Visiting the Ghosts of Nevada's Past

It’s amazing the sites you can see when you trade the security lines at your local airport for the white lines of the open road. Sure, it can be fun to fly into Vegas for the weekend or pop into Reno for the latest Sunday through Thursday special but these quick trips tend to be focused on the bright lights, entertainment, and casinos. When you take a road trip you open a whole new set of experiences.

Breathtaking landscapes and vistas, terrific weather and an abundance of lodging help make Nevada a fantastic state for road trips. This is especially true for history buffs like me and I had the perfect travel companions; our eldest daughter and 9-year-old grandson. Of course, there is some danger in a road trip with these two…they both share my love of antique hunting (yes, they encourage me and yes, they did help me load a 1930’s metal tulip chair into the mini-van during the trip!)

Glad we had an extra 'seat' for my antique chair!

After reading a recent article on Ghost Towns in Nevada Magazine, we decided to add Virginia City to our summer road trip. It would fit perfectly into our itinerary after a visit to Sutter’s Mill in northern California.

We entered Nevada at the southern tip of Lake Tahoe on Highway 50. The drive was amazing, winding our way around the lake and through picturesque spots like Zephyr Cove, where you can embark on a cruise on Lake Tahoe to Emerald Bay. We picked a quiet spot and enjoyed a picnic on the banks of the lake before hitting the road again.

Arriving late in the day at Carson City, we missed taking a tour of the stately capitol building. Something for our bucket list on the next visit. I remember reading about how Nevada was “fast-tracked” into statehood during the Civil War because it would come in as a pro-union state by President Abraham Lincoln. Saying Nevada is “Battle Born” is certainly accurate!

We continued our journey to Reno/Sparks on Interstate 580, along Washoe Lake. I must say Mark Twain was not exaggerating when he said,

“A Washoe wind is by no means a trifling matter. It blows flimsy houses down, lifts shingle roofs occasionally, rolls up tin ones like sheet music, now and then blows a stage-coach over and spills the passengers; and tradition says the reason there are so many bald people there is, that the wind blows the hair off their heads while they are looking skyward after their hats.”

I guess he should know since he spent more than two years in the area as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City. I’ve read that he sometimes walked the 15 miles between Virginia City and the state capital where he reported on the legislature. Apparently, he was one of the fortunate ones who managed to keep his full head of rather unruly hair. A visit to the place Mr. Twain (Samuel Clemens) began his writing career was at the top of my list for our visit.

Mark Twain Museum in the old Territorial Enterprise Building

The Nevada Department of Transportation has an excellent wind warning system in the Washoe Valley, complete with flashing signs, that warn of severe winds. If you are traveling in a high-profile vehicle, it’s best to check weather conditions as high winds do trigger height restrictions for the highway.

Arriving at our hotel in Reno/Sparks for the night, our grandson (EJ) loaded up with brochures from the hotel lobby. He chattered away about all he hoped to see as we got ready for bed, although he wasn’t too sure he would like to see the ghosts featured in one of the flyers. He was quite happy to find there would be a tram tour to ride and quickly settled down to sleep.

We got on our way early the next morning, eager for the day’s adventure. The drive from Sparks to Virginia City includes the Geiger Grade Highway that replaced the original toll road in 1936. There’s a marker near Geiger Summit where you can see a couple of famous spots along the old road; Dead Man’s Point and Robber’s Roost. It’s easy to imagine Conestoga Wagons and mule-teams winding their way through the canyon loaded with cargo and passengers, constantly worrying about being held up by highwaymen – not to mention mud slides, snow and wind storms. Quite different from today’s air conditioned comfort!

Entering Virginia City is like stepping back into history. Aside from the T-shirts hanging in front of souvenir shops, the main street looks much as it has been since its rebuilding in 1875, following the great fire that destroyed much of the town. There are even an old miner and his burrow that will take his picture with you for a “contribution”. With a little imagination, you can almost hear the ghosts of minors and saloon girls as they call to each other in the street.

One of the many shops along Main Street

We visited on a weekend during the summer but were still able to find parking right next to the tram stop. The $10.00 daily fee was well worth it for the centrally located spot. We purchase our tour tickets then wondered up and down the street, visiting both the Mark Twain Museum (in the basement of the old Territorial Enterprise newspaper building) and the Silver Queen Hotel (the original location of the paper), with EJ watching for the tram’s return all the while. (There was no chance he was going to miss it!)

After picking up a few souvenirs and some post cards to send home from the gift shop upstairs from the museum (yes, we do still mail paper postcards), we headed back to the tram station with minutes to spare before our tour. EJ was excited to get the back seat (his favorite) so he could “see everything!” as we drove through town. Our guide/driver was fantastic, sharing stories about each of the sites he pointed out to us. I would highly recommend taking the tour, especially if this is your first visit since it provides a good overview the town and its history. We also found the free Virginia City app helpful. It lists museums, attractions, tours, restaurants, and lodging plus a Historic Comstock audio tour that covers many of the most popular tourist sites. You can even buy Adventure passes for many of the town’s attractions on the app.

View from the tram

We had just enough time after our tour to head over to the Delta Saloon (home of the infamous suicide faro table and a beautiful collection of Victorian oil lamps) for a late lunch before heading off to do a little exploring on our own. We shared the loaded onion rings (beer battered and topped with nacho cheese, pulled pork, barbecue sauce and green onions - delicious) and a giant ├ęclair (light, flaky, full of cream and covered in chocolate) while EJ enjoyed his standard chicken fingers kids’ meal. He thought it was neat when a group of ghost hunters (complete with cameras and recorders) sat down at the next table. (I don’t know if they found anything but we ran into them on their bus later as we toured the cemetery.)

Delta Saloon

Our first stop after lunch was St. Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to take a tour as there was a wedding going on but my daughter assures me it is amazing (she and her sister did the tour on a previous visit.) We drove from there to the Fourth Ward School Museum, where we learned more about Comstock history and schoolrooms of the day (you can see the marks where tiny shoes have worn the floors over many years), and then finished the day with a visit to the cemetery. By then we were ready to head back to our hotel and a cool dip in the pool.

Vintage car waiting for the wedding party in front of
St Mary in the Mountains Catholic Church

Virginia City Nevada is a place we will return to. We didn’t run into any ghosts (except the ones in our imaginations) but there was plenty to do and to see and enough to keep the young man in our group busy and happy for the day.

Fourth Ward School Museum


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