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In Virginia City, a lode of Comstock lore

August 31, 2003|Susan James | Special to The Times

Virginia City, Nev. — In this 6,200-foot-high Sierra town, the streets tumble down a mountainside punctuated by mounds of rusting mine tailings and wood-and-brick buildings, relics of an era past.

From 1865 and for the next 20 or so years, folks made rich by the Comstock Lode lived at the top of the hill, along A and B streets. C Street was the commercial heart of the city, and below that, on D, was the red-light district. Chinatown was lower still, on H Street, surrounded by the tiny cabins of mining families whose men searched for silver and occasionally gold in the honeycomb of tunnels descending nearly 3,000 feet.

As a child, I often heard my grandfather's stories of Virginia City: the fabulous wealth of the Comstock and its colorful cast of dreamers and cheats -- men who came to the rocky, silver-laden slopes of Mt. Davidson with a dollar in their pockets and walked away with millions.

Although I had made one brief stop here a few years ago, I never had explored it. So on a weekend in May, joined by my parents, Royal and Bobbe, I made the trip again.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 09, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Virginia City history -- An article in the Aug. 31 Travel section about Virginia City, Nev., incorrectly reported that rare woods used in an 1868 mansion were shipped around the Horn of Africa. They were shipped around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 14, 2003 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 99 words Type of Material: Correction
Virginia City mansion -- An article in the Aug. 31 Travel section about Virginia City ("In Virginia City, a Lode of Comstock Lore," Weekend Escape) incorrectly reported that rare woods used in an 1868 mansion were shipped around the Horn of Africa. They were shipped around Cape Horn, at the tip of South America.

Visitors can fly to Carson City, about 15 miles southwest, or to Reno, about 25 miles north. But we chose to drive, a trip of about 450 miles from L.A.

We stayed at the historic Gold Hill Hotel, built in 1859 and still full of Old West atmosphere. Gold Hill, a mile down the road from Virginia City, had been a boomtown in its own right. The hotel is perched on a hill in front of the Yellow Jacket Mine elevator shaft, and its location and decor are reminders of yesteryear.

Our room had carved wood beds, a Victorian dresser and reputedly the ghost of a child -- too shy to put in an appearance while we were there. Echoes of the mining past were downstairs in the form of the parlor's original low ceiling, stone fireplace and rocking chair.

After a fine dinner -- Caesar salad tossed at our table, chicken piccata (one of three entrees on that night's menu) and cherry vanilla ice cream -- we were ushered from the hotel dining room back into the parlor, which had been rearranged as a theater. The Gold Hill Theater Troupe presented a rousing melodrama, "Ransom and Revenge in Chinatown," based on happenings in Virginia City in the 1880s. We had great fun hissing at the villain and applauding the hero, just like the good old days.

The next morning we started our exploration of Virginia City, which at its peak in the 1870s had a population of about 30,000, compared with 800 today.

At the top of Millionaire's Row on B Street still stands the 1868 mansion called the Castle. Built by engineer turned millionaire Robert Graves, this wooden mansion with a castle-like turret and lilac-filled garden is remarkable, partly because it contains the original furnishings, including wallpaper, carpet and Belgian lace curtains, which our guide said cost $3,000 a panel when the home was built -- or about $37,000 today, adjusted for inflation.

The guide also pointed out the rare woods that had been shipped around the Horn of Africa for paneling and balustrades, the Bohemian cut crystal chandeliers in the double parlors and a breathtaking red-and-white swirled glass lamp that is one of only two of its kind known to exist. The doorknobs and carpet braces up the stairs are solid silver. The most fascinating thing to me was the original French wallpaper, fashioned from gold and silver leaf that gleamed in the sunlight with an iridescent bird design.

One of the few faults of this house: no bathrooms. Chamber pots had been tucked into all of the nightstands.

That wasn't the case at the town's other well-preserved estate, the Mackay Mansion, built in 1860 with running water and a full bathroom.

John Mackay used the mansion as a home and the headquarters for his mining company. Mackay was born in Ireland and grew up fatherless and penniless on the streets of New York. He headed west during the Gold Rush of 1849 and supposedly ended up as one of the richest men in America by the late 1870s.

He built his mansion on the lip of the great pit where miners worked 1,000 feet below, 24 hours a day. According to our guide, the wraparound balconies of the house were built so Mackay could oversee workers' progress.

Mackay's wife, Louise, was less interested in the mining of gold and silver than she was in the spending of it. She sent boxes of bullion to Tiffany in New York to have it fashioned into chandeliers, serving pieces and cutlery, each solid silver piece inlaid with gold.

We stopped for a lunch of chili and hamburgers at the Palace Restaurant and Saloon on C Street. According to local newspapers of the 1870s, residents were crazy about oysters. Alas, they're no longer on the menu.

Across the street, mine shaft entrances lie below the buildings. The Bonanza Saloon, where we had lunch the next day, runs tours through its subterranean maze, part of an estimated 350 to 750 miles of tunnels beneath Virginia City.

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