History of Virginia City

To many of us, "The Comstock" brings immediate visions of sudden wealth, gold, silver and all that goes with becoming a man of substance. The dance halls and saloons were a welcome haven to the hardy breed of miners who labored day and night and were often discouraged. But, when they did find gold, and later, vast amounts of silver, they headed for town to tell of their successes. They shared their good fortune with the dance hall girls and courtesans who appeared almost miraculously shortly after any report of a big strike. Many fortunes were attained in one day, only to be lost that same night over a poker table. The women, who were readily available whenever lucky miners came to town, took a fair share of the wealth in return for their favors. Some of the courtesans became wealthy women as a result of being "camp followers". A favored few were the cause of many brawls and even murders because they were thought to "belong to" this man or that, usually the one who bought her favors with the most gold or silver. That was all part of the "Old West", the good old days. Yes, they were exciting, often very rewarding, but it didn't come easy to most, and not at all to some. This is the story of some of those brave souls.

In the spring of 1850, a party headed for the California Gold Fields, stopped to camp one night close to the Carson River near what is now Dayton, Nevada. Later, they named their encampment Gold Canyon. Will Prouse, one of the party, panned a little gold that night, but apparently not enough to cool his enthusiasm for his quest for riches in California. After the discovery of gold in California in '49, men hurried from all over the country to seek their fortunes in what was to be known as the Gold Rush. Will Prouse was one of them, along with John Orr and Nick Kelly, who also unearthed small amounts of gold in Gold Canyon. However, they had "gold fever" and left their camp and resumed their trek to California. Almost a decade later, in 1859, some of these same men came back over the High Sierras to get in on the newest bonanza, this time in silver.

Several years earlier, two brothers, Ethan and Hosea Grosch had uncovered a rich vein of silver on the eastern slopes of Mt. Davidson (later to be known as Sun Mountain). Both brothers died before any real mining was begun and their secret died with them. In the fall of 1859, two prospectors searching for gold uncovered the first significant deposits of silver. Peter O'Riley and Pat McLaughlin were more annoyed with it than pleased, for it was in the form of heavy blue clay, which made getting the gold separated very difficult. Some of the heavy blue stuff was still clinging to the gold that they sent to be assayed and an alert assayer in Grass Valley, California realized this was an extremely rich silver find in an unfamiliar form. Almost immediately, a blustery character named Henry Comstock appeared on the scene, stating the O'Riley and McLaughlin had jumped a claim on which he held title. Claim jumping was not taken lightly in those days, so the unfortunate two were satisfied with Comstock's agreement to let them work the claim. He was the con man of his day, and fast talked himself into being co-discoverer of many diggings in that area. That first big silver strike was called the Ophir. These men were not aware of the vast amounts of silver that would someday be brought to the surface and gave a third of it to a couple of fellows who supplied some crude equipment to separate the precious metal from the sand and dirt. The Ophir was divided into sixths with Comstock's "partner", Emanual Penrod making up the sixth person involved in the original claim. Because of his glib tongue and blustery persuasive says, Henry Comstock became co-owner of almost every mine in sight, and the whole area came to be known as the "Comstock Lode".

Almost simultaneously, James Finney (called Old Virginny) and his partners dug into a rich deposit where some years later the Gold Hill mines would be located. It is Finney who is credited with giving Virginia City her name in honor of his home state. They had it made - they lived only for the day and what it would take to buy entertainment and the good things in life. Their shortsightedness didn't bring comfort for the rest of their days. Comstock sold his sixth of the Ophir for a mere $11,000, and a few short years later ended his life with a revolver. O'Riley and McLaughlin fared little better. O'Riley, after selling his sixth for $40,000 died some time later in an insane asylum. Pat McLaughlin worked for $40.00 a month as a ranch cook and died without enough for a decent burial, and was laid to rest in a pauper's grave. His share of the Ophir was sold to a then little-known family. George Hearst paid $3,000 for it, and is rumored to have been the beginning of the fabulous Hearst fortune. James Finney is rumored to have sold his share of the Ophir for a bottle of whiskey and a blind horse, and was also buried in a pauper's grave.

Of the prospectors who was there in 1859, Sandy Bowers was the most fortunate. More conservative than his fellow miners, he didn't throw his findings away on passing fancies, but kept his small claim intact with dogged determination. He lived at a respectable boarding house run by Eilley Orrum, who also did the laundry for the more prosperous of the early miners. With her earnings from the rooms, meals and chores, she managed to buy a section of a claim right next to Bowers'. It seemed rather natural that Sandy and Eilly would get together. She was the best cook in the area, a good homemaker and knew a good catch when she saw one. They were soon married and consolidated their claims, taking $100,000 a month from them. They traveled widely, spent years in Europe and the mansion he built for Eilley between Virginia City and Lake Tahoe still stands as a monument to those splendid days.

One man's misfortune is often anothers gain, as was the case with four capable and intelligent mine operators. In the heart of the Comstock Lode two mines seemed to be played out and the owners were unloading stock on the San Francisco Stock Exchange. These four men played a cagey game and bought up the stock whenever it appeared on the market. In 1873, they sank an exploratory shaft into the Consolidated Virginia with the fervent belief there was more to be had from the claims. After several false leads, they hit a vein of unbelievable proportions, fully fifty four feet wide and undetermined height and depth. They were rich beyond their wildest dreams, and with careful management, the value of their holdings soared from $40 million to $160 million. The four men who were to go down in history as Kings of the Comstock were James Fair, James Flood, John Mackay and William S. O'Brien.

William Sharon arrived in 1864 and loaned money to mill owners on their holdings. When hard times came, Sharon and his associates controlled all of the leading mines and mills in the area. He could foresee the need for an efficient and economical means of moving the ore from nines to mills, and urged two of his associates, Darius Mills and William Ralston, to join him in building the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The V.&T.R.R. served the miners and mill owners for over eighty years. It was both a workhorse and the conveyor of some of the most luxurious private railroad cars in the world. Sharon and his partners shared $100,000 a month from the profits of this brainchild and their other holdings.

William Wright, who took the pen name of Dan DeQuille, was the journalist of his day, and much of the credit is due to his mining reports that had worldwide circulation in the Territorial enterprise. He was quite a storyteller, and had as his apprentice, a young man named Samuel Clemens. We know him as the beloved Mark Twain. These two made their mark in the literary world, and both had their start in the "Queen of the Comstock Lode".

It wasn't only men who made their mark in the history of this area. Julia Bulette was the "talk of the town" in Virginia City. Men showered her with gifts - jewels, furs, champagne and fresh flowers, which were a tribute unheard of in the Comstock. Julia's Palace brought what little culture was to be had in those early days. Her lavish dinners featured fine wines and French cuisine. A "Madame" with a bevy of beauties on hand to entertain her gentlemen clientele, she prospered and enjoyed the favors of only the wealthiest and most charming customers. Julia's story came to a sad end when she was found strangled to death in her bed by a maid.

With the newly affluent came the desire for more cultural pastimes, and John Piper soon took his place as King of the entertainment world, bringing world famous stars of the theater and opera to Piper's Opera House. Box seats were reserved for such notables as John Mackay and Adolph Sutro on opening nights. They were entertained by Maude Adams, Edwin Booth, the Georgia Minstrels, Lillie Langtry, Adah Isaacs Menken, Madame Helen Majeska and Emma Nevada, to name just a few.

The "Queen" remains today a nostalgic reminder of what used to be, still with traces of grandeur on her weathered and wrinkled face. Although there are many charts and figures, it is estimated that from 1850 to 1920, the Comstock Lode yielded nearly a billion dollars in gold and silver, and a history that is priceless.