The folk and lore of Virginia City, Nevada, brings curious visitors from around the world for a first-hand vantage of the small mountain town’s stories. From the largest silver discovery unearthed to this day, or for a ghostly encounter of the paranormal kind. Officially becoming an incorporated town in 1863, Virginia City rightly holds its place in Nevada’s origin story.
Silver was first discovered among these high desert hills back in 1859, catapulting this modest mining camp into one of the most decadently famous boomtowns west of Denver in the decades to follow. From the most qualified hard rock miners, authors of tall tales, live entertainers, ladies of the night, elite businessmen, or the average blue collar working men, the town attracted the “who’s who” of the mid-19th century to chase the American dream.
These eight funky facts about Virginia City put this town on the top of the must visit list for 2024. Take them with a grain of salt, because much of Virginia City’s history is based in folklore and stories told down through the generations.
Meet Ol’ Pancake, Virginia City’s Resident Eccentric
Who is responsible for the largest silver strike on earth? The truth is, despite this mega bonanza being famously named the Comstock Lode after Henry Comstock, the two men actually responsible for discovering it were Peter O’Riley, and Patrick McLaughlin. So how did Canadian miner Henry Comstock, or what locals chocked up to be an “illiterate prospector” and “quick-thinking loudmouth” end up with his name attached to the most famous silver bonanza in the world? He was there at the right place, and at the right time, claiming that he owned the land where the rich deposit was discovered and angling his way into a partnership.
Even though he had owned an interest in what would become his namesake, he sold it all before he could even profit from it and never made a dime off the Comstock Lode. During his time in Virginia City he couldn’t be troubled by preparing anything else to eat other than pancakes, earning himself the nickname “Ol’ Pancake.” He was also quite an eccentric and refused to leave home without wearing at least seven belts—nope, that’s not a typo. Perhaps the wildest part of all is that he died completely destitute in Montana, just 11 years after Virginia City’s silver caches were discovered.
Discover Hundreds of Miles of Underground Mine Shafts, and the “Hot Water Plugs” Who Worked Them
While those old mine shafts and adits have been waterlogged for many years, an estimated 350 to 750 miles of old mining tunnels can be found beneath the modern-day streets of Virginia City. As if an entire city that once supported 25,000 residents and hundreds of businesses sitting atop a hollowed-out mountainside bolstered by a labyrinth of mining tunnels isn’t brain bending enough, the men working the Comstock had to endure brutal conditions working these silver mines.
Working conditions below the surface were harsh during any season but particularly during the winter when prospectors would have to hike, or snowshoe, into mine entrances and then descend to work amid almost unbearably high temperatures. The heat was due to the natural hot springs flowing underground, right near the famous blue clay, aka, silver ore, that miners were desperately chasing. Working next to these piping hot natural springs sometimes meant working in 130-degree temperatures, which earned miners the nickname “hot water plugs.” Eventually, the Sutro Tunnel was created, designed to drain hot springs water and other water sources away from the mines, and improve safety conditions all around while connecting the Savage Mine a few miles to the east in Dayton, Nevada.
Tour The Fanciest Burial Ground in the West
Peculiarities below the surface extended beyond the mines to the Silver Terrace Cemetery on Virginia City’s northeastern edge. Once the most lavish cemetery in the West, due to the town serving as home to millionaires and adventurers alike, no corners were cut when it came to entombing their loved ones. The Silver Terrace Cemetery was massive with many plots devoted to Virginia City firemen, Roman Catholics, Knights of Pythias, Masons and Jewish and Chinese residents, to name a few, all who were laid to rest here.
Victorian burial tradition meant encircling every burial plot with ornate metal or wood fences and marking the graves with marble headstones detailing where the person was from and cause of death. From towering statuesque headstones to modest wooden grave markers, a visit to Silver Terrace Cemetery means peeling back the pages of the history books for a true glimpse of what life on the Comstock was like in the late 1800s. Raise a glass to the men and women who made this Old West town possible with Cemetery Gin—the official spirit of Virginia City, sold at the Visitors Center and guaranteed to embalm you with this San Francisco World Spirits Competition Silver Award winning gin.
Unpack the Labyrinth of Below the Surface Street Scenes
Virginia City’s underground discoveries continue beneath Historic C Street. The town’s main street is noted for being photogenic with buildings dating back to the town’s founding. Legend has it an entirely separate underground street scene that once supported business deliveries, access to schools, mines and more from the residents who used it to navigate the town. While many of these old tunnels have long collapsed, you can still find a few old bricked-over entrances intact at the Territorial Enterprise Museum (currently closed to the public).
