We spent almost five hours in Virginia City, but wished we had a few days! There is so much to see and do – we only scratched the surface. We took a trolley ride, a train ride, visited some museums, had lunch, and poked around in several shops. We had no idea how much there is to see and do, nor did we have any idea how important Virginia City was not only to Nevada but to the whole country.
Virginia City is, of course, a mining town. Starting first with gold, the silver was soon found to have even higher values in the ore and it was silver upon which Virginia City got its name and reputation. It developed quickly as a result of the Comstock Lode silver strike in 1859. Before mining operations slowed by 1898 more than $400,000,000 was taken from the ground. At its peak it had a population of over 25,000 but today has around 900 permanent residents.
After the Civil War former president U. S. Grant visited the city and credited it with keeping the U. S. afloat during the war and generating the money to carry out the military operations of the federal government.
Many problems had to be solved to make the mining a success. Eventually the mining shafts reached depths of over 3,000 feet, which reached into the geothermal zones where temperatures in the mines were over 100°F. MIners used as much as 94 lbs of ice per day keeping cool; they drank iced water, poured cool water over their bodies to cool them, and used the water to keep hydrated. The ice was at first harvested in the winter from local lakes and stored in ice houses insulated by sawdust. By 1877 an ice machine was purchased and provided more than could be harvested.
Another problem was groundwater under pressure that would suddenly spring from mine walls in jets of hot water and steam. More than 1,500,000 gallons of water had to be removed from the mines daily to keep them workable.
The groundwater in the area was not suitable for domestic use, and no surface water source was available. The problem got solved by an engineer who constructed a long inverted siphon from a water source high in the Sierras to convey fresh water to Virginia City. A remarkable feat, since the drop from the high point to the source to the low point in the valley was 1,600 feet, meaning the static pressure in the pipeline was about 700 psi; I wonder what the pipe design was to handle those exceptionally high pressures. The inverted siphon design meant that water could be delivered to Virginia City without pumping.
The exceptional depths of the mines presented significant problems in supporting the mine walls and roofs. The mine operators turned to a German engineer, who invented a simple system of timbers that could be easily assembled by the miners into a cribbing-type framework that could be extended in any direction using only very simple tools and no nails.
The diversity of the mining community is shown by its cemeteries – Virginia City has 15, I believe! They created a cemetery for every group and nationality, it seems. One for Catholics, one for Protestants, one for Irish, one for Chinese, one for Masons, one for Odd Fellows, and so on. And then there is the cemetery that only has one laid to rest in it – a very popular prostitute was killed for her jewelry and such but the women it town did not want her to be buried in one of the “regular” cemeteries so she was laid to rest in one all her own. Despite the ladies’ attitudes, the funeral procession was the longest the town had ever seen with several bands and marching groups!