Virginia City sprang up as a boomtown on top of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovered in the United States, in 1859. Though at its peak in the late 19th century it had over 15,000 residents, the mines' output declined after 1874, and as of 2010 Census the population of Virginia City was about 855, with 4,000 living in Storey County.
Folklore indicates that the town got its name from a man named James Finney who was nicknamed "Old Virginy". Finney was credited with discovering the Comstock Lode. His real name was James Fennimore, and he had fled his home state of Virginia after killing a man.
Like many cities and towns in the state, Virginia City was a mining boomtown; it appeared virtually overnight as a result of the Comstock Lode silver strike of 1859. At its peak, Virginia City had a population of over 15,000 residents and was called the richest city in America. During the 20 years following the Comstock success "about $400 million was taken out of the ground." Most of the miners who came to the city were Cornish or Irish. In 1870, Asians were 7.6% of the population. When the Comstock Lode ran out in 1898, the city's population declined sharply.
Mining operations were hindered by extreme temperatures in the mines caused by natural hot springs. The miners would snowshoe to work and then descend into the high temperatures. This contributed to a low life expectancy. Adolph Sutro built the Sutro Tunnel in support of the mining operations. The tunnel drained the water to the valley below (Dayton). Conceived in 1860, it was not completed until many years later, after much of the silver had been mined.
Great Fire of 1875
Between 1859 and 1875, Virginia City experienced five serious fires. The 1875 fire, dubbed the "Great Fire of 1875", in October, 1875, caused $12 million in damage. In ensuing months the city was rebuilt, better, and majority of the National Historic Landmark historic district area was then built, in 1875, 1876, and later years.
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. Virginia City historical documents state that Clemens was mugged on November 10, 1863, as he walked over the hill from the south while returning to Virginia City. 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, to give him material to write about. 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 (published Feb. 1872), apparently still sore about it.