Summary: Musings of Deputy Clem Foster on his city and the Cartwrights.
Word Count: 1366
Some time ago I posted a challenge for authors to make Virginia City a character in a story. I recently uncovered my own effort languishing in a WIP folder. Those dear readers old enough may recognize the rhythm of the opening.
This is the city . . . Virginia City, Nevada.
The town sits on land older than the mountains, deserts, and canyons surrounding it. Land that existed long before man stumbled upon the mineral deposits that lay far beneath the surface and before the discovery of the Comstock Lode made some men wealthy and broke others—not just their bones but their spirit.
I work here. My name is Clem Foster. I carry a badge. The boss is Roy Coffee. Before him, Virginia City had its share of odd sheriffs, including one who had a reputation for empanelling unusual juries like the one made up entirely of midgets, or the one where every man was at least six and a half feet tall and all were cross-eyed!
Night’s a peaceful time in most towns, but not here—and especially not during a bonanza. The mines run three shifts and Virginia City is open 24 hours a day. If they’re not sleepin’ or eatin’, 20,000 people—mostly unmarried men—gotta have a place to go and that’s usually to the saloons in town. Dan DeQuille over at the Territorial Enterprise calls saloons the dining rooms and bedrooms of Virginia City. There are over a hundred of them more than willing to supply food, drink and a cot to sleep it off, all for a price.
Two bits will buy a drink in one of the better establishments like the Delta, Silver Palace, Sawdust Corner, or Dan O’Connell’s on C Street. The less fancy places farther down the slope toward Gold Hill and Silver City only charge one bit for a watered down beer. In Virginia City, nothing sells for less than a dime.
This week I’m on night watch. My patrol area is C Street from the Divide out to the cemetery, up to B Street, and back to the Divide. Several boarding houses line the north end of B, all of which are double or triple rented. Pay for a double and you’ll get a bed for 12 hours and then someone else sleeps in the same bed for the next 12. A man renting a triple only gets 8 hours between the sheets. Room and board comes with two meals–breakfast and dinner. Linens changed weekly. Roy meets the stages to see who’s coming and going. I hit Boarding House row when the mines change shifts to see who’s sleeping where.
Mining is the lifeblood of the town. One way or another, everyone here has some connection to the ore coming out of the ground either as owners, investors, miners, merchants, bankers, or teamsters or as those in the service industries like waiters, shop clerks, blacksmiths, swampers, and yes, soiled doves. Some men, like Ben Cartwright, live on the eastern slope of the Sierras, on ranches that supply beef to the restaurants and lumber to the mines for the square set timbering that makes all this possible.
One thing’s for certain, whether you live on the Comstock or near it, Virginia City makes an indelible impression, for better or worse. Take Ben—in the early days he hated Virginia City. Thought it was a den of iniquity and fought like the devil to keep Joe, his youngest son, at home. Ben doesn’t pull punches about his abhorrence of the town in those days. He told me, “There was nothing here. No trees. No grass. No water. Just bare mountains and zephyr winds. But most of all what bothered me was again seeing the worst in people just like I did at Sutter’s Mill. Scheming, vicious crooks, squandering their own lives in pursuit of an easy buck, and ruining the lives of those they bilked. I didn’t want my boys to have any part in it. ”
Ben’s oldest son Adam keeps his thoughts to himself and seems more bemused by the fact that the city seduced his kid brother the first time he viewed the painted buildings which were at once both gaudy and beautiful. Joe saw the town as a place of boundless optimism and good cheer. Never mind today’s borrasca, tomorrow would bring a bonanza. To him, the magic of Virginia City was the indomitable spirit of its citizens who refused to let bad luck get them down. They laughed off defeat, played audacious practical jokes on one another, and dug deep into their pockets to help the widows and orphans. “Joe’s right,” Adam said, “what other town heals the broken, takes care of the injured and sick, chases the blues away, and rewards anyone who can find new ways to bring ore to the surface.”
Adam was one of those men who helped improve mining, but his heart wasn’t really in it. In addition to possessing a wealth of minerals, Virginia City had acquired status as the best theater town between Chicago and San Francisco. World-class acts performed at Maguire’s (later renamed Piper’s) Opera House. People like Charles Dickens, Thomas Bower, Adah Menken, Lily Langtry, and Edwin Booth. I think Piper’s is one of the reasons Adam stayed in these parts as long as he did. But eventually, even culture couldn’t overcome his disillusionment with the wild west.
To be fair, Virginia City does have a reputation of being violent, but that’s an exaggeration in my opinion. The truth is there’s only one or two murders a week. Of course, there are also the assorted stabbings, muggings, burglaries, stagecoach robberies, bloody accidents, runaway freight wagons, and suicides over fortunes lost and lives ruined. But it’s a damn shame he left the way he did, instead of working to improve life on the Comstock the way his Pa and brothers did. Like Hoss, for example, especially in winter.
Not much snowfall here compared to the Sierras, but brutally cold with the zephyr winds blowing. Hay and grain for the horses is impossible to come by at any price. A lot of folks just turn their drays loose to forage for themselves rather than see them starve. Hoss never comes to town during the winter without a wagon load of feed to scatter in the canyons for those poor critters.
The Cartwrights were minor players in the Utah Territory in the early days. After the discovery of gold and silver, the population exploded, and in 1861 the United States saw fit to separate Nevada from Utah. The new Nevada Territorial Legislature then established nine counties and Virginia City became the Storey County seat. By that time Ben Cartwright had become an influential figure despite the fact that he owned no property here, which was a problem for some of the town’s citizens.
See, the Ponderosa Ranch straddled Washoe and Ormsby Counties, but didn’t reach as far as Storey. That is, until Joe convinced Hoss to go in with him to buy their father 10 acres of worthless dry lake bed at the south end of Washoe Lake. Roy says Ben nearly had apoplexy over that little transaction until Joe pointed out that the parcel sat squarely in the middle of the intersection of Washoe, Ormsby and Storey Counties, thus giving Ben Cartwright legal standing in all three.
A few years later the drought ended and water from the Sierras again flowed freely into the lake restoring the shoreline to what it had once been, creating new fishing grounds and