Haunted Doesn’t Even Begin to Describe Virginia City’s Paranormal Prowess
Let’s just say as the largest National Historic District in Nevada with plenty of old graveyards, underground tunnels, century-old buildings, mining accidents ad more, Virginia City is not just one of the most haunted places in Nevada, but also one of the most famously haunted places in the U.S. This is supported by numerous paranormal tours offering access to a collection of creepy spots.
There are a few different theories on why this town is a paranormal hotspot. One is that because so many spirits are drawn to places with water, and with all those old mine shafts beneath town filled with water it makes Virginia City a hotbed for paranormal activity. Another has to do with old cellars, or cold storage found throughout most businesses in town. The winters were harsh, and lives were lost, but winter also meant the ground would freeze, making burials impossible until spring. It was common to temporarily store the deceased in the cold cellars found at the back of bars, restaurants, hotels, you name it. In fact, you can see these cold storage cellars at places like the Washoe Club and Haunted Museum, Silver Queen Hotel. For more proof, visit the Mackay Mansion—with ghost stories made famous by Johnny Depp who stayed here while filming Dead Man as well as the location that made Travel Channel’s Ghost Hunters famous.
An Unjust Lady Justice and the Legend of the 601’s
True to other places like Tombstone, Dodge City, and other greats of the era, Virginia City had its fair share of shootouts, murders, and crimes running rampant. At least, those are the legends that proved true at places like the Suicide Table, where gamblers were known to take their own lives after losing their fortunes, or the Bucket of Blood where crime ran so rampant that closing time meant the mop bucket water turned red from cleaning up patrons’ blood.
The Storey County Courthouse, which stands proud one block above C Street near Piper’s Opera House, was where these criminals were tried, convicted and sentenced. It’s different from most other historic courthouses – pay attention to the statue of Lady Justice holding her scales over the threshold. Ordinarily, Lady Justice is blindfolded, symbolic for being unbiased in laying down a verdict. However, Virginia City’s, Lady Justice is not blindfolded. This is one of very few “seeing” Lady Justice statues in the country, another residing at the Shelby County Courthouse in Memphis, Tennessee.
To dispel justice, legend has it that a group of vigilantes began here calling themselves the 601s, which was short for how they handled business: six feet under, zero trial, one rope. The members of the 601s were honest, determined citizens around town—think bankers, storekeepers, miners, and businessmen of all backgrounds—who dealt with Virginia City’s undesirables. If you were issued their calling card, a handwritten note with only “601” it was time to get out of town before being hauled out by horse, foot, train, wagon, or casket. While the justice department is handled differently today, the 601s remain this time dressed in era-specific attire welcoming visits and offering up fact and fiction tales from Virginia City’s past.
See the Mystery Clock, and the Bar that Made the Mint Julep Famous
The Mint Julep, a delicious summertime cocktail made famous by the Kentucky Derby, was popularized by Virginia City, making the magically minty beverage into the cocktail of choice for millionaires and socialites alike. The mint was thanks in part to the Chinese population who were able to tend immaculate gardens of all kinds, including herb gardens. Along with a strong European population, hundreds of Chinese came to Virginia City to work the tracks and in the laundry business. It wasn’t long before the Mint Julep was popularized and became a drink of choice for many across Virginia City, particularly at the Crystal Bar.
Today, the Crystal Bar has been saved and immaculately restored by Virginia City Tourism Commission, greeting visitors from around the world as the Visitors Center. Even though you can no longer order up this signature spearmint spirit at the Crystal Bar, you can admire those famous crystal chandeliers dangling overhead, and another Virginia City eccentricity with the “Mystery Clock,” that always accurately tells the time, no matter how many times the hands were rearranged.
More Than 100 Saloons in a One Mile Stretch
At one point, the Comstock was home to more than 100 saloons, all located on the one mile stretch of C Street, the town’s main drag serving the population of nearly 25,000 at its peak. Today, the town’s population is around 700 with residents owning merchant shops, restaurants, running attractions and still serving up beverages to travelers. With classics like the Delta Saloon, Red Dog, Bucket of Blood, Washoe Club, Silver Dollar, Old Corner Bar, Palace Restaurant, Bonanza, and many more, any Virginia City experience must include pulling up a stool at one of these fine establishments as so many have throughout the decades.
Explore more about this Nevada gem online at VisitVirginiaCityNv.com.