“As I passed through the Devil’s Gate it struck me that there was something ominous in the name.” — J. Ross Browne, “A Peep At Washoe,” 1860
Twin walls of craggy, dark rock jut from the surrounding canyon, almost meeting in the center. A two-lane road barely squeezes through the center of the stone barricades. Welcome to the rock formation known as Devil’s Gate near Silver City.
Almost since men discovered silver and gold in nearby Gold Canyon, Devil’s Gate has had a reputation for being an uncomfortable place.
Formed from lava rock, the passage through Devil’s Gate was widened in the middle of the 19th century when part of the jagged rock wall was blasted away for a wagon road. It is located about 3 1/2 miles south of Virginia City on State Route 341, at the entrance to Silver City.
In addition to being tagged with an ominous sounding name, Devil’s Gate’s reputation was probably forever tarnished in the late 1850s and early 1860s when the narrow passage was known as a hideout for highwaymen and robbers.
J. Ross Browne, a noted 19th century journalist, wrote that the trip through the gate’s narrows was unsafe for travelers because of the “unhallowed character of the place.”
Dozens of newspaper reports from the day mention people being relieved of their watches, wallets and other possessions as a “toll” extracted by unsavory types lying in wait at the gate.
In addition to any involuntary toll, there was also, for many years, an official toll station at the gate. Since the passage was the easiest way to reach Virginia City, the gate saw thousands of newcomers trudging through its narrow opening on their way to the Queen of the Comstock.
Still, despite the area’s notoriety, by 1860, a significant mining boomtown cropped up adjacent to Devil’s Gate, which was known as Silver City. Browne vividly describes the hustle and bustle of the area, with its bawdy saloons, frail wooden shacks and miners of every ethnicity crawling over the hillsides in search of a big strike.
Nevada historian Stanley Paher notes in his “Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Nevada,” that Silver City had a population of 1,200 in 1861. Additionally, it could claim boarding houses, saloons, four hotels and extensive stables.
The town ultimately became an important link between the Comstock Lode mines of Virginia City and the processing mills located near Dayton and along the Carson River.
While the town thrived for a few years, its own mills and mines proved to be less productive than Virginia City and Gold Hill. A serious decline began after 1869 with completion of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, which reduced the town’s value as a freight center.
Perhaps because Silver City has never gained the acclaim and attention of Virginia City, today there are significant remnants including a handful of historic structures still in use that serve as direct links to the town’s rich past.
While the community does not have a large commercial district like Virginia City, it does have a post office, a substantial cemetery and such historic buildings as the Hardwick House, a former icehouse (and former bed and breakfast) built in 1862 that is now a private residence.
Additionally, if you wander the enclave, you can find other historic remains, including large wooden vats, once part of a mining operation, massive wooden milling frames and foundations and, to the south, a mostly intact mining facility stretching up the hillside. It’s worth checking out.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.