The fever of gold and silver speculation today pales in the presence of the ghosts of this mountain bonanza town of the mid-1800s.
This is Comstock Country, the little town that rested literally on top of more than a billion dollars in silver and gold -- and in those days a billion dollars was worth something!
Today the ghost town rests near another billion-dollar bonanza, the gambling community of Reno, about 40 minutes away, and about 120 years distant. Reno is in the desert floor, and Virginia City is atop a mountain range where gold was discovered in 1850. Its subsequent history, until the mines petered out in the 1920s, was a tapestry of Old West lore, and the city, despite the patina of commercialism that glazes most of the business district, is pretty much the way it was in the old days.
There are names here to be remembered. George Hearst started his fortune here as one of the speculators. He was William Randolph Hearst's daddy and Patricia's great-great. Mark Twain got his dousing in journalism here, working a stint on the local newspaper, "The Territorial Enterprise," that looks much as it must have when the young Samuel Clemens was adventuring in the West. There was Henry Comstock himself, a blustery speculator who gave his name to the incredible silver lode beneath the town.
Today, visitors throng to the old saloons, mansions, churches and the little cemetery at the edge of town, absorbing a lot of the color. Saloons include the Bucket of Blood, the Old Delta, the Crystal Bar, the Silver Queen, the Old Washoe Club and the Bonanza, and others.
Each storefront has a legend or two, all its own, usually stories of rags-to-riches, or vice versa, and of bawdy romance and violence in this upstart town called the Queen of the Comstock.
The city has an opera house, a fire house, and the home of Lucius Beebe, a 20th-century journalist and author who preserved the Victorian elegance in his style of writing and public life. There is a Presbyterian Church dating from 1867, as well as St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a frontier jewel of a steepled structure that was built in 1876. There is a surprisingly large and well-preserved Fourth Ward School built in 1876, plus a Virginia & Truckee Railroad, a steam locomotive and three cars that you can ride through the mining country.
Virginia City is about a third of the way on a circle tour out of Reno that can be made in a day. Each deserves more time than that, however.