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Virginia City: balancing mining history with modern fun
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Virginia City balances mining history with modern fun

Virginia City: balancing mining history with modern fun

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The discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859 ignited the fuse on what would go down in history as the most significant silver discovery in the United States. Thousands were lured to the Great American West to stake their claim in hopes of striking it rich, and for many, the boomtown of Virginia City Nevada was just the place to do that.

Located in the heart of the Comstock Lode and in sight of Mt. Davidson, Virginia City’s very existence is a direct result of the silver discovery amongst the rugged mountains of what had previously been the Utah Territory.

Enduring more than 150 years of boom and bust cycles, visitors to the Virginia City of today can experience a 19th century mining town, complete with historic saloons, hotels and a host of museums and mine tours that tell the tale of what life was like during the “Big Bonanza.”

Virginia City Tourism Director Deny Dotson says there are a few reasons why Virginia City typically attracts around 1 million visitors annually while other boomtowns have faded into ghost towns. Being named a National Historic Landmark has allowed the town to maintain its late 1800s appearance, and is a major contributing factor, Dotson says.

“It protected the integrity of the town if you will, we were able to keep it as it was in the 1800s,” he said. “There are no neon lights, there are no franchises, all our building codes and architecture have to conform to what it was in the 1800s.”

Working the mines

While less than 1,000 people call Virginia City home these days, at its peak, some 25,000 people lived in the town, many of them connected the mining industry.

Chollar Mine owner Andre Dejournett says that while modern-day visitors to Virginia City come to experience the historic scenery and tales of Old West folklore, none of it exist without the Comstock Lode.

“The wealth of the Comstock Lode, within a 7-mile total stretch length delivered more than the entire California Gold Rush, it is the most important of the strikes in the country,” he said.

Named after Henry Comstock, who owned a share of the property where the initial strike was located, the Comstock Lode was the first significant silver discovery in the United States. It is estimated that the Comstock Lode produced $500 million worth of gold and silver throughout its roughly 75-year lifespan.

Today, Chollar Mine is open to the public for tours, giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the men who came to Virginia City to work in the mines.

“It was a tough life, and this is what built our country….people were rugged and tough and that is what you are going to learn here at the Comstock Lode,” Dejournett said.

Featured on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, Dejournett claims some visitors to the mine have seen a ghostly apparition, known as Frank.

“The Comstock Lode had a lot of different things happen, so with all the death and tragedies, ghosts, I guess they do appear from time-to-time,” he said.

Period newspaper reports are a reminder of the tragedies that occurred at the Chollar Mine, including a June 3, 1887 incident that send four miners hurling some 250 feet to the mine floor when the lift they were riding in lost its brakes.

The Desert News of Salt Lake City reported at the time that the men were found, “in a promiscuous heap in the bottom of the south compartment.”

Of the four miners in the lift, only a 35-year-old Richard Pascoe sustained fatal injuries. A native of Cornwall, England, another town famous for its mining history, Pascoe was brought to his lodging place and died of his injuries a few hours later.

While there is no record of Pascoe being buried at Virginia City’s Silver Terrace Cemetery, the collection of cemeteries, carved out of the hillside became the final resting place of Virginia City’s famous and infamous alike.

The Silver Terrace Cemeteries

Candace Wheeler, founder and president of the Comstock Cemetery Foundation, said that while today the collection of hillside cemeteries can welcome up to 100 people through its gates, it experienced neglect and vandalism for decades.

“Initially, when I started this the snobby preservationists did not understand the value of the cemetery, it was all about the pretty and the buildings, and all of that was cool, but not a cemetery,” Wheeler says. “I always thought that was weird.”

The 31.9-acre cemetery is actually a collection of between 14-17 different cemeteries, each having its own rules and regulations. Sections range from religious affiliations, including a Catholic and a Jewish cemetery, to popular fraternal organizations of the day, like the Freemasons and Knights of Pythias.

Today, Silver Terrace Cemetery is a protected Historic Landmark, with Wheeler saying it is actually the, “Number one visited site on the Comstock.”

While it was an uphill battle, Wheeler says the tide has turned and now more and more people are realizing why historic cemeteries need to be preserved.

Thanks to some help from local Boy Scout Troop 847 and an Eagle Scout project, CCF recently introduced a digital audio tour that guides visitors through the cemetery grounds, telling the stories of those buried there.

While Virginia City is home to several museums that line its famous wood sidewalks, those looking to see mining history in action can stop by the 1864 Comstock Gold Mill for a guided tour.

“When tour guide Outlaw Dave turns the mill on, it comes to life and people just drop their jaws because it is like Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory,” owner Scott Jolcover says.

Originally operated as the Arizona Comstock Mill, which was active through the 1930s and converted to a more modern flotation mill, the mill that visitors see today is actually an original 1864 Joshua Hendy two-stamp mill originally operated in Marietta, Nevada.

Jolcover said that he and his business partner agreed that a working, period correct gold mill would be an asset to Virginia City, and would help visitors understand how silver and gold were processed after it made its way up out of the ground.

“We moved that mill lock, stock and barrel up to the Arizona Comstock and then built a building around it,” Jolcover says. “It is one of the only daily-operated stamp mills in the U.S.”

While the mile is run at about one-quarter its top speed for safety, visitors are essentially seeing what Comstock Lode miners would have witnessed regularly.

While on a guided tour, visitors can also see a collection of antique mining equipment and witness how the ore would have been processed. Jolcover says they also inform visitors about mine safety, and how different working conditions were for miners of the 1800s to modern mining.

A balance of history and fun

About 12 years ago, officials in Virginia City sat down and decided to take a different look at how the historic mining town presents itself to tourists. The question was how to bring visitors into Virginia City, present its extensive history, but in a fun and exciting way.

“We looked at special events as a way to make history fun,” Dotson says.

The Virginia City Tourism Department was created, and it took ownership of the hallmark events that celebrate the town and its history. During a typical year, these events range from the International Camel and Ostrich Races to the Chili Cookoff, Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry and Labor Day parade.

“We use a special event as a way to drive traffic, but always in a way that that kind of played back on our history,” he said.

Dotson says he likes to tell people to “follow the money,” and learn about the average Joe who started out as a mine laborer and ended up hitting it big, like John Mackay, a man who ended up as one of the richest men on the Comstock.

“John Mackey was making close to $60 million a month in today’s money at the time,” Dotson said. “If you follow the money, you will see how much Virginia City contributed to American history.”

For information about Virginia City events and museums, visit https://visitvirginiacitynv.com/

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