restricted access 9: The Moral Options: Saints
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9: TUE MORAL OPTIONS Saints By the civic organization, the foundation ofchurches, and the establishment ofschools the union ofthe people was more closely cemented. -Eliot Lord, Comstock Mining and Miners Perhaps at this point the reader will allow me a personal recollection. In 1986, while involved with the restoration of Virginia City's Fourth Ward School, I asked for the assistance of Don Dakins, my father-in-law and a woodworker of immense skill. Streaks of black scarred the solid wood railings of the school's staircases, and I asked Dakins how to remove the marks without damaging the finish on the wood. For some time he examined the blemishes, running his fingers along them, until finally he said in a tone of realization, "I know what that is." "I don't care what it is," I thought to myself. "Just tell me how to remove it." "That's where the kids slid down," he continued, "and braked themselves with the heels of their shoes. Look here, where they approached the knob at the end of the stair rail. The marks get bigger a-nd darker." It was one of those magical moments when the sounds and images of the past drift into the present. The Fourth Ward School, built for a thousand students, completed months after the Great Fire of 1875, graduated more than fifty classes before it was closed for fifty more years. In spite of decades-long abandonment, that day those silent halls rang with the screams of children hurling themselves down the steep balustrade. It was possible to hear their feet as they jumped off and ran away before a nearby teacher could catch them. For just an instant, part of nineteenth- The Fourth Ward School, built for one thousand students, opened in I8n. (Courtesy of the McCarthy Collection, Nevada State Historic Preservation Office) century Virginia City came alive. We resolved that the marks should remam. One could argue that young would-be scholars sliding down a stair rail is an unlikely place to begin a chapter on Comstock saints. While it is true that students have acted better, the mere presence of children-indeed , of thousands of children-is more to the point. The fact is, Virginia City was a family town, where parents, motivated as most have been for all time, attempted to raise their young to be upstanding, successful members of society. The family and its children, even when the young were engaged in mischief, represented the first pillar of the moral side of Virginia City.' There are limits as to how far the role of families should be taken, however. The common assumption holds that women played a role as civilizers of the West, softening the hard life that the rugged men who preceded them carved from the wilderness. It is part of the myth of the Wild West, and like so many, it warrants reassessment. There is no question that many women who settled in places like the Comstock were important in founding communities. Nonetheless, they were not alone in [92 The Roar and the Silence these efforts, nor did women pursue them uniformly or in a one-dimensional manner. Like all people, the women of Virginia City were as diverse as their numbers. While women played critical roles in shaping the Comstock, stereotypes do little to illuminate the real contribution or the variety of options available and pursued.2 Like some men, there were women who drank too much, smoked cigars, and occasionally committed crimes. Some did not even go to church. More than one woman became addicted to opiates. The immediate assumption would have prostitutes best fitting this profile, but other women also slid here and there into the netherworld of sin.3 In the same way, the stereotype of the unkempt, uncivilized miner of the West is often unfair. Some men worked hard to establish schools and churches, to help raise families, and to make the Comstock a stable, respectable community. An 1878 lithograph in Frank Leslie's Illustrated News shows a miners' changing room. Among the furnishings is a large mirror, before which one of the men is combing his hair. Again, this image does not fit the stereotype that would have miners as ruffians with no sense of civilization's virtues. With comb in hand, one miner asserted his concern for grooming and appearance. With or without combs, there can be little question, however, that families went a long way toward supplying the cement to bind...


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