The Devil went down to Silver City
September 3, 2005
“As I passed through the Devil’s Gate it struck me that there was something ominous in the name. ‘Let all who enter here …’ But I had already reached the other side. It was too late now for repentance.” – J. Ross Browne in “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 between the stone barricades. Welcome to Devil’s Gate near Silver City.
Almost since men discovered silver and gold in nearby Gold Canyon, Devil’s Gate has had a reputation – mostly undeserved – for being a place comfortable with trouble.
Formed from lava, 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 about 31Ú2 miles south of Virginia City on State Route 341, at the entrance to Silver City.
In addition to carrying an ominous name, Devil’s Gate’s image was probably forever tarnished in the late 1850s and early 1860s, when the narrow passage was 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.”
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Dozens of newspaper reports from the time mention people being relieved of their watches, wallets and other possessions as a “toll” to those lying in wait at the gate.
In addition to the 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 many less-than-sterling reports about the area, by 1860, a significant mining boomtown had cropped up at 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.
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 became an important link between the Comstock Lode mines of Virginia City and the processing mills near Dayton and along the Carson River.
While the town thrived for a few years, its mills and mines proved to be less productive than those of Virginia City and Gold Hill. A serious decline began after 1869 with the 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 are 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.
– Richard Moreno is the author of “Backyard Travels in Northern Nevada” and “The Roadside History of Nevada,” which are available at local bookstores.
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