The Richest Place on Earth: Passing Through Mark Twain’s Virginia City, Nevada

As seen in Wit and Repartee at Woodlawn: A Secular Pilgrimage to Mark Twain’s Gravesite in Elmira, NY., George Cassidy Payne journeyed to Elmira in search of Mark Twain. Today, George goes even further afield, searching for Mark Twain in Nevada.

Photography by George Cassidy Payne

Virginia City was not part of the original plan. I was only supposed to meet up with my friend Adam from Seattle and Chris from Reno, to spend a weekend basking in the impossibly beautiful blue skies of Lake Tahoe. Maybe another night in the Tahoe National Forest or downtown Reno, but not Virginia City. Who wants to go there?

Like usual, when I stop thinking I know everything and just go with the flow, I actually learn something useful. So when my friend Chris invited me to go with him through Virginia City, even though I was ambivalent at first, I said sure. It didn’t hurt his pitch after he told me that Mark Twain lived and worked there, and that the place, in his words, “is right out of the 1800s.” Good enough for me. Let’s do it.

Virginia City feels like a movie set. When I heard that the TV show Bonanza was shot here, I wasn’t surprised. Everything feels painted with thick coats of nostalgia for a time when the only necessities in a town were saloons, bordellos, hardware shops, a barber, church, grocery store, and post office. Maybe not in that order but these were the staples of mining life in 1859.

As with every tourist destination, Virginia City has been commercialized to a large extent. But even in this department, it does things its own way. Some of the saloons have been turned into piazza joints, and the street corners have ATM machines, but who can resist a parking lot that doubles for the stomping grounds of a toothless mountaineer with a donkey and tip jar? Despite the intrusions of modern life, Virginia City still possesses a rustic charm that manages to avoid camp.

I should add that getting there from Tahoe is half the appeal. Moving away from the breathtaking views of North America’s largest alpine lake-and astronomical wealth-there is a lonely air of romance that seeps in when one drives through the abandoned mining towns leading into Virginia City (once proudly hailed by locals as “the richest place on earth.”)

The towns that once teemed with prospectors attempting to get rich from gold and silver, now feel desolate and forgotten; yet that is exactly how they are supposed to look. Ghost towns with lots of people and businesses sort of miss the point. Here, the wild horses can roam wildly, and the mountains can be climbed without trespassing. It feels like it should feel. It feels like the wild west.

In a nutshell, that’s the kind of place Virginia City is. You go there and you remember why it is we travel. We travel to go back to a time when we can move forward, hopefully knowing what it means to exist a little more fully. Virginia City, in its own unique manner, is one of those places. It is also a place that reminds us what it was like when the rules had not been made yet, at least not for miners and sinners.

With that as my advertisement, I say go to Virginia City. Go where your travel companions recommend. Go where your itinerary runs out of ideas. Go someplace wild. You deserve it. You owe it to yourself.

Virginia City sprang up as a boomtown with the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States, with numerous mines opening. At the city’s peak of population in the mid-1870s, it had an estimated 25,000 residents. The mines’ output declined after 1878, and the city itself declined as a result. As of the 2010 Census the population of Virginia City was about 855,[3] and that of Storey County 4,000. (wikipedia)


“In 1859, placer miners and prospectors in the western Great Basin made two amazing strikes of gold and silver ore near Virginia City. The Comstock Lode, as people soon called the ore body, resulted in what would today be billions of dollars in riches.”(https://www.visitrenotahoe.com/plan-your-trip/region/virginia-city-nv/

Wild horses

“Writing under the name of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens begins publishing news stories in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. Born in Missouri in 1835, Clemens followed a circuitous route to becoming an observer and writer of the American West. As a young man he apprenticed as a printer and worked in St. Louis, New York, and Philadelphia. In 1856, he briefly considered a trip to South America where he thought he could make money collecting coca leaves. A year later, he became a riverboat pilot apprentice on the Mississippi River, and worked on the water for the next four years. In 1861, Clemens’ brother Orion was appointed secretary to the territorial governor of Nevada. Clemens jumped at the offer to accompany Orion on his western adventure. He spent his first year in Nevada prospecting for a gold or silver mine but was no more successful than the vast majority of would-be miners. In need of money, he accepted a job as reporter for a Virginia City, Nevada, newspaper called the Territorial Enterprise. His articles covering the bustling frontier-mining town began to appear on this day in 1862. Like many newspapermen of the day, Clemens adopted a pen name, signing his articles with the name Mark Twain, a term from his old river boating days. Clemens’ stint as a Nevada newspaperman revealed an exceptional talent for writing. In 1864, he traveled farther West to cover the booming state of California. Fascinated by the frontier life, Clemens drew on his western experiences to write one of his first published works of fiction, the 1865 short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The success of this classic western tall tale catapulted Clemens out of the West, and he became a world-hopping journalist for a California newspaper. ” https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/mark-twain-begins-reporting-in-virginia-city

Twain’s image and reputation permeate the downtown strip in Virginia City. Everything from mannequins and fine oil paintings, to cigars and shot glasses. Here in Virginia City, Twain is still a celebrity.

For a dollar tip, this old timer let me take a photo of himself and his loyal donkey. He was quick to correct me when I asked what his mule’s name was.

It’s part of the charm. Virginia City looks like it could, at any moment, as if in a Twilight Zone episode, be pulled back out of the early 19th century. Despite the souvenir shops, microbreweries, and coffee houses, it still feels old and undomesticated.

“Interestingly, the NBC television Western, Bonanza, that ran from 1959 to 1973, brought a declining Virginia City back to life. Due to the enormous popularity of the show, visitors from around the world began to seek out and discover this famous Western city, previously known only through the chronicled, weekly adventures of the Cartwright family. Bonanza’s pop culture standing influenced the city’s offerings to also include amenities for travelers, such as restaurants, saloons and shops along the main strip.”https://www.visitrenotahoe.com/plan-your-trip/region/virginia-city-nv/

The Fourth Ward School is an historic 4-story mansard-roofed former public school building located at 537 South “C” Street in Virginia City, Nevada.

I am guessing that the miners didn’t care that much about what the bar looked like. Did it have whiskey and beer? That’s all that mattered after a hot, dusty, insanely dangerous day mining for gold and silver.

“Mining camps are known to pass through an evolution of boom, dramatic growth and excitement and then decline — Virginia City certainly followed that pattern. By the early 1880s, it was becoming clear that the good times were over. It had been years since miners had discovered any new bonanzas, and thousands of people were leaving for better opportunities. By the Great Depression, Virginia City had declined, shrinking into a town of only several hundred people.” https://www.visitrenotahoe.com/plan-your-trip/region/virginia-city-nv/

The Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. At this point we are heading past Carson City towards Reno. My travel companion informed me that this is the “back way into Reno.”

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. John Muir

Of all the mountain ranges I have climbed, I like the Sierra Nevada the best. John Muir