Virginia City is an Old West Town, and Locals Want to Keep it That Way

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May 13, 2024

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(VIRGINIA CITY, Nev.)—On a spring day in Virginia City, an Old West town, cars line C Street as tourists walk in front of shops, restaurants, and saloons. The town’s motto, “Step Back in Time,” is a fitting tribute to the nostalgia that remains from the mining boom of the mid-to-late nineteenth century. 

Virginia City, or VC, as locals call it, hasn’t changed much in its 165-year-old history, although it has lost some Old West-themed attractions like The Castle, a mansion built in European castle-style architecture as an example of the elite lifestyle of the wealthiest residents, and TNT Stagelines, a true-to-life horse drawn stage ride visitors take around the city. This visible loss, juxtaposed with newer construction, such as the Silverland Inn and Suites, Divide Fitness, and Bullion Apartments and Storage, affirms that change has taken root in the city slowly yet steadily.

Among these subtle differences, tourists still flock to this mining town to learn more about its history and experience the Old West firsthand. “Staying as authentic as possible, I think that’s what people expect,” said Nandine Hastings, a resident and employee of Things, Things, and Things, an antique shop on C Street. 

Silverland Inn and Suites, built-in 2006. [Credit: Hannah Lemire]

Hastings is not alone. Other locals and business owners grapple with the challenges of keeping up with the times, but not at the expense of VC’s integrity as a city preserved in time. However, now that newer hotels and apartments have been added to this official historic site in the past two decades, will they undermine or enhance the city’s draw as a gem of the Old West? 

VC is a respite from the commotion of its sister cities in northern Nevada, Reno, Carson City, and Lake Tahoe, a popular tourist spot. These better-known destinations have not maintained their histories quite like the quaint landmark nestled in the Virginia Range. The winding drive to VC offers spectacular mountain views and remnants of the once-bustling mining community, which sits on Mount Davidson at an elevation of 6,200 feet.

As a tourist spot for those looking to learn more about the Old West, VC offers many opportunities for locals and tourists to participate in annual events such as the VC Grand Prix, the International Camel and Ostrich Races, and the Father-Daughter Day and Dance.

 Tourism, “It’s how we survive,” said local Greg Grant, a resident for 12 years and owner of Silver Sadie’s Old Time Photos.  Making his way to VC via South Florida and Arizona, he appreciates the shorter commute to his shop and the closeness of the community. He has invested in historically- accurate period costumes to create black-and-white memento photographs depicting scenes in saloons and other Old West locations.

Greg Grant, Owner of Silver Sadie’s Old Time Photos. [Credit: Hannah Lemire]

A Protected City 

Grant has noticed the new construction of Divide Fitness and Bullion Apartments and Storage in the southern part of the strip. The Silverland Inn and Suites was already servicing guests when he became a VC resident. “I remember when that was built. It was nice for people to have a gym in town; they blend in and are on the outskirts of town.” Grant continues about Silverland Inn and Suites, “I don’t notice it, except for the lights at night. At least it is planned and themed around a strict building code, Victorian or miner styles.”

Grant said he’s confident the city will protect its history because VC is a national historic landmark. According to “A Short History of Virginia City, Including A Walking Tour,” a book by Ronald and Susan James (2014), VC acquired this status in 1961. 

If the city’s infrastructure were to be demolished and replaced due to age, he said, “They will never do that unless they were condemned, and if they did, yes, I will be on the picket line.”

Strict building regulations guard against uncontrolled growth under the watchful eye of the Comstock Historic District Commission. The commission provides a guidebook on construction do’s and don’ts so that new construction blends in with existing structures. The commission discourages the demolition of buildings in the district’s period of significance from 1859-1942, guiding all aspects of the building process, even requiring a ‘Certificate of Appropriateness.’ Not obtaining this certificate can result in fines of up to $500/per day and work delays. Actions like these illustrate the serious steps taken by the government to preserve VC’s legacy.

VC’s Legacy

Virginia City, Nevada’s history is one of chance, beginning with placer miners, miners that process loose ore conveyed by rivers and streams. These miners noticed significant deposits in creeks and riverbeds. The town’s true boom began when miners took to digging within VC foothills and found the Comstock Lode, the first significant silver ore discovery in the U.S. in June 1859, as stated in James and James 2014. Almost seven million tons of gold and silver ore were extracted and milled between 1860 and 1880, with the mines producing what today would equal approximately $600 million in profits.” The Comstock and several other mines have made VC a mecca of wealth, helping to build the economies of its sister cities, San Francisco, and across the nation R. James, S. James, 2014).

 VC’s rich narrative is a testament to how this landmark has weathered changes. James and James 2014 describe these changes as boom, bust, and adapting its economy to include tourism. VC has produced millionaires, catalyzing Nevada statehood, technological advancement, invention, diversity, and the development of commerce in northern Nevada. At its peak, VC was home to 25,000 people; today, World Population Review reports that VC is home to 1,147 people, nearly double its census total in 2020. Storey County is experiencing a growth increase of almost 12%.

Pascal Baboulin, Virginia City Hatmaker. [Credit: Hannah Lemire]

Longtime business proprietor Pascal Baboulin, owner of the Virginia City Hatmaker, recently celebrated 20 years in business. His specialty is cowboy hats in partnership with Houston Boot Co. The store’s interior has a modern, elegant feel, transporting you to a high-end retail store, yet the product suits the city. In his time at VC, he has yet to witness much change except for the closing of attractions. “The Castle, an old Victorian house on B Street that was open to the public, has not been open for 15 years; I think that has been a big loss,” said Baboulin. He is troubled by this change and would like to see investors refurbish the house and restore the historic value to the city. “

Grant also mourns the loss of two attractions, a local and tourist favorite, StinkE and Burnadeen, and the stagecoach ride in town. SkinkE, also known as Danny Eugene Beason, added color to VC with his sidekick Burnadeen, a donkey, that StinkE would offer carrots to locals and tourists to give to Burnadeen for a donation. He sadly passed away in 2021, but his grandson, Conner “PokE” Nichols, hopes to carry on the legacy. TNT Stage Lines offered patrons a true-to-life riding experience on an authentic stagecoach. It was a favorite for tourists.

Going Forward

Although Silverland is a newer hotel available for tourists, locals see the value in what it brings to the city. Aside from the other more well-known hotels with many years of service under their belts, Silverland Inn and Suites have only 17 years in the books. This hotel boasts 66 rooms, which aids in longer stays for those wishing to remain in town for events. The hotel is under new ownership as of last year.

 “There are lots of changes coming, but it takes time, with the weather and special events that require tending to guests,” said Carol Maley, manager of Silverland Inn and Suites.

Maley said the hotel plans some internal changes. Opening a restaurant inside the hotel called the Silverland Bistro and Bar and creating an outdoor wedding area for couples are a few of the projects they are preparing for tourists and locals.

“We’re never going to see a McDonald’s, or a grocery store appear up here, but you know, with the hotel, we need tourists up here, and when they stay in town, that’s good for us,” Grant said.

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