In early 2016, I was living in Southern California, looking for a teaching position elsewhere, and I was regularly driving 4-hours north to the rural community of Bishop, California to visit my girlfriend, Natalie. It was on one of those visits when Natalie, who is now my wife, suggested we drive north to visit Virginia City, Nevada. I had never heard of Virginia City before, much to her surprise, but she knew I’d enjoy the trip to the old mining town since she also knew I love 19th-century American history, American literature, and whiskey-filled saloons. Needless to say, she was right; VC, as the locals call it, fascinated me from the start. The history, the mines, the surrounding chaparral, the view down 6-mile canyon, the ghost stories, the woodgrain saloons, Mark Twain’s Sagebrush School beginnings, and the railroad— all took me back to a captivating place and time in American history.
Later that same year, I amazingly found myself moving to Reno, Nevada, just 25 miles northwest of Virginia City, to accept a full-time teaching position at Truckee Meadows Community College. The only way that I’d learned of the position, however, was because Natalie had taken me to VC and got me aboard the Virginia & Truckee (V&T) Railroad. My father worked for Union Pacific Railroad in Kansas City, so I’m a big fan of trains and the history that surrounds them. The 4-mile round trip from the Virginia City Depot (on F Street) to Gold Hill only takes 35 minutes on the old train, but that gave me more than enough time to do a cursory Google search on the history of the V&T. Naturally, the keyword “Truckee” lead me to all things Truckee Meadows, including the college and its opening for an English professor.
Now, of course, the rest is history. I’ve been living in Reno for nearly five years, and in all that time, I have taken many trips back to Virginia City. My original fascination and enjoyment with the place has not waned. In fact, VC has become a kind of Nevada origin story for me and my family. I’ve had the pleasure of participating in a number of events on the Comstock: The Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival (which my wife refuses to attend), the Red Run (which the Reno Dads took 2nd and 5th place in consecutive years), Chili on the Comstock, the Virginia City Rodeo & Fiesta Del Charro, the Thomas the Train Event and the Polar Express Event at the V&T Railroad (both of which I have previously written about), the Street Vibrations Rally, Hot August Nights Kickoff Rally, The International Camel and Ostrich Races (which I did place in because I, sad to say, got bucked off the damn camel), and more. Whether it’s walking and shopping along the boardwalk-lined streets, hiking the steep hills of Mount Davidson, or going belly-up to a bar while listening to the classic country sounds of the Comstock Cowboys in the Bucket of Blood Saloon, Virginia City is consistently pleasurable. It’s the sort of place that makes me feel at home; one might even say it makes this out-of-stater feel like a local.
Tonight, I’m a Virginia City Local
That spirit of local camaraderie that Virginia City elicits has recently been bolstered by the start of their new, “Everyone is a Local at Night” on the third Thursday of every month. Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are (and will continue to be) the typical days for revelry, no doubt, but Deny Dotson, the Tourism Director for the Virginia City Tourism Commission and his lovely wife, Ronele, decided to try to extend VC’s hospitality and spirit well beyond the typical. Thus, “Everyone is a Local Night” was born. It was an idea centered on creating more community, connection, and understanding between Virginia City and the people who visit its haunts but only on the weekends. That’s why Amy Demuth, Sr. Account Manager for RAD Strategies, and her husband, Bryan, recently invited me and the Reno Dads up to VC to partake in the community’s bingo night at Piper’s Opera House on the third Thursday in June. Like many times before, I jumped at the opportunity to get back up to VC.
My night, per usual, started at the Bucket of Blood Saloon but culminated at Piper’s Opera House. Piper’s is a grand, old building, built in 1885 (to replace the ones that burnt down in 1863 and again in the Great Fire of 1875), and it’s thick with history. Mark Twain, Edwin Booth, Lilly Langtry, Hal Holbrook, and Al Jolson all performed from its stage; Kit Carson signed its still-present guest ledger, and I’d imagine not long after stopping at the still-visible, little gun-check window (like a coat-check) to check his revolver at the door; and the walls are still adorned with Victorian gilt frames and 19th-century accoutrement— as many of the buildings in VC are. It’s one of the bygone qualities that make the town so enthralling.
I had never been in Piper’s Opera House before, but the well-decorated main hall on the second floor of the building makes for a congenial venue, especially with its thick, barn doors swung open to let in the warm summer breeze. I’d also never played a game of bingo before, but it’s one of my wife’s guilty pleasures, and I’ll admit, it was fun. Bingo began with, of course, a few libations from the small bar in the back of the hall and some pizza from one of the best pizzerias in the town: the Red Dog Saloon (another one of my favorite watering holes in VC). From there and for the rest of the night, there was a lot of laughter, excited screams of “BINGO!” from a hall packed with about 50 to 60 people, and well-timed jokes from the very animated DJ that made the entire evening truly enjoyable. What surprised me, other than the fact I didn’t expect to have that much fun playing bingo (a game I thought was only reserved for retirees), was that there were so many people from out of state. There were people from California, Oregon, Illinois, Wisconsin, and one or two other places the beer made me forget. In spite of these newcomers, and maybe even because of them, there was much gaiety to go around.
I didn’t win any of the many bingo prizes that night, but I certainly made a few more friends, and that’s a win in and of itself. I also felt, much like the other out-of-staters must have felt, like a local, simply enjoying the fun that VC has to offer. It was just a bunch of good-natured people enjoying a Thursday night at the start of summer in a venerable, old town. Like any good mining town, there’s always a few nuggets of wealth still waiting to be discovered just beneath the surface. Virginia City still offers that— both figuratively and I’m sure literally, too. I’ve gone poking around in those hills myself with a shovel before, but I didn’t win any prizes that way either. I’m content, however, to just poke around the boardwalk and main boulevard so as to discover and consistently rediscover the wealth of history, community, and camaraderie that Virginia City has been featuring since 1859.
More Than Thursday Nights
If you’ve never been to Virginia City, Nevada before, here’s a short list of some of the other events, people, and places it’s famous (and maybe even a little notorious) for:
- The 1859 silver mining bonanza, known as the Comstock Lode.
- The Bonanza Kings/ Silver Kings: John MacKay, James Fair, James Flood, and William O’Brien—four of America’s wealthiest men of the 19th century.
- German engineer, Philip Deidesheimer’s creation of a new but still-in-use mining technology: square set timbering;
- Adolph Sutro’s 1869-78 construction of the never-used but still-standing, 3.8 mile-long Sutro Tunnel.
- The Great Fire of 1975 that destroyed 90% of the town.
- Julia Bulette, one the most well known prostitutes of the old West.
- The birth of Samuel Clemons’ nom de plume, Mark Twain, as he worked for VC’s newspaper The Territorial Enterprise. There’s also a saloon in town that bears the author’s namesake.
- The Delta Saloon, which has been in operation since 1863 and is home to the Suicide Table— a faro table on which three individuals (2 previous saloon owners and 1 miner) killed themselves due to having lost their fortunes on said table.
- The Bucket of Blood Saloon, which has been in operation since 1876 and regular hosts David John and the Comstock Cowboys— a wonderful classic country and western band.
- The Silver Queen Hotel & Wedding Chapel, built in 1876 and boasts the tallest back bar in the world and the Silver Queen— a 15-foot tall painting wearing 3,261 Morgan silver dollars as a dress.
- Ghosts! After all, it is a ghost town that lives up to its name having been featured on many ghost hunting shows and expeditions.
- And now “Everyone is a Local at Night” on the third Thursday of every month.