24 hours in Virginia City – mine tours, Cemetery Gin, and ghosts
Virginia City, Nevada, was established as a mining town more than 150 years ago. It was the site of the richest silver strike in the world, generating vast wealth for many owners. Today, Virginia City still looks much like it did during its rough-and-tumble mining beginnings, with historic saloons, wooden boardwalks, and plenty of entertainment for the entire family.
Virginia City is a quirky place that’s a little bit entertainment, a whole lot of history, all served up with a side dish of nonconformity. I mean, who doesn’t love watching all out mayhem as people race homemade outhouse chariots down the main street of town toward a toilet paper finish line in an annual event dubbed the “World Championship Outhouse Races?” Exactly. And believe it or not, this annual event is a re-enactment of an historic protest when city residents took to the streets with their outhouses to protest the prohibition of outdoor plumbing in the city. Then there are the camel and ostrich races, a Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry, oh, and reportedly a whole lot of saloon ghosts. Like I said, history, entertainment and quirk.
Located approximately 35 miles southeast of Reno, and less than an hour from Lake Tahoe, Virginia City is a headline attraction in Nevada for good reason. It was once a city of more than 25,000 and considered the most important industrial city between Denver and San Francisco, thanks to the discovery of a rich deposit of silver ore in 1859 called the Comstock Lode. Hundreds of millions of dollars subsequently poured out of Virginia City that helped finance the U.S. government during the Civil War, funded much of that era’s construction in San Francisco, and made famous the likes of George Hearst, Madame Julia Bulette, and yes, Mark Twain. Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) spent nearly three years, from 1861 to 1863, working for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper as a reporter before he started his travel writings. During that time, he honed his writing style and storytelling abilities to become the writer we know as Mark Twain.
Given the history and the pride Virginia City has taken in preservation, the entire town is designated as a National Historic Landmark. There is so much history to talk about that there are 17 museums (I didn’t stop to count but will take the Visitor Center at its word) all dedicated to displaying the numerous bits and pieces of Virginia City history through the years.
While you can certainly experience some of what Virginia City has to offer in a few hours – or you could spend a number of days in the area — I’d recommend spending the night, and taking in as much history, entertainment, and ghostly tales as one can muster on a 24-hour stay.
Note: We arrived for our day in the morning, so the order below for the visit worked well. Depending on your arrival time and attraction opening hours (not to mention your hunger!), just swap things around as needed.
Begin your 24 hours in Virginia City at the Visitor Center
Located in the middle of town on historic C Street, the Virginia City Visitor Center is where you will purchase tickets to visit museums, take mine tours, ride the historic Comstock train route and, of course, learn a bit more about the city. You can put together your own itinerary or go with one of the Comstock Adventure Pass packages the visitor center has put together. The center also the location of a delightfully clean public restroom (and strict safety protocols we observed when visiting in 2020). Be sure to pick up your “Everyone is a Local” sticker that you can show at participating stores and restaurants around town to receive a little gift or extra discount. Be sure to spend a bit of time looking around inside, too, as it is also a beautifully historic building.
Go underground at Chollar Mine
You do have your choice of several mines, but we recommend Chollar Mine – for its authenticity and, yes, quirk (If you love visiting mines and have more time, choose more than one!). Located on F Street, the Chollar Mine was originally staked by William “Billy” Chollar in 1859 (despite what the sign on the photo above indicates) and brought to the surface silver and gold valued at nearly $17 million dollars (approximately $206 million in 2020 dollars). On a tour, visitors head underground, walking about 400 feet deep into the mine, ducking in the low mine shaft to avoid a head bump and stepping carefully here and there to miss a muddy puddle or two.
On our 45-minute tour with modern-day gold miner Bill Findley (tours are supposed to last 30 minutes but he’s a total buff and loves questions), we learned about “square set” timbering (using timbers to support mine shafts in a modular approach), the conditions the miners endured (tough!!), and we got a very close look at the blue clay that still oozes out of the ground — rich with silver ore that was originally dismissed as waste since the miners were seeking gold. Tours run when enough people show up or basically every 45 minutes … or so. Be sure to call ahead or check the website since its season and opening hours varies with the weather – and whim.
Tour the Victorian Mackay Mansion
Built in 1860 by George Hearst, the house served as the headquarters of the Gould & Curry Mining Company. It was subsequently purchased by John Mackay. The Victorian-style mansion is one of the few original structures in town that survived the many devastating fires. It is also reported to be one of the most haunted buildings in Virginia City. In the safe where gold and silver bars as well as payroll were kept, two men were shot trying to break in. Their spirits are said to remain to this day. Tours run every 30 minutes and include seeing mining artifacts, original furnishings, Tiffany silver from the Mackay family, and hearing interesting historical and spooky tales from the docent – who may also show you photos of alleged ghosts taken by her and other visitors on tours (your choice about whether to believe or not).
Get a peek at the historic Fourth Ward School & Archives
Sadly, when we were visiting in October, the museum was closed due to COVID. But this is on our list for a second visit. Built in 1876 with sixteen classrooms, water piped to all floors, state-of-the-art heating and ventilation, and designed to accommodate 1,000 students, this is the last school of its kind remaining in the country. For safety reasons, most multi-level wooden school buildings were destroyed due to the risk of fire. Each of the classrooms are still set up as they were when the school closed in 1936. Even if you can’t get in, it is a beautiful piece of architecture from the outside.
Have a meal or refreshments at Red Dog Saloon
As I was munching on a very delicious pizza (dough is made fresh daily and the sauce is homemade), I learned that the Red Dog was also famous as a rock-and-roll bar. It was where The Charlatans, the first of the San Francisco psychedelic rock bands in the ‘60s, originally performed. Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane, to name but a few, also played there. Now I knew why the saloon laid claim to being the “birthplace of San Francisco-style rock and roll.” The atmosphere is casual and fun, and it’s easy to see why this is also a local’s favorite.
Learn about the past at The Way It Was Museum
With 17 museums to choose from and so little time, what to do? If you want to learn about what made Virginia City what it is and how “it was,” then go here. This is one very funky museum, and we almost didn’t make the time to visit since it seemed a little, shall we say, contrived. But after talking with two different locals who both told us they would highly recommend a visit, I’m very glad we did. Inside, there is what is purportedly the most complete collection of Comstock mining artifacts in the world as well as rare photos, lithographs and maps of the “Bonanza” period, not to mention vintage costumes and an intricate scale model representing the mine shafts under the city (that still actually exist).
Walk the historic streets, starting with C Street – but don’t stop there
During your 24 hours in Virginia City, do take the time to wander C Street up one side and down the other, taking in the numerous gem, clothing, antique, and requisite candy, fudge, T-shirt and trinket establishments sprinkled among the saloons and historic sites. But if all you see is C Street, you are missing much of what makes Virginia City special. Walk along B Street where many successful miners who were raking in millions built their homes – which is why the street is also dubbed Millionaire’s Row.
Saunter A and D streets…and beyond. And watch for wild mustangs that may decide the boardwalk is a good place to hang out.
Hunt for ghosts at Silver Terrace Cemetery
Walking the cemetery is a must-do! The cemetery, on the northern edge of town and a likely drive, is managed by a local non-profit, The Comstock Cemetery Foundation, with the mission to protect and preserve historic cemeteries in the area – and there are many. Here, you can easily spend several hours. Be sure to download the walking tour before you arrive by going to your favorite app store and downloading the izi.travel app, then search for Cemetery Audio Tour, Virginia City. We paid the $1.99 fee to be ad-free. I downloaded the tour prior to arrival to be sure I would have good access to it if my cell signal was weak. The full tour takes approximately one and a half hours and is fascinating. We skipped around a bit, which can be easily done. The beauty is, however, you can listen to it at home at any time.
Knock back a Cemetery Gin at Bucket of Blood Saloon
If you are a gin fan, as I am, you’ll enjoy sampling Cemetery Gin in any number of creative cocktails the bartenders will happily whip up at Bucket of Blood Saloon. Cemetery Gin is the creation of, if you can believe it, the Visitor Center folks who wanted to find a unique way to promote Virginia City. Building on the 1859 saying that the only way to safely drink the water in town was to mix it with two parts gin, the Visitor Center partnered with Frey Ranch Distillery in Fallon, Nevada to create a unique estate distilled spirit laced with Nevada pine nut. If you really like the gin, you can buy a bottle, or two, from the Visitor Center.
Enjoy a quiet dinner at Cafe Del Rio
Located in the historic Werrin Building on C Street, which was originally a grocery store and rooming house, Cafe del Rio specializes in Tex-Mex cuisine that is oh so tasty. Chicken enchiladas, kale and quinoa salad, grilled chicken … yum!
Tuck in for the night … perhaps with a few ghosts
With less than 230 rooms in the entire town, you can be fairly sure you’ll have a quiet evening (other than the ghosts who might be sharing the streets and rooms with you that is). Therese and I stayed in the funky but cool Sugarloaf Mountain Motel on C Street, originally a boarding house built in 1878. Our renovated room was small but very clean and comfortable. We peeked into a number of rooms in the original house and they looked fantastic, with several that left us wondering if a spirit was still sharing the room. The owners open up the onsite Sugarloaf Market in the morning and have fresh brewed coffee for all guests.
Another motel option on C Street (it looked clean and very nice, but we did not stay here) is the Virginia City Inn. If a bed and breakfast is more your style, check out the B Street House Bed and Breakfast on, well, B Street. Again, we did not stay here but it looked very quaint.
Find your way to The Canvas Cafe for breakfast
We were on the search for coffee and some fresh baked goods for a simple breakfast. Since we were there in October 2020, there fewer people out due to COVID-19 and as a result, none of the open cafes were offering much in the way of fresh baked goodies. By chance we walked into The Canvas Cafe, a delightful little casual corner eatery just off the main boardwalk on C Street.A couple of customers were on the outside deck sipping coffee or downing big bacon-and-eggs plates. We asked if the cafe had any baked items. One of the employees said, “No”… but then added, “if you can wait I’ll bake up some for you.” We were floored. What??! Turns out it was the new-ish young chef Troy Cavins at this artsy cafe, and he seriously was offering to bake us some lemon scones. On the spot. All we had to do was sit a spell and enjoy the morning. We decided the spontaneity was a good thing — and the sitting and chatting up some town folk even better.
The scones were marvelous, Troy was a delight, hearing about plans for music some evenings made us want to come back for dinner. The view out over town isn’t too bad either. And the scones were so good Therese and I decided on the spot to buy up the rest of the batch and take them to-go.
When planning your Virginia City visit, consider checking out...
Not far from Virginia City, located in the Carson Valley, is a very picturesque town, Genoa. Just off US 395 it is well worth a visit and if you’re a foodie, will be a delight. If you are into unique adventures, think about rail biking. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad offers a rail biking tour out of its depot near Carson City. Check out our story on rail biking on the Skunk Train to learn more about rail biking in general and other places to rail bike around the country. And if your travels are taking you through California, then our story on what to see in the Gold Country is an absolute must!
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