Virginia City and the Comstock Lode played a crucial role in the development of the region and the nation. The news of its importance has reverberated throughout the world for nearly 150 years. The wealth of the Comstock's fabulously rich mines affected presidential politics and gave Nevada international fame. Immigrants arrived from every continent, attracted by legendary amounts of gold and silver, which poured into the economy during the crisis of the Civil War. In addition, Nevada miners exported their cutting-edge technology, influencing the industry throughout the western United States, but also in places as far removed as South America, Australia, South Africa.
Nevada owes its very existence to mining. Although the Utah Territory originally governed nearly all the Great Basin, settlement on its western edge along the Sierra Nevada included people who wanted freedom from the distant Mormon yoke in Salt Lake City. When prospectors passed through the region in 1849 heading for California's Gold Rush, one of them discovered a nugget. Placer mining granted a meager existence to a small population in the 1850s.
The 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode and the subsequent rush justified splitting Utah in half. Congress, impatient with Mormon polygamy and threats of Utah's secession, rewarded the miners with their own territory in 1861. Tens of thousands arrived, justifying Nevada's entry into the union in 1864, just in time for the new state to cast three electoral votes for a beleaguered Lincoln.
Comstock gold and silver attracted a global spectrum of fortune seekers, giving Nevada more foreign-born per capita than any other state in the nation. Irish, Cornish, German, Italian, Australian, Moroccan, Chilean, French Canadian and other immigrants walked the streets, conversed in their languages, formed fraternal societies, and made Virginia City one of the most cosmopolitan places in the world. For the Chinese, who came to represent ten percent of Virginia City's residents, Nevada was Yin Shan, or Silver Mountain, contrasting with Gum San, or Gold Mountain, a reference to California. All these people swelled the combined population of Virginia City and neighboring Gold Hill, which peaked in the 1870s at nearly 25,000, a sizeable community for the time.
Largely because of the Comstock, mining was the backbone of the state during the nineteenth century. The industry's dominance made Nevada a single-economy state in the same way that gaming would rule in the second half of the twentieth century. While agriculture and commerce thrived and grew in nineteenth-century Nevada, these were often closely tied to the fortunes of mining, which eclipsed all else.
The successful Comstock mines inspired exploration for similar caches of mineral wealth elsewhere. Prospectors searched the Great Basin and the Intermountain West, establishing places such as Austin, Hamilton, and Pioche. Wherever they went, these intrepid explorers used Virginia City as an example of how to develop remote ore bodies and create an infrastructure where no community existed before. It is no mistake that the Virginia and Truckee Railroad became one of the world's most famous shortlines and that Virginia City, Montana, took a name that echoes the prototype of all mining communities.
Comstock gold and silver made millionaires of many who chased a dream. The Bank of California played a crucial role in channeling that wealth into development in the West. William Stewart used the ever-fertile field of mining litigation to establish his own fortune and became a U.S. Senator. Others arrived destitute and found a change of luck through a variety of businesses, the stock market, or hard work in the mines. John Mackay and James Fair labored underground to become two of the wealthiest men in the world. Fair purchased a seat in the nation's senate. Mackay remained a hard-working mine owner, investing in the transatlantic and transpacific telegraph cable systems.
With its large-scale underground mines, the Comstock opened a new chapter for the industry. The district became the proving ground for a wide variety of technological innovations. The square-set timber, flat wire cable, dynamite, safety cages, and air compression drills were either invented for the Comstock or found their first widespread underground use there. A water system traversing miles while it ascended and descended mountains and a railroad that contorted as it climbed seemingly impossible heights enhanced Virginia City's reputation for being at the cutting edge.
The Comstock Lode also led the region as a cultural center, offering the nation many household names. Samuel Clemens worked for Virginia City's famed Territorial Enterprise where he perfected the western art of the tall tale and left Nevada as Mark Twain. Piper's Opera House provided an important venue for lecturers and entertainers as they crossed the continent. Besides serving as a training ground for the nationally-important theater impresario David Belasco, Piper's stage hosted performers as diverse as Lillie Langtry, Maud Adams, Edwin Booth, and John Phillip Sousa. At the same time, orphaned Richard Jose sang for handouts on Virginia City's streets as he took the path that would make him one of the nation's first great recording stars.
The turn-of-the-century excitement over the Tonopah-Goldfield strikes in central Nevada inspired the last gold rush of the continental United States and can be regarded as the final chapter of a story that began with the Comstock Lode. Fittingly, the classic period of mining in the Intermountain West, initiated at Nevada's Virginia City, ended not far away with this final, great mining boom. After Tonopah and Goldfield, mining turned away from the pursuit of rich underground veins, instead employing open pit mining and a milling technology that allowed for the retrieval of extensive microscopic gold.
One of the most significant lasting effects of the Comstock is the 1872 Mining Law. Senator Stewart played a pivotal role developing this legislation, which remains the legal framework for the nation's mining. For most, the legal ramifications of the Comstock are an obscure footnote, but the importance of this contribution cannot be underestimated.
Today, the Comstock Mining District is an outstanding National Historic Landmark, one of the largest in the United States. Every year, over a million tourists visit this relic of nineteenth-century mining. Most are not attracted by industrial history, however. For many, Virginia City represents a Wild West boomtown, an image enhanced by the overwhelming popularity of the television show, Bonanza. From 1959 to 1974, the western drama featured a mythical Virginia City that continues to inspire national and international visitors. Another peculiar modern chapter unfolded in the 1960s when a handful of Bay Area musicians retreated to Virginia City and invented the psychedelic rock poster, the light show, and the San Francisco rock sound.
More recently, the Comstock has become a center of research into life in the nineteenth-century West. A historical archaeology program initiated in 1993 has produced media stars such as the world's oldest bottle bearing the Tabasco Sauce imprint, but it has also revealed many insights into daily life in what was the world's most significant center of mining. In addition, the Nevada Online Census Database, the nation's only fully searchable tool of its kind, allows scholars and virtual visitors to explore a demographic heritage throughout the state from 1860 to 1920.
Nevada mining burst onto the industrial scene in 1859. Virginia City and the Comstock Lode became household names throughout the world. Reinventing itself for each period, Virginia City transformed from an international center of mining into personas ranging from a bohemian retreat, the focus of television's fantasy of the West, a center of rock and roll's creative energy, and a major tourist attraction. Because it has adopted so many guises, the Comstock offers an opportunity to understand many pasts and diverse people who arrived to make their fortune or to reinvent themselves. To open the door to Virginia City is to encounter a place of wondrous riches, imagination, and a wealth of humanity not easily surpassed elsewhere.