On Silver Mountain | NevadaAppeal.com

On Silver Mountain

Becky Bosshart
Appeal Staff Writer
Jessica Escobar, above, exhibit curator for the Chinese Exhibit at the Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, places artifacts on a table while setting up the exhibit with museum consultant Doug Southerland (in background) on Thursday morning. At left, Southerland works on the exhibit. Southerland worked for 27 years as the director of exhibits at the Nevada State Museum before becoming a museum consultant. Brad Horn/Nevada Appeal

VIRGINIA CITY – Inside the Fourth Ward School, two historians are recreating Yin Shan.

Yin Shan is Chinese for “Silver Mountain,” what Comstock-era immigrants called Virginia City. It was here that Chinese-Americans worked grueling hours mining the precious ore from skinny tunnels under Virginia City’s topography.

These immigrants raised their families in a tiny area, aptly named “Chinatown.” In family photos, the faces of the men, women and children are eerily placid, like a pool before the storm. The Chinese-Americans recorded their domicile here in the 1860s with calligraphy. Then the silver veins ran dry; they packed up, leaving their Chinatown.

But Chinatown didn’t leave Virginia City.

The crashing of Doug Southerland’s hammer against the wood and nail is enough to knock the artifacts of Yin Shan off the wall, but it won’t. The pictures and textboards are securely attached to the museum panels. He’s the exhibition producer of the Fourth Ward School’s newest show, “On Silver Mountain Yin Shan, Historic Archaeology of Chinese Americans in Virginia City.”

The 27-year veteran of the museum business has invested about 80 hours in this exhibit so far. Today he’s putting pottery shards on display.

Jessica Escobar, 24, put her putty knife up to a display board and scraped off an old tag, which was used for the prior exhibit. She spent 13 hours in this little wood room the day before. There will be more days like that until the exhibit opens May 13. Escobar wore a spring green T-shirt and jeans. Her black curls bounced as she worked, still energetic after so many hours.

Escobar wears many hats in this production: researcher, text writer, gofer, organizer. She has her anthropology and French degrees from the University of Nevada, Reno and a master’s degree in social sciences from the University of Chicago.

The exhibit received $10,000 from the State Historic Preservation Office, which pays her and Southerland’s salaries and covers the cost of the materials. Southerland has a pension. Escobar gets by with her savings and occasional requests for her to play violin in the Reno Philharmonic.

Escobar has helped work on Yin Shan since the excavation of Virginia City’s Chinatown last summer. She also helped with the lab analysis of artifacts before starting the exhibit work in November 2004.

“Excavating was awesome,” she said. “We found fragments of a woman’s jade bracelet and several gaming pieces, which were little black and white pieces from the game ‘Go,’ which is its Japanese name. Wei Qui is it’s Chinese name. It’s more difficult than chess.”

But what’s even harder? Finding the money to fund historic preservation.

Ron James, state historic preservation officer, said in the past 10 years his state office has distributed $25 million in grants. The money goes toward planning, publication of brochures, making historic videos, archaeology and “brick and mortar,” which is the actual restoration of the historic buildings.

“The archaeology is very popular,” James said. “It gets a lot of publicity – like the Boston Saloon, an African-American business we excavated in Virginia City in 2001. That site produced the oldest Tabasco bottle.”

This legislative session, one of the state’s two funding programs comes up for re-authorization. Senate Bill 4 calls for the program to be continued with an additional $1 million, which will bring it to $3 million per year. That means $30 million will be distributed over 10 years. The program is specifically for the rehabilitation of historical buildings that will be used as a cultural center.

That is how Virginia City’s Fourth Ward School received $2 million over 10 years from the Commission of Cultural Affairs.

“It’s one thing to get the grants to preserve the building – it has cost about $3 million to preserve – but it’s another thing to maintain and operate the building and programs,” said Barbara Mackey, executive director of the Fourth Ward museum.

To support its $100,000 operating budget, the Fourth Ward School uses museum admissions, gift shop sales, membership fees, fund-raisers and private donations.

They raise enough money every year, Mackey said, “but the cost of everything keeps going up.”

Exhibits such as Yin Shan attract new visitors, which funds the operation. Next year the museum will construct an exhibit on African-Americans in Nevada to coincide with a traveling show on Abraham Lincoln’s journey to emancipation.

n Contact reporter Becky Bosshart at bbosshart@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1212.

Restoration grants

Total restoration grants awarded from 1993-2004 to some area projects:

• Brewery Arts Center – Carson Brewing Co. building: $584,287

• Brewery Arts Center – St. Teresa Church: $158,976

• Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada, Carson City: $469,140

• Churchill Arts Council – Oats Park School, Fallon: $2.5 million

• Dayton Historic Society Museum – schoolhouse: $63,981

• Fourth Ward School, Virginia City: $1.8 million

• Gold Hill Historical Society – Virginia & Truckee Railway Depot: $127,899

• Piper’s Opera House Programs – opera house, Virginia City: $1.8 million

Source: http://www.nevadaculture.org, Commission for Cultural Affairs