VIRGINIA CITY - Standing by the construction site of this city's newest water tower, you can look up and see the same rock outcropping that miners have looked up at since the 1850s.
Remnants of what is believed to be the old Bullion mine were found on a spot designated for Storey County's new water tower.
In an area of Virginia City known as the Divide, west of Highway 342, Storey County Public Works employees were preparing the foundation for the tower when they came across a rock wall that dates to around the 1870s.
"This is the Bullion Canyon and could be remnants of the Bullion Mine and Mill," said archaeologist Pete Matranga. "From the photo, the main building seemed to have set out further. This could be the buildings in the back."
Matranga said that dating material found in an area is only one way of determining the era of an archaeological find, and not always the best way.
"Some things have been brought in and dumped," he said. "This may be remnants of the original wall that collapsed. But some of it may also be fill."
Matranga said that apparently since the Bullion operation disappeared around 1890, the area has been used to dump mine tailings and other fill.
He said one way to tell exactly what was here is from photographs.
"You can't date concrete, but it was used in the 1870s," Matranga said. "But we can document through photos and the historic record.
He has a photograph from 1880 that shows the Bullion Mine and Mill, surrounded by houses. Another photograph in 1890 shows nothing but one house.
Both photographs show the same rock outcropping, indicating it was all in the same area.
"This was all between 1870 and 1890," he said. "The artifacts tend to be from a 20-year period. If this is the Bullion mine, it's a great find."
He said the photographs showing the rock outcropping were essential in determining what was here before.
"The ground has changed too much," he said. "It's changed so much just from this work here, you can imagine how much it changed from 130 years ago."
Matranga said the plan is to excavate the rock wall from the top and both sides, because it was leaning a bit, and collapsed in several places.
"It's so fragile, as soon as we exposed this wall to moisture, it just caved in," he said.
There were several periods of dirt and mine tailings, so he believes the area was used as a dump site during the 1930s or 1940s.
He found bits of harness and a wine bottle from 1890, artifacts that he said are not unusual and not particularly useful.
"No matter where you dig in Virginia City, Gold Hill or Silver City, you're going to find these artifacts," he said. "We know people were here, and we know what they were doing. They were drinking and mining."
The rock wall that may have been part of the Bullion Mine and Mill was an unusual find, though, because Block 242 was not well documented.
"You hope to get the archaeological record to match the historical record." he said. "Everything is out of context because of the dumping. It's all churned up and you have to bracket between 1870 and 1890. The 1890 date was found because of the photo of that lone house."
Matranga said it was not uncommon in the era for abandoned houses to be salvaged or even moved to a new city. He said a lot of buildings from here ended up in Austin, Eureka, Bodie, Calif., and Reno.
Cellars from about 15 houses have been found, and they correspond with the photographic record, he said. The next step is to find out where the newly discovered wall leads, and if there is a floor under it.
"The plan of attack is to expose this wall, but we're not going to pull it out all the way and collapse it," he said. "We are going to dig it out from the top, two feet down and six inches out, to see the outline of the building. We'll see if we can expose the wall and see if there is any graffiti. Then as we take it down, we're going to see if there is a floor."
He said there's no way the wall can be saved, since this will be the location of the water tank.
"But we can pull stuff out and see if it can be displayed at the Fourth Ward School or somewhere," he said.
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at email@example.com or 882-2111 ext. 351.