Virginia City sprang up as a boomtown with the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States, and numerous mines were opened. At the city's peak of population in the mid-1860s, it had an estimated 25,000 residents. The mines' output declined after 1878, and the city declined. As of 2010 Census the population of Virginia City was about 855, with 4,000 living in Storey County.
Peter O'Riley and Patrick McLaughlin are credited with the discovery of the Comstock Lode. Henry P.T. Comstock's name was associated with the discovery through his own machinations. According to folklore, James Fennimore, "Old Virginny Finney," christened the town when he tripped and broke a bottle of whiskey at a saloon entrance in the northern section of Gold Hill, soon to become Virginia City.
In another story, the "Ophir Diggings", were named in honor of "Old Virginny" by the miners, in recognition of James Finney being "one of the first discoverers of that mining locality, and one of the most successful prospectors in that region." Finney "was the best judge of placer ground in Gold Canyon", locating the quartz footwall of the Ophir on 22 Feb. 1858, located the placers on Little Gold Hill on 28 Jan. 1859, and the placers below Ophir in 1857.
After the discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859, the town developed seemingly overnight on the eastern slopes of Mount Davidson, perched at a 6200-foot elevation. Below the town were dug intricate tunnels and shafts for silver mining. The Comstock Lode discovery and subsequent growth of Virginia City was unequaled by the history of other precious metal discoveries. By 1876 Nevada produced over half of all the precious metals in the United States. The Comstock produced silver and gold ore valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. The wealth supported the Northern cause during the American Civil War and flooded the world monetary markets, resulting in economic changes.
Virginia City's silver ore discoveries were not part of the California Gold Rush, which occurred 10 years before. At the time of the discovery of the Comstock Lode, silver was considered the monetary equal of gold, and all production was purchased by the federal government for use in coinage. In 1873, silver was demonetized by the government, in large part due to the flood of silver into international markets from the silver mines of Virginia City.
Like many cities and towns in Nevada, Virginia City was a mining boomtown; it developed virtually overnight as a result of miners rushing to the Comstock Lode silver strike of 1859. But, Virginia City far surpassed all others for its peak of population, technological advancements developed there, and for providing the population base upon which Nevada qualified for statehood. The riches of the Comstock Lode inspired men to hunt for silver mines throughout Nevada and other parts of the American West.
Virginia City increased from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. The city included gas and sewer lines, the one hundred room International Hotel with elevator, three theatres, the Maguire Opera House, four churches, and three daily newspapers. Many of the homes and buildings were made of brick.
With this center of wealth, many important local politicians and businessmen came from the mining camp. At its peak, Virginia City had a population of over 25,000 residents and was called the richest city in America. Dominated by San Francisco moneyed interests, Virginia City was heralded as the sophisticated interior partner of San Francisco. “San Francisco on the coast and Virginia City inland” became the mantra of west coast Victorian entrepreneurs. Early Virginia City settlers were in large part the backwash from San Francisco and the California Gold Rush, ten years before. Mine owners who made a killing in the Comstock mines spent most of their wealth in San Francisco.
A San Francisco stock market existed for the exploitation of Comstock mining. The Bank of California financed building the financial district of San Francisco with money from the Comstock mines. The influence of the Comstock lode rejuvenated what was the ragged little town of 1860 San Francisco. "Nearly all the profits of the Comstock were invested in San Francisco real estate and in the erection of fine buildings." Thus, Virginia City built San Francisco. The Comstock success' measured in values of the time period totaled "about $400 million." Mining and its attraction of population was the economic factor that caused the separation of Nevada territory from Utah, and later justified and supported Nevada statehood.
Through time, the numerous independent Comstock mines became consolidated under ownership of large monopolies. The “Bank Crowd,” dominated by William Sharon in Virginia City and William Ralston in San Francisco, financed the mines and mills of the Comstock until they had a virtual monopoly. By manipulating stock through rumors and false reports of mining wealth, some men made fortunes from the stocks of Virginia City’s mines. When it appeared the Comstock Lode was finished, the city's population declined sharply, with ten thousand leaving in 1864 and 1865. By the late 1860s, a group of Irish investors threatened the Bank Crowd’s control. John Mackay and partner James Fair began as common miners, working their way up to management positions in the mines. By purchasing stock in the mines, they realized financial independence. Their partners Flood and O’Brien stayed in San Francisco and speculated in stock. The Irish Big Four, as the men were called, eventually controlled the Consolidated Virginia mine where the “Big Bonanza” was discovered in 1873. The next few years were some of the most profitable on the Comstock, as the Bank Crowd lost control to the Irish big four. Population reached 25,000 in 1875.
Mining operations were hindered by the extreme temperatures in the mines caused by natural hot springs. In winter the miners would snowshoe to the mines and then have to descend to work in high temperatures. These harsh conditions contributed to a low life expectancy, and earned miners the nickname of "Hot Water Plugs." Adolph Sutro built the Sutro Tunnel to drain the hot spring waters to the valley below. But, by the time it was completed in 1879, the mines had substantially passed the intersection level, as their tunnels had been dug ever deeper.
Great Fire of 1875
Between 1859 and 1875, Virginia City had numerous serious fires. The October 26, 1875 fire, dubbed the "Great Fire", caused $12 million in damage. "The spectacle beggars description; the world was on fire...a square mile of roaring flames." When a church caught fire, Mackay was heard to say, "Damn the church! We can build another if we can keep the fire from going down these shafts." Though the Con. Virginia and Ophir hoisting works burned, the fire did not penetrate the Con. Virginia shaft and only reached 400 feet into the Ophir shaft. "Railroad car wheels were melted", "brick buildings went down like paper boxes", and two thousand were left homeless.
In ensuing months the city was rebuilt. A majority of the area now designated as the National Historic Landmark historic district dates to this later time period. However, the bonanza period was at an end by 1880.
Virginia City and Mark Twain
Virginia City could be considered the "birthplace" of Mark Twain, as it was here in February 1863 that writer Samuel Clemens, then a reporter on the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper, first used his famous pen name. Clemens lived in Virginia City and wrote for the Enterprise from late fall 1862 until May 1864, when he escaped from a potential duel instigated by a local newspaper editor upset at Clemens' reporting. Clemens returned to the Comstock region twice on western lecture tours, once in 1866 where he was mugged on the Divide. The muggers relieved Clemens of his watch and his money. The robbery turns out to have been a practical joke played on Clemens by his friends. He did not appreciate the joke, but he did retrieve his belongings—particularly his gold watch (worth $300), which had great sentimental value. Clemens mentions the incident in his book Roughing It (1872), apparently still sore about it. Clemens' second lecture tour in 1868 occurred at the time of the hanging of John Millian, who was convicted of murdering Julia Bulette.