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Experiencing The Authentic American West

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Experiencing The Old West: Virginia City

A National Historic Landmark That Secured It’s Historical Footprint As A Bustling Mining Town During The Gold And Silver Rushes Of The 1800s

Virginia City C Street [Courtesy/ Visit Virginia City]

For travelers looking to experience the authentic American West, look no further than Virginia City, Nevada, a city that secured it’s historical footprint as a bustling mining town during the gold and silver rushes of the 1800s. In its prime, Virginia City was an urbanized, thriving metropolis of endless opportunities and streets lined with saloons, theatres, fashions, the finest foods and beverages, and citizens from all walks of life looking to capitalize on the hefty riches of the Comstock Lode. Now considered a National Historic Landmark, Virginia City is preserved by its’ populace and continues to attract visitors curious to experience the city’s historical integrity and what life was like living and working in one of America’s 19th century mining boomtowns. 

“It’s a historic district where nothing can be built or changed,” explained Deny Dotson, Tourism Director for the Virginia City of Tourism Commission (VCTC). “Everything has to be conformed to the 1800s even as far as the colors and fonts.”

Initially opportunists rushed to take advantage of the gold discovery, but they couldn’t seem to overcome the dense blue-grey muck that consumed their picks and shovels while digging for gold. As it turned out, the clay-like substance was silver ore, considered during the time to be the monetary equivalent of gold. As word of Virginia City’s plush silver deposits spread like wild fire throughout the nation, miners, entrepreneurs, and ruffians alike flooded the city seeking fortunes in the Comstock Lode and causing the city’s population to quickly soar to upward of 25,000 people seemingly overnight.

Cemetery Gin [Courtesy/Cemetery Gin]
Horse Hearse In Virginia City [Courtesy/Visit Virginia City]

“It was the biggest thing to hit the world at that time,” described Dotson. “The wages were better and the product was premium.” Dotson elaborated that Virginia City miners were making around $3-$4 a day while workers in other parts of the nation were making a mere 50-70 cents. Today, visitors to Virginia City can explore over 800 miles of tunnels underneath the heart of Virginia City along with the mineshafts, some of which reach over 3000 feet.

As a climate of the time, it was a hard drinking, hard living community. The chances for striking it big were plentiful and many men were made to be millionaires, but the extreme temperatures of the relentless Nevada desert and hapless working conditions of the Comstock mines were nothing less than brutal for the miners of Virginia City. With the average life expectancy at a shallow 25-28 years old, Virginia City accounted for close to a funeral a day and expanded the cemeteries as quickly as bodies could be buried. Most workers worked six days a week and with over 115 saloons at one point in history, drinking was what workers did on their days off.

“It’s said that water was pulled in a horse drawn hearse and used to cool off the mines but [miners] couldn’t drink it because of all the chemicals and minerals from mining,” rationalized Dotson, “unless they mixed it with two parts gin,” he joked. “Then, it was ‘guaranteed to embalm you…while you were still breathing’ and gin companies were even endorsed by the undertakers union.”

Birds Eye View Virginia City 1875 drawing [Courtesy/ Library of Congress's Geography & Map Division-PD]
C Street Virginia City [Courtesy/Visit Virginia City]

This phrase became part of a tall tale for the current citizens of Virginia City who wittily called the concoction Cemetery Gin. Because of recent changes in Nevada’s distillery legislation, Virginia City has launched the folklore into a reality creating a premium gin infused with lavender and Nevada pine nut, a significant step up from the swill of the early miners. Visitors can now experience Cemetery Gin on the infamous C Street at local drinking holes such as Red Dog Saloon that are still in their original structure and said to have served many of the Comstock’s upstanding citizens from the wealthy to the poor.

One dollar from every bottle of Cemetery Gin sold goes to the preservation of Virginia City’s historic cemeteries including Silver Terrance and Gold Hill Cemeteries, popular attractions for tourists looking to take a step back in time. Dating back to the 1860’s, a mixture of fraternal, civic and religious groups such as the Masons, Roman Catholics, and Improved Order of Redemen among many more, established a hillside burial yard as Virginia City became a more permanent settlement and the need for a designated cemetery grew. Local historian Ron Gallagher explained that there are 12 different cemeteries based on religious preference and that the headstones were often elaborate with beautiful iron fences surrounding many of the graves.

“You can go on a cemetery tour or you can just wander through the cemetery. It’s a fascinating journey when you can look at a headstone and see who a person was, who their family was, where they were born, how young they died, the cause….whole families that were decimated because of disease,” paints Gallagher, who’s family has deep roots in Virginia City dating back to the Comstock glory days and were among the first to be buried in the Catholic cemetery. “There are literally thousands of graves. It’s almost like seeing a textbook.”


Jannie Schaffer

A graduate of the Fashion Institute Of Technology in New York City with a degree in Interactive Marketing,  Jannie has worked both for FOX and ASA Electronics. She enjoys traveling and whitewater rafting.

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