With its picturesque mountain setting and abundance of 19th century buildings, historic Virginia City offers visitors plenty of charm and a busy schedule of special events. Its fabulous Comstock Lode glory days gone, Nevada’s most famous mining boomtown survives today on tourist dollars.
City promoters schedule appealing events during the busy May through October season to entertain visitors and keep them coming back. Upcoming events include a chillin’ and grillin’ food festival Aug. 16, a pet parade on Aug. 23, a parade and Civil War re-enactment over Labor Day weekend and the 49th annual international camel races on Sept. 6.
Vacationing Southern Nevadans easily include Virginia City when visiting the Reno-Lake Tahoe-Carson City area. It lies 436 miles from Las Vegas at 7,000-feet elevation in the mountains facing the Sierras across Washoe and Carson valleys. Steep highways link the old town to Reno, 21 miles away, and Carson City, 14 miles distant.
Virginia City grew rapidly to one of the most important mining towns in the West when gold and silver discoveries in 1859 uncovered the fabulous Comstock Lode. With the California Gold Rush a decade in the past, the new discoveries in little-known Nevada generated a new rush to wealth. Although the area produced quantities of gold, the greatest fortunes lay in its rich deposits of silver, destined to build San Francisco into a major city and help the Union with the Civil War.
Quaint Victorian houses, lavish mansions, ornate churches, false-fronted commercial buildings and handsome historic structures line Virginia City’s steep streets, included in thousands of acres named as a National Historic Landmark. Save some walking and acquaint yourself with the town’s history and attractions by taking a narrated tram or trolley ride.
The 20-minute tour covers two and one-half miles downtown, helping you plan your visit. Operated year-round from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the tour costs $4 for adults and $1.50 for children. Pay the fare on Virginia City’s main drag, C Streets.
Many visitors spend time and money in the souvenir stores, rock shops, eateries and saloons along C Street, but not much else. Allow time for Virginia City’s museums, mansions and mine tours, cemeteries and a ride on part of the original route of the famed Virginia & Truckee Railroad.
The largest museum in Virginia City, the Fourth Ward School Museum occupies a stately four-story school operated from 1876 to 1936. The restored structure reopened in 1986 as a museum. Open from May through October from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., the museum costs $5 for adults and $3 for youngsters. Smaller museums include the Comstock Firemen’s Museum on C Street, open through Labor Day, and the nearby Nevada Gambling Museum, open all year from 10 a.m.
Built in 1885, Pipers Opera House on B Street attracted the best singers, musicians and actors of the time.
Now beautifully restored, the once-derelict opera house welcomes visitors daily from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. during summer and on weekends the rest of the year. Entrance costs $5 for adults and $2 for children. Take a guided tour at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. or 3 p.m.
Nearby, the 1876 Storey County Courthouse still functions, the oldest continuously operating courthouse in the state, open to visitors free of charge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Standing just below downtown since 1875, beautiful St. Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church remains the most venerable of all Nevada Catholic houses of worship.
Looking forward to future restoration of its original route to Carson Valley, the resurrected Virginia & Truckee Railroad now offers 35 minutes of narrated excursions from its depot on F Street at Washington to the neighboring ghost town of Gold Hill.
A stream locomotive pulls the train on seven round trips daily from May through October. Fares cost $8 for adults, $4 for children aged 5-12, and free for those under 5. The V&T also offers evening wine trains, dinner trains and a Halloween ghost train. The train will be part of the Civil War re-enactment over Labor Day when troops stage special train wars.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears Sundays.