Explore The Way It Was in Virginia City, Nevada
Some towns don’t change. This can be a bad thing as some towns seem to be dying a slow, painful death, stuck somewhere in a past time and unable to move forward. Virginia City, Nevada hasn’t changed much since the Comstock Lode discovery in 1859. However, in this case, being stuck somewhere in time is a good thing. Virginia City celebrates the Old West town where silver was discovered.
Virginia City put Nevada on the map and is a great place to visit and explore a Western boomtown. On a visit to Virginia City, you may run into a gunslinger while walking down the Main Street boardwalk. Maybe you’ll see a high-stakes gambler on his way to try the infamous Suicide Table where gamblers lost fortunes and reportedly took their lives because of a bad poker hand. Old West charm and lore is found everywhere in this quiet mountain town that had a tumultuous and storied history.
We call it Cowboy Town. We used to live in Northern Nevada and made several trips to Virginia City. Our young son loved the town, but unable to pronounce the name Virginia, simply called it Cowboy Town. Virginia City remains one of his favorite places.
We recently traveled back to the area to visit family and took time to take another stroll through the streets, restaurants, museums and stores of Cowboy Town.
A Town Full of History
Men made their fortunes when the first silver was found in 1859. The silver deposits were so rich that President Abraham Lincoln desired the town’s riches to fund the Union forces in the U.S. Civil War and established the state of Nevada in 1864.
The lure of riches brought miners, businessmen, courtesans, and saloon keepers to the town. Even a young Mark Twain made his way to the wild town, working for a short time at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper until he was driven out of town before a gun duel with a rival news editor.
Today, the town has preserved and celebrates this history with museums and trolley tours, The town attracts tourist from around the world with its history, and with many festivals and parades held throughout the year.
Walking the Streets of Town
One of my favorite things to do in Virginia City is to walk along Main Street. Along the way, you’ll see the boardwalk pathway (be careful where you walk because the walkway is not flat or even). You get a good feel for what the town would have looked and felt like during its heyday.
Today, the streets are lined with restaurants, shops, and saloons with casino games and slot machines. During the weekends and throughout the summer, residents dress in period costumes and walk the streets, giving you a real feel for the days of yore.
Along Main Street, you can get an antique style photo taken (yes, you even dress in period garb), see a staged gunfight in an outdoor theater, or go on an underground mine tour (yep, some of the mine trails are right below the town).
If that is not enough, you can purchase homemade fudge, buy hard candy or salt-water taffy by the pound, and visit the visitors center where you can add a pin to the map showing your hometown.
You can still pony up to the bar, try your hand at a poker table, or see the Silver Lady, a portrait which contains 3,261 silver dollars in the the lady’s dress.
Those adventurous enough can get married in a chapel, or spend the night at one of the town’s famed haunted hotels.
Just off Main Street, you can see Piper’s Opera House which showcased many international stars throughout its years, tour the Chollar Mine, step inside St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church (one of the most photographed sites in town), or ride on the restored Virginia and Truckee Railroad.
This is a mountain town, so walks up and down streets can be steep and those unused to the higher elevation may get winded. However, the sites and adventures are well worth the walk for those who are able to make the journey.
The Virginia City Trolley Tour
One of the more popular attractions in town is the trolley tour. The trolley offers a 20-minute tour through town with plenty of information and lore about the silver-mining days.
On the trolley, you will learn about the Great Fire of 1875 that decimated the town, the tales of newspaper reporter Mark Twain, the stories about the life and death of famed prostitute Julia Bulette, and tales of those who made their millions or lost their lives in the mines and on the streets of Virginia City.
On our visit, we were the only riders so we got our own personal tour of the town. Make sure you have cash on hand as credit cards are not accepted on the trolley tour.
The Way It Was Museum
There are many museums throughout town. One of the most all-encompassing of these museums is The Way It Was Museum. Here, you will see a wide array and collection of memorabilia sharing the story of the Comstock Lode and the history of town.
You will find everything from dentist chairs and talcum powders to billiard table licenses and Comstock ore. We spent an hour at the museum, and could easily have spent more time exploring the artifacts throughout the museum and grounds.
Admission to The Way It Was Museum is inexpensive, and children visit for free with a paid adult admission.
The Silver Terrace Cemetery
I have been to Virginia City many times, but I have never been to the town cemeteries. On this trip, we went to the Silver Terrace Cemetery. Preservation efforts are under way to restore and preserve the cemetery. You can search on online directory for those who are buried at this and other nearby cemeteries.
Psst. There are rumors that this cemetery is haunted. We may never know because the grounds are closed at sundown and cameras record living trespassers of the burial grounds.
Wild Horses, Too!
You often find groups of wild horses roaming in or near Virginia City. We saw the horses’ droppings at the cemetery but did not see them in town. Our trip was nearly at an end when we spotted the beasts outside town in nearby Silver City. What better way to honor the rich history of the Old West than seeing these symbols of a bygone era that is still alive in vibrant Virginia City.
Virginia City is about a 1-hour drive from the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. The drive to the mountain town includes steep-elevation climbs with many switchback curves. The road can be slick during winter, but the scenic overlooks of downtown Reno and the Sierra Nevada mountains are breathtaking.
Virginia City also is about a 1-hour drive from Lake Tahoe. Read more about our visit to Lake Tahoe here.
Disclaimer: Family Well Traveled received reduced or complimentary admission to some of the attractions in this post. We would like to thank RAD Strategies Inc., the Virginia City Visitors Convention, and The Way It Was Museum for their help. Although we received complementary admission, all opinions expressed are honest and our own.