Virginia City history, all under one roof
June 9, 2003
I’ve often wondered why the good folks over at the Nevada Commission On Tourism have never used the slogan “Nevada, We’re History!”
I mean, this state reeks of it.
Nevadans are fortunate in that every day of our lives, we get to walk the ground, enter the buildings, and touch the very artifacts that were here before Nevada became a state in 1864.
Nowhere in the state is it more prevalent than in the town that gave birth to Nevada.
Virginia City has never claimed the right to be called the oldest town in Nevada, preferring to let Genoa and Dayton duke it out for that honor. Founded in 1859, Virginia City is a mere baby when compared to the founding of Genoa and Dayton in 1851.
All three towns have a distinguished history, but what separated Virginia City from those towns, and indeed the rest of the world, is what people discovered under its dirt and rocks.
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There have been a number of fine books published about Virginia City and the Comstock Lode, but reading about it and actually seeing the genuine article are vastly different.
Most of the buildings standing today were built after the big fire of 1875. What you don’t see today are the huge mining operations that once dotted the landscape.
So how does one go about finding out about the Comstock Lode, the Big Bonanza and all that other neat stuff that happened in Virginia City? You have to go to the source, and that source is right in town, aptly named The Way It Was Museum.
First opened in 1958 by Abe Kendall, the museum was later purchased by the Petrini family, which owns and operates it today.
“It’s all here,” says manager Charlotte Smith, a 16-year employee, “our history and heritage all under one roof. We have had some visitors spend hours here studying the exhibits.”
The museum is a treasure trove of Comstock artifacts and memorabilia. Numerous photographs and lithos ornament the walls, depicting what life was like during the roarin’ mid-1870s when 22,000 people lived on this mountain, which included Gold Hill. Those histories include Bonanza Kings Mackay, Fair, Flood & O’Brien and that huge block of pure silver extracted from the Consolidated Virginia mine.
There’s also a fine tribute to tunnel builder Adolph Sutro that includes artifacts from his tunnel such as the foreman car, a two-wheeled affair that could be driven on the rails on the tunnel’s floor.
Sutro’s nemesis, ‘The Bank Ring,’ is also represented. He battled members of the powerful Bank of California, who, as the story goes, cooked up a plot to sabotage Sutro’s Tunnel. It’s an intriguing story of betrayal, perseverance and the battle for who was going to control the Comstock.
A scale model of the underground tunnels shows how the major mining companies tapped into the lode. Another model demonstrates a hoisting works that lifted hundreds of tons of ore for processing.
Numerous mining implements from the Bonanza years are scattered throughout the yard and building. There’s a blacksmith shop in the rear that’s so real you’ll catch yourself looking for the smithy to stoke up the forge.
Next to the blacksmith shop is a tiny theater running a continuous 16-minute video featuring Charlie Jones and Merlin Olsen with stories of Henry Comstock, Mark Twain and Piper’s Opera House.
IF YOU GO
What: Way It Was Museum
When: Daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Where: 113 North C St., Virginia City
Tickets: $ 3 adults, children under 11 free