About 15 miles from Carson City and the famous Carson City Mint, there is another numismatic destination worth a visit: Virginia City, Nevada. Today a tourist town, Virginia City, with a mere 855 residents today, once had over 25,000 residents at its height in the mid-1870s – making it contemporarily a larger city than Dallas and Phoenix at the time. The reason Virginia City was so populated in the Utah Territory was because of the discovery of gold and silver, which would be dubbed the Comstock Lode.
The Comstock Lode would be the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States and, after being made public in 1859, a silver rush followed. Previous precious metal rushes in the United States such as that in Dahlonega, Georgia, followed by the California Gold Rush, saw mass migration and settlement to the area, and the Comstock Lode was no different. From this silver and gold ore came many of the San Francisco- and Carson City-minted coins we have today. It was the bonanza found in Virginia City that would be the case and cause for the founding of the Carson City Mint a short 15 miles away from the mining. Virginia City is where these prospectors lived and worked. Between 1860 and 1880 it was recorded that 6,971,641 tons, 640 pounds of ore was extracted. This is what would give the name “Silver State” to Nevada.
When the mining dried up, most of the population dissipated. However, the historic importance of the city wasn’t lost, and in 1961 Virginia City was declared a National Historic Landmark. Many of the original buildings are still there preserved and active, surviving off the town’s tourism. The historical importance to the United States monetary and numismatic history seems secondary to that of such town notables as Samuel Clemens, who worked as a reporter at the local newspaper for two years – a fact Virginia City promotes and for which the town takes credit for the first use of his pen name, Mark Twain. Mark Twain is also featured on United States 2016 commemorative coinage.
When you go to Virginia City today there are two ways to get there, one a windy uphill and at times blind drive from Reno and a much easier drive from Carson City, both on NV-341. NV-341 is also the main street through Virginia City and where many museums, bars, and shops are located. Aside from the overpriced antique stores filled with modern reproductions, it is a street that, forgiving the tourist aspects, is where the people who mined the silver in your Carson City dollar once lived. A great tribute to this fact is in the Silver Queen Hotel. Between a fudge shop and a wonderful old-time candy store, is a historical landmark the Silver Queen Hotel. This attraction, often more talked about for the haunted aspects, holds a numismatic attraction known as “The Silver Queen.”
Once a grand hotel that at one time had two bars, a café, 80 slot machines, a wedding chapel, and a hotel, the best attraction was the Silver Queen portrait. Designed by Carroll and Jerry Eaton as a tribute to Virginia City’s once-great silver mining industry, the Silver Queen was originally made up of 3,261 silver dollars and 28 gold double eagles. At some point it appears that the coins were replaced, with no gold being found today, but the monument is still an impressive site. Coin collector will find it well worth the few minutes to stop in take a few photos.
Virginia City may not be a mint or museum on the radar of many numismatic lovers or collectors, however it does allow one to step back and connect to an important part of history that is directly related to the history of the United States, its monetary policy, and its coinage. It’s a historical landmark that still survives today, allowing a person to be at the place where so many people made their fortunes or survived working mining. It’s a nice day trip where you can enjoy a drink at the bar, some ice cream, candy, BBQ, and history.