Digging up the wicked

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Jonah Blustain, an archeology student from Boston University, sifts through dirt in the Barbary Coast section of Virginia City on Thursday.

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Jonah Blustain, an archeology student from Boston University, sifts through dirt in the Barbary Coast section of Virginia City on Thursday.

An archeological dig in Virginia City's vice-riddled Barbary Coast aims to find out if debauchery and crime was always the case in the historic mining town's most dangerous neighborhood.

A summer field school from the University of Nevada, Reno's Department of Anthropology is excavating in an area of the Barbary Coast that called the western uphill side on South C Street home in the 1860s and 1870s.

"I think that the perception that all of Virginia City was vice and violence is simply wrong, but it's a very popular misconception," said State Historic Preservation Officer Ron James, whose agency is providing federal funds to support the project.

Though Virginia City's well-known red light district was on D Street, James said D Street was also the entertainment district and housed alongside the brothels and cribs "a very fine theater" and a comedy club, among other reputable business.

The worst of the worst, however, happened in the Barbary Coast, which enjoyed a questionable heyday that ended with the opening of the Fourth Ward School in 1877.

When Virginia City students had to walk past the wickedness that the Barbary Coast fostered, parents became outraged, and thereafter police raids in Virginia City's seedy part of town became commonplace.

"The Barbary Coast was simply dangerous. There was prostitution and child prostitution and drugs. It was just really pretty bad," James said.

James said because the area was the poor part of town, the architecture did not stand the passage of time. Few ruins remain. Pastel-painted cottages stand on the site nearest to where 15 undergraduate and graduate students are surveying, moved there from American Flats in the 1920s.

The site is owned by Ron Gallagher, a Virginia City native and retired history teacher.

Archaeologists could return to the site next summer, James said, depending on what is recovered in the two-week dig of the Barbary Coast. The value of any artifacts could take weeks and even months to come to light.

"There will be a lot of discoveries that happen right there in the field. But when it comes right down to it, most of the discoveries are made in the lab," he said. "For every hour spent in the field you can expect to spend at least 25 weeks in the lab. And we have 15 people digging out there, we'll be lucky to have three people in the lab. It's a very long process."

The public is welcome to observe the dig and volunteers can take part in piecing together Virginia City's history Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. After hours and on over the weekend, the area will be under police protection. Theft of artifacts from private property is both a state and federal crime, said James.

The survey will continue through Friday when the class will move on to other sites yet to be announced.

• Contact reporter F.T. Norton at ftnorton@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1213.

For More Information:

To learn more about Virginia City's Barbary Coast, read Ron James' book, "The Roar And The Silence: A History Of Virginia City And The Comstock Lode."

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