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INTRODUCTION My heart gave a skip ofexaltation asfirst I saw [Virginia City} lying sprawled there in its canyons and along the scarred mountainside -the greatest mining camp ever in America.' ... It was not long before I imbibed the [folklore} and history ofthe camp from hospitable old-timers. -Wells Drury, upon arriving at the C071tStock Lode in 1874 Virginia City clings to the steep side ofMount Davidson. It is an improbable town site. Before the 1859 strike that spawned the city, placer miners worked the sand and gravel of Gold Canyon far below, living in tents and shacks. They settled in enclaves where nature provided water, for drinking and washing sand away from gold, and cottonwoods, for shade and a break from the wind. Those early prospectors could not have envisioned the future Virginia City, looming far above. J. Ross Browne, one of the first authors to describe the community, observed that the climate was one of "hurricanes and snow; [its] water, a dilution of arsenic, plumbago, and copperas; [its] wood, none at all except sage-brush." He went on to point out that no one has "title to property ... [but that there is] no property worth having."l One hundred years later, American television exploited the history of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode almost as if that heritage itself were a body of ore. The Bonanza series conjured up an image of a mining boomtown situated on conveniently level ground. In the television Virginia City, unlike the real place, there were no buildings balanced on 4o-percent grades, with extra stories built on the downslope side and foundations scraped into the mountain on the other side. Wagons rolled effortlessly into TV'S Virginia City, once again denying the improbable location and nature of the West's premier mining town. Coincidentally, tourists who come to visit the site ofone of the world's richest ore strikes also struggle with the reality of Virginia City's peculiar disposition. Directed by signs along the main thoroughfare to parking downhill, flatlanders from throughout the world ascend the steep grades to view the silent remnants of the nineteenth-century mining boomtown. With chests heaving from exertion, they come to realize that if the silver deposit had not been discovered, no one would have planned a town on this mountain. The city stands nearly a mile and a half above sea level, on ground so steep that in the nineteenth century runaway wagons became a daily-and unremarkable-occurrence. Still, as any miner knows, it is not possible to establish mines where people would most like to live. The discovery of ore dictates the location of the mine, and nature sometimes deposits that ore inconveniently. Such was the case with Virginia City. Historians should never lose sight of this fundamental fact concerning the town that was often called the Queen of the Comstock Mining District: its location, perched high on a steep, desolate mountain that was inaccessible to the rest of the world, shaped its development and its nature. First of all, then, Virginia City is a product of its place. While the land furnished the bedrock upon which miners and entrepreneurs built the mining district, it also served as fertile soil for the growth of myth, a process that began long before television. The real Comstock may provide an irrefutable basis for good history, but since the earliest days legend has given resident, visitor, and those far away a prism that transmuted the appearance of the mining district, challenging and continually altering perceptions. While one might prefer to disregard the Comstock myth as an annoying distraction, it has become part of the place's reality, warranting its own study and appreciation during the course of any effort to come to terms with the district. The myth of the Comstock adds a second element essential to an understanding of the place. A third critical aspect revolves around Virginia City's international context. Separated from the rest of the world by mountains and desert, hundreds of miles from major metropolitan centers, the town was nevertheless part of a global community. Its citizens arrived from everywhere. As one of its alumni, Samuel Clemens, pointed out, "all the peoples of the earth had representative adventurers in the Silverland."2 And when the bonanza days were over, the Comstock had given back such notables to the global community as Clemens in the guise of Mark Twain, as well xx Introduction as many new aristocrats, among them George Hearst, Adolph...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780874174175
Print ISBN
9780874173208
MARC Record
OCLC
45731915
Pages
384
Launched on MUSE
2014-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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