no matter what the occasion. They also add to the crowds and to the difficulty parking. Here is a list of Virginia City’s annual events.
Arrive on a mid- to late Friday afternoon (this is the ideal; come when you can) and check in. The point is to get to town in time for a liesurely beginning to the evening ahead. Park your car and leave it; from now on you’re walking. Time for a nap? Take it.
Mythologized as it is by everyone who has tried to write about it, Virginia City invites you for a pre-prandial stroll through the city with some window shopping and perhaps a refreshment on the way to dinner which will be at the acclaimed Cafe Del Rio, one of our three Nevada Restaurants of the Year for 2014, or at The Core, the ambitious new restaurant in a historic building on south B Street. The new Mustang Ranch Steak House at C and Union Streets advertises Storey County’s best-known commercial enterprise, which is the whorehouse at the other end of the county, east of Reno a few miles via I-80.
Strolling back to the hotel might involve a nightcap, and like the refreshment before dinner you will find any number of saloons available to provide it. Some of them are famous — the Delta, the Bucket of Blood, the Red Dog Saloon — others not. Several of them offer entertainment on weekends, open mic on other nights. Go for it.
Up early? Roll over and drift back to dreamland; Virginia City especially likes to sleep in on Sundays. Eventually you will be hungry though, and you’ll find breakfast on C Street. We had biscuits and Gravy at a sidewalk table outside Virginia City Baked Goods, but here are some other choices, including a brunch at the Cafe Del Rio.
Make a stroll in the cemeteries your first order of business after breakfast and before the heat of the day, as there’s not much shade. I can’t imagine anyone wandering here without conjuring images of at least some of these people, and their lives here, as if phrases carved in stone could be clues to lives lived flesh-and-blood.
The shops are generally open by 10, and the saloons too, most of which have historical artifacts or photographs on display, if you need a reason to go in. By the time you’ve strolled the length of C Street you’ll have decided on your lunch stop. Here’s the list.
The afternoon may call for a siesta, but if you consult your list of local attractions over lunch you can draw up the itinerary for the rest of your stay. Hmmm, shopping. There was a time in the long-ago past when shopping in Virginia City was rubber tomahawks and sno-cones. No longer. There are exceptional shops here now. Use the comment section at the bottom to point to the best of them.
Check off the cemeteries and you still have some icons of western Americana to inspect: Piper’s Opera House, St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic church, St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center (originally a hospital), the Fourth Ward School and the V&T Railroad — you’ll have to prioritize them for yourself, but don’t stint. These are relics from a different time and they are magnificent.
You’ll have your dinner planned by now, and have given some thought as to spending your Saturday night on the town. For a place with such a parade of questionable characters in its pantheon of pioneers (some of them quite violent), Virginia City’s nightlife seems mild and well-mannered now. Here’s the official list of saloons.
Your Sunday morning walk after breakfast will be along the Comstock Trail, a four mile walk — all right, hike. It is also a self-guided tour, with a brochure provided for you to take along. The No Driving rule is suspended so you can drive to the Kiosk at the bottom of Washington Street and back.
Drama has been a Virginia City specialty from before its beginning; the stories of the Grosh Brothers, Old Pancake, Joe Plato and Manny Penrod and other residents of Gold Canyon were being told before James Fenimore dropped his bottle of whiskey and rescued the moment by christening Virginia City with it.
The Camel Races began as a newspaper hoax, emerged as a hilarious escapade, and is now an important annual event. Street Vibrations is motorcycle heaven and the Fourth of July fireworks display is truly spectacular. There’s a great Veterans’ Day parade, and Memorial Day and Labor Day too, A miner’s muckfest has been added to the calendar this year — but unless you have kids or special interests, you should probably avoid coming when there’s a special event scheduled. There are too many people in town for comfort, and parking is farther and farther away from the center of town.
10 Years Ago in the NevadaGram
Speaking of wonderful Nevada treasures, the sale of the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah has fallen through and it is back on the market. Yes there are many good alternatives to the old landmark for an overnight stay, including the High-Desert Best Western Inn and our website client Tonopah Station at the top of town, but nothing represents Tonopah more in the public mind than “the finest stone hotel in the desert”, as it advertised itself in 1908. Isn’t there someone with a few million at hand, a vision of the prosperous future, and lots and lots of patience? If so, you are needed in Tonopah right away. — Read the whole thing here
Whenever you come, bring your curiosity and do your best to satisfy it while you’re here. By the time you drive away for home you’ll have stored a set of memories that will stay with you . . . forever?
What They’re Saying About Us: The Los Angeles Times confronts the shortage of water in Las Vegas.
Overheard in the Old Corner Bar in Virginia City: “Everything I do is an experiment, Jim. I’m never quite sure what’s going on and what’s going to work out.”
Brief Notes from Beyond the Mountains: On June 5 from 5:30 to 9 pm the ‘Chefs’ Food Fest’ will take place at the Aquarius Casino Resort in Laughlin. Most of the proceeds from this special event will go to the River Fund Inc., a non-profit agency providing direct emergency and crisis services for individuals and families in Laughlin. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.laughlinchamber.com or call 702-298-2214 . . . You’re invited to join the Nevada Westerners Corral June 5th for a day-long adventure to the desert that was so daunting for western pioneers. The 40 Mile Desert Memorial Monument Bus Tour will depart Reno at 10 am for the 40 Mile Desert Memorial Monument in Fallon, returning at 6:30 pm. The monument, originally erected in 1979, has been recently restored. The tour wil include a narration of historic locations and geology, a stop at the Churchill County Museum in Fallon, a brief rededication of the monument with a tribute to western pioneers, and an early dinner at the Wigwam in Fernley. Cost is $35 and does not include the cost of dinner. For more information or to reserve your spot on the bus call 775-324-3527 . . .
Tahoe’s Thunderbird In Trouble
America’s most recognizable — and possibly most valuable — wooden speedboat, the venerable Thunderbird yacht is in trouble. Not only has the lack of winter precipitation at Lake Tahoe confined Thunderbird to her boathouse berth, but also both of her vintage World War II fighter aircraft engines are fatally impaired. Details here. A Herculean effort and at least $250,000 is needed before the Thunderbird yacht will cruise again. Says Bill Watson, Thunderbird Lodge Preservation Society Chief Executive and Curator, “If we work together to raise approximately $250,000 before Labor Day, I can get the replacement engines — which we already own — into an aircraft shop for refurbishment in time to be operational again for 2015. One wonderful family has already committed $50,000 on the condition we raise the remaining money before Labor Day – meaning we are 20% of the way to our goal! Only 40 donations of $5,000 each or 20 at $10,000 each or one generous angel will take us to the finish line. Of course, I’m grateful for contributions in any amount. This is something I know our wonderful Thunderbird family can accomplish!”
The 2014 Kerak Shrine Circus visits the Horse Palace in Spring Creek for a 7 pm show on June 5. Described as “three rings of affordable family fun”, ‘The circus presents death-defying aerial acts (“Witness a human shoot out of a cannon, Camels, White Tigers, Clowns, Elephants, Globe of Death Riders, Zebras, Jugglers, Ponies and many more awesome acts that will thrill you!!”). More here . . . Let’s take a walk with the Historic Reno Preservation Society: ‘Prohibition in Reno’ Walking Tour meets at 10 am Saturday June 7 at the Reno Amtrak Station on Commercial Row to walk streets and alleys and visit significant buildings of the 1920s and ’30s, recalling Reno’s saloons and reformers (the WCTU and Anti-Saloon League). For more information or to register here . . . Society Hall in Tuscarora is open again for the summer, Saturdays & Sundays 11 am-3 pm through November 1st. Come see the updated display of Tuscarora & Independence Valley Then and Now. The exhibit includes lots of written and visual history including artifacts, photos, text, movies, and oral history recordings . . . The nonprofit Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas, closed since February, plans to reopen under new management June 7 as a for-profit enterprise . . . the Street Vibrations Spring Fever Rally at Victorian Square in Sparks June 6-8 will include the Controlled Burn Fire Dancers, a whole lot of motorcycle fun plus more than 80 vendors. Admission is free but there is a fee for motorcycle participation. For information, visit www.road-shows.com . . . Over the ten days of June 19-28, Reno‘s “Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West” features the best buckaroo athletes from around the world, as well as a parade, a carnival and numerous craft booths. Information here or call 775-329-3877 . . . the Winnemucca Basque Festival is scheduled for the West Hall of the downtown convention center, with food, dancing, music and games on Saturday, June 7. On Sunday a breakfast is served at 9 am, the parade begins at 11 . . . Eureka‘s Western Heritage Days will be held at the Eureka County Fairgrounds June 12-15 offering entertainment, food and vendors to guests. The World Championship Blacksmiths competitions will take place June 13 and June 14, the Eureka Cow Dog Trials will take place June 14 and June 15 and . For more information, call 775-385-6184 . . . Wendover Will’s Birthday Bash June 13 from 3 to 4 pm at the Victory Highway Monument parking lot, just off Gene L. Jones Way in West Wendover. This event will celebrate Wendover Will’s welcoming wave for 62 great years! For additional information please visit www.westwendovercity.com or call 775-664-3081 . . . Carson Valley Days, June 13 – 14, has its roots in schutzenfests (shooting contests) of late 19th century, first held by the early-day settlers from Germany. Stay for the parade, pro rodeo, craft fair fine-art exhibit, dance, games and kangaroo court. All events are at Lampe Park in Gardnerville. For more information, call 775-782-8145 . . . The Stewart Father’s Day Powwow will take place at the Stewart Facility in Carson City June 13 to June 15. This is an annual 3-day event to preserve the history of the former Stewart Indian School and to educate the public about American Indians, American Indian culture and the school itself. It attracts numerous Indian art vendors, drummers, dancers, alumni and visitors from Nevada and surrounding states. For more information, call 775-687-8333 . . .
Fernley Art Reception Postponed
The Black Rock Arts Foundation (BRAF,) Fernley and the Burning Man Project have had to postpone the Big Art for Small Towns Opening Reception Celebration scheduled for June 12 at 5-7 pm. Three large-scale artworks have been installed across Main Street from City Hall in Fernley and a lively reception had been planned for the artists, with local musical talent, special speakers and family-friendly arts and crafts activities. When a new days is established, information will be posted here, or you may call 415-626-1248.
The Rainbow Casino in West Wendover hosts the Wendover Classic Cruise-In Car Show June 13-15. Call 775-664-4000 for information . . . Lawyers for OJ Simpson, the NFL Hall of Famer currently vacationing in Lovelock, have filed an appeal of his conviction for kidnapping and armed robbery . . . The Nevada State Fiddlers Contest is a foot-stomping, hand-clapping good time. This year’s 17th Annual contest will bring fiddlers from all over, with the winner going on to represent Nevada at the national competitions in Weiser, Idaho. For more information call 775-752-3540 . . . There’s a Kids Fishing Derby on Free Fishing Day June 14 at Echo Canyon State Park 12 miles east of Pioche . . . Culture in Pahrump: On June 13th and 14th, The Shadow Mountain Players present Oscar Wilde’s The Important of Being Earnest. Things really get swinging the following weekend with The Great American Songbook Series – Jazz, Blues and Swing on June 20 and 21. Both events are at the Sanders Family Winery and include free wine tastings . . . The Nevada Northern Railway Father’s Day Train will run June 14 from 9:30 am to 1 pm at the East Ely Railway Depot. Dads will ride free. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 775-289-2085 . . . The very next day Ely offers Fears, Tears, and Beers, a mountain bike enduro race of serious dimensions . . . The Great Eldorado BBQ, Brews & Blues Festival in Reno June 20-21combines cold beer and cool blues, with live music, great food and microbrews in downtown Reno. For more information call 800-879-8879 . . . The Snake Valley Festival, will be held June 20-22 as a fund-raiser and a consciousness-raiser to prevent the water grab planned by the Southern Nevada Water Authority for the benefit of Las Vegas. It’s also a lot of fun right at the entrance to Great Basin National Park. Check it out on Facebook . . .
The New Nevada Stamp
May 29 was the official unveiling of the Nevada 150-year Statehood stamp; the USPS will print about 30 million of them. Ron Spears painted the image after presenting numerous studies and many alternate designs for consideration. The 16 original studies — gouache on illustration board — will be part of the USPS exhibits and are not for sale at this time. They are an important part of the stamp history and will be displayed in various exhibits along with the final painting, which is in the USPS permanent collection. Two prints will be available for purchase: an 8.5 x 11 inch of the image alone and an 18 x 24 inch with the final image and the 15 studies. They will be posted here soon; in the meantime you can message him at Facebook. More details in this Las Vegas Weekly article, and here’s Ron on Youtube.
the Compression Art & Fire Festival goes on the road to Lovelock on June 20, 6-10 pm at Amherst Park, then to Fernley at the new Burning Man Sculpture Park across from City Hall on the 28th 6-10 pm, and home to Reno on the 26th, at a location to be announced. The Controlled Burn Fire Performance Troupe and Nevada Burners help create a community arts festival “in the style of Burning Man, but in a free and family-friendly format, bringing fire performance, sculpture, flame effects, costuming, youth and alternative dance, music, art cars and mutant vehicles from out of the dust of the playa and into your heart”. For additional information visit them on Facebook or call 775-686-9608 . . . Fallon offers the de Goyler Bucking Horse and Bull Bash June 27-28 at the Fairgrounds. The $5 ticket provides access to the vendor booths including food services provided by The Marine Corps League and drinks provided by Troy’s Double Shot Bar, home of the Cantaloupe Daiquiri. In addition to the Ranch bronc, Saddle bronc and Bulls both nights, with concerts following the competitions, on Friday night there is Cowboy Poker, and on Saturday night it’s Cowgirl Poker. There will be a wild cow race with 5 teams of 3 members, and there’s a $10 entry fee and a 60-lb. weight limit for the Mutton Busters competition . . . At Ely‘s Great Bathtub Boat Races June 27-28, adventurous souls modify bathtubs for motorized and non-motorized categories to race across the lake.
On Friday at 6 pm participants attend the Bathtub boat show at the Copper Queen to vote for their favorite boat and pick out their lucky rubber duckies. On Saturday vendors open at Cave Lake at 11 am with racing beginning at 3 pm. Rubber Ducky, Canoe and Kayak races begin shortly after the bathtub races have finished. Canoe races are open to the attending public. On Saturday evening a classic beach BBQ will be served at the dock followed by a fireworks display that makes the dark Nevada sky erupt with brilliant colors and sounds as the pyrotechnics explode with an echo from the canyon walls. With ample parking, convenient drop-off and pick-up locations, the event is accessible to all.
Parting Shot —
Walking along C Street in Virginia City on our way to Cora’s Coffee House a few years ago the sunrise revealed a sea of fluff had inundated the landscape during the night. Mom Nature treated the folks trapped in the mist to a pogonip, and us to a sublime view. It seemed to reflect Nevada’s surreal beauty and became the cover photo for what is almost certainly the final edition of The Complete Nevada Traveler as a printed book.
— David Toll, Gold Hill