Mosey on down to Virginia City for the gun-slinging, train-robbing days of the cowboy age.
The dapper looking gentleman standing at the bar in the Bucket of Blood Saloon gallantly tilts the tip of his bowler hat. Dressed to the hilt in a black waistcoat, matching dinner jacket with satin lapels, knee-length boots and gun belt (complete with a real gun), Jack Davis looks every bit the picture of a 19th century gun-slinging stamp mill owner.
Fun in Virgina City
Successful stamp mill owner by day and train robber by night, Jack Davis is among the regular historic characters who loiter along the timber boardwalks and in the saloons of Virginia City. On weekends, residents of this ex-mining town dress up in period clothing and practice their best Western drawl to bring characters from the Wild West to life. The historical re-enactments make this time-capsule town of around 1000 people, perched on a mine-riddled ridge in the mountains of Nevada, a drawcard for visitors.
Far from being another Disneyland, many of the locals have played the same character for years and wear their historic personalities like a familiar old glove. In real life, Jack Davis is retired rancher Ross Mortensen who – along with his band of merry men, known as the Horse Thief Canyon Desperados – is preparing for this season’s mock gunfights and train robberies.
”I’m really enthusiastic about robbing the V&T Railroad”, says Ross. The staged “robbery” of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad is a highly successful charity donation event to collect funds for the restoration of the railroad. “People love being robbed at gunpoint. They come back several times a day and donate $15 to $20 each time!” he says.
The steam train chugs through Nevada’s harsh desert landscape, a striking countryside contrasted by brilliant blue skies, as travellers listen to a commentary about the discovery of the famous Comstock load. It was jackpot that put the town on the map in 1859, attracting prospectors from around the world. Over 26 years, the Comstock produced around US$700 million worth of gold and silver.
The train stops at Gold Hill, where travellers can disembark and join the festivities at the 19th century Gold Hill Hotel, a rambling historic building with multiple staircases, sloping floors and resident ghosts. The hotel’s bar is bursting of character, with a ceiling full of dollar bills left by travellers from around the world.
Virginia City’s main street, C Street, looks like a set from a Western movie. Shops that sell cowboy hats, boots and clothing stand side-by-side with souvenir stores, museums and saloons. The saloons are a quirky feature of the city and each has its own trademark.
The Delta Saloon is home to the “world famous suicide table”, where according to legend three gamblers committed suicide after losing their fortunes at the table.
A couple of doors down, The Silver Dollar is known for its floor-to-ceiling painting of a woman whose dress is studded with hundreds of real silver dollars, while the town’s Visitors Centre is home to the “world famous Crystal Bar”.
There’s an underground mine tour that starts inside the Ponderosa Saloon. The Bucket of Blood has old rifles displayed on the walls and antique lamps hanging from its ceiling. The saloon is packed shoulder-to-shoulder when David John and the Comstock Cowboys, a country band with a national following, come to town.
The motorised tourist trolley or horse-drawn carriage provide tours of the town’s landmarks, stopping at beautifully restored historic places like St Mary’s in the Mountains Catholic Church (where 18th century vestments presented by Queen Isabella II of Spain were discovered in the basement), the antique-filled Mackay Mansion and Fourth Ward School museum. There’s also the Piper Opera House, with its sloping floors, honky tonk pianos and antique combustion heater.
Mark Twain features prominently with a Mark Twain Museum, a Mark Twain Bookstore and a Mark Twain Saloon and Casino. In his first job as a reporter in 1862, Mark Twain wrote for the local newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise. He described Virginia City as the “liveliest town, for its age and population, that America had ever produced”.
First Millionare’s Club in the USA
Back then, when the population was 25,000, the walkways swarmed with people, the streets were crowded with wagons and money flowed like water. In 1876, Virginia City was the first place in the United States with a millionaire’s club that had over 100 members. At one stage, there were over 120 saloons, 84 breweries, 50 dry-goods stores, 35 boarding houses and eight dance halls.
These days, it’s the wacky events that draw the crowds. St Patrick’s Day Parade and Halloween are always an exciting time to visit. Then there’s the Mad Hatter’s Easter Party, a civil war re-enactment weekend, pet parade weekend and the World Championship Outhouse Race. However, for Bonanza fans, Virginia City is not quite the bonanza they’re expecting.
Virginia City is plagued by tourists from all over the world looking for Ponderosa, the ranch featured in Bonanza. Set in and around Virginia City, Bonanza was one of the first television shows to be broadcast in colour. While some scenes were shot on a lakeside property that operated as the Ponderosa Ranch tourist attraction (from 1967 to 2004) most of the series was actually shot inside studios.
Loads of tourists continue to ask about Ponderosa, Little Joe and Hoss. Telling them there’s no Ponderosa is almost like saying there’s no Easter bunny.
Discover Virgina City
Virginia City is a five-hour drive from San Francisco.
Gold Hill Hotel (tel: +1 775 847 0111).
Virginia City Visitors Centre (Corner of C and Taylor streets, tel: +1 775 847 7500).