Last updated: June 5, 2018
The Virginia City Historic District, located halfway between Reno and Carson City, Nevada, includes the 19th century mining towns of Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton, as well as open lands containing cultural sites associated with mining activities. Between 1860 and 1880, these towns were the model for what would become the classic frontier mining boom town in the American West.
In 1859, placer miners and prospectors in the Great Basin, an area covering most of Nevada and portions of western Utah and eastern California, made two remarkable strikes of silver and gold ore near Virginia City, Nevada. This was the first major silver strike in the U.S. and one of the richest in the country's history.
The Comstock Lode, as the discovery was called, stretched from Virginia City to Silver Hill. The discovery was unusual not only for the large presence of silver as well as gold, but also for the spectacular amount of wealth it generated. Almost seven million tons of ore were extracted and milled between 1860 and 1880, with the mines producing what today would equal approximately $700 million in profits. This immense wealth played a large role in the growth of Nevada as well as the city of San Francisco, California, whose residents' investments in the Comstock mines through the Bank of California and the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board helped fuel rapid growth in the San Francisco Bay area.
Unlike the small Western mining settlements that sprang up during California's Gold Rush in the 1850s, the Comstock District was an urbanized, industrial setting. In 1862 the population of Virginia City and nearby Gold Hill was 4,000, but by 1874 the number had risen to 25,000. In the 1870s, Virginia City was one of the most important cities between Chicago and the West Coast. At its peak, the Virginia City area had 25 theaters, multiple large hotels, several fire companies, fraternal organizations, five police precincts, a red-light district, multiple newspapers, and over 100 saloons. Virginia City also had the first Miner's Union in the U.S. Development stretched in an unbroken line from Virginia City, through Gold Hill, to Silver City four miles to the south.
Virginia City and its larger mining district attracted immigrants from throughout the U.S. and all over the world. Chinese immigrants came to the area in large numbers and worked as, among other things, placer miners, railroad workers, restaurant owners, launderers, doctors, shop owners, and boarding house managers. During the boom years in the 1860s and 1870s, Chinese immigrants became important components of the Comstock District's economic development and social landscape.
In 1855, Chinese workers from San Francisco, California, were hired to dig the Rose Ditch, a canal designed to carry water from the Carson River to mines in Gold Canyon. After completing the ditch many of the Chinese laborers stayed to work abandoned placer deposits. They were soon joined by more Chinese immigrants and their camps at the mouth of Gold Canyon came to be known as "Chinatown," one of the first Chinese settlements in Nevada. After the discovery of the Comstock Lode, many of the Chinese miners moved to Virginia City and in 1861, Chinatown was renamed Dayton. Because of its proximity to the Carson River, the town of Dayton was the location of the processing mills for the ore mined in the Comstock Lode and became the center of freight shipping and commerce for the Comstock District.
By the 1870s, Virginia City had one of the largest concentrations of Chinese immigrants in the West with a large Chinatown located east of the downtown area. This was one of the first urban Chinatowns in Nevada and at one time contained between 1,500 and 2,000 Chinese immigrants. Chinatown covered several blocks and was made up of one and two-story wooden buildings containing lodgings and businesses such as laundries, noodle parlors, herb shops, and small mercantiles. Virginia City's Chinatown burned down in the Great Fire of 1875 and was subsequently rebuilt, but never completely recovered. This was due, in part, to the decline of mining in the Comstock Lode.
Mining areas historically pass through an evolution of boom, dramatic growth, and then decline. By the mid-1870s it had become apparent that the Comstock Lode had been played out. Fewer and fewer large strikes were being made and a series of events including an incorrect estimation of the amount of ore in new veins in two of the large mines, the collapse of the Bank of California and crash of the San Francisco Stock market in 1875, and the Virginia City Great Fire of 1876, all contributed to the decline of the Comstock District. In 1878, a rich lode was discovered in Bodie, CA and thousands of people in the District began to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. By 1881, the Comstock Lode had been exhausted and ore production was at its lowest level in 20 years.
Mining continued on a smaller scale in the Comstock District during the 20th century, but never again reached the levels of the boom period of 1860-1880. Virginia City shrank into a town of several hundred people who became the custodians for hundreds of 19th-century buildings, abandoned mine shafts and tunnels and countless documents and photographs pertaining to the Comstock District's boom period. The Comstock Mining District left an indelible imprint on U.S. history and established approaches to mining technology, corporate investment, and community growth that were imitated internationally well in to the middle of the 20th century.
Today, the Virginia City Historic District is a remarkable collection of over 400 buildings – most dating from the 19th-century, abandoned mine shafts and adits (horizontal entrances to mines), and historic roads and streets. The District still retains the look and feel of a 19th and early 20th century western mining town. Virginia City is still an active and vibrant community with restaurants, shops, hotels, and saloons. In addition, the District has multiple museums, annual festivals, railroad rides, mine tours, historic walking tours, stagecoach and carriage tours, trolley rides, hiking, horseback riding, and camping.
Virginia City Historic District, a National Historic Landmark, is located in the State of Nevada and includes the communities of Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton, as well as open lands containing historic and archeological features associated with mining activities. The site of Virginia City's Chinatown is an open field located between Union and Sutton Streets and roughly bounded by F and H Streets in Virginia City. The site of Old Town Dayton ("Chinatown") is located between Silver Street and Logan Alley and bounded by Shady Lane and Pike Street in Dayton. The Virginia City Historic District includes 400 buildings and covers 14,750 acres. The current highways between Virginia City and Dayton follow the historic roads that connected the four towns. For more information, visit the Virginia City Convention and Tourism Authority website; or visit the Historical Society of Dayton Valley website.