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Virginia City

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At its height in the nineteenth century, Virginia City, often called the “Queen of the Comstock,” was a large industrialized town that played an important role in western mining history. Its international population, both rich and poor, included at its peak thousands of Irish, over a thousand Chinese, almost that number of Cornish, and hundreds of Germans, as well as dozens of other groups. Since its early years Virginia City has been a center of government as an incorporated city and a county seat.

Mining and milling structures remain scattered throughout the Comstock, a legacy of the great efforts expended to extract ore from the mountains. In addition to industrial structures, numerous humble buildings, many of which survive, provided living accommodations for thousands of workers and their families, in both individual homes and boardinghouses. The upper hillsides of the cities and towns boasted mansions for the rich. Although these tended to be modest compared with their counterparts in San Francisco, for example, they nonetheless indicate the wealth of a place that produced what today would be billions of dollars in gold and silver. Commercial buildings and public structures add to the variety of architecture in the Comstock area.

Virginia City followed the standard pattern of mining town development from settlement to camp to town. Since the mid-twentieth century, the city has undergone additional changes, inspired in part by myth and media. Today the town has a year-round population of about 700, a mere fraction of the number in its heyday. A slow economy and remote location have helped preserve many of Virginia City's prominent structures as well as more modest buildings. However, preservation efforts have been threatened by occasional spurts of renewed mining activity and sometimes by publicity. For example, with the advent of the television show Bonanzain 1959, tourists from throughout the world came to see the hometown of the fictional protagonists. Local developers responded by altering buildings to correspond to the television image of the Comstock rather than the real place. Unpainted vertical boards cloaked several nineteenth-century brick Italianate buildings. Similar Hollywood western–style structures filled empty spaces where fires had claimed the original buildings. The new structures contradicted late nineteenth-century urban standards, which dictated construction in masonry or with painted horizontal pine board for wooden commercial buildings. This new “Cartwright era” approach to design reflected a twentieth-century misconception of what a western boom town looked like. In Nevada, as in other western states, stereotypical views of the West are used to attract tourists. “Frontier style” architecture still proliferates throughout Nevada in strip malls and casinos—and even in more far-flung places such as France's Euro-Disney, where it is the prevailing image of the American West.

Since the end of the Bonanzaseries in 1974, a growing preservation ethic has encouraged construction more in keeping with the Comstock's nineteenth-century heritage. The new interest in local history has led to the erection of large dwellings loosely based on late nineteenth-century styles in areas that one hundred years earlier would have had more modest homes.

Writing Credits

Julie Nicoletta

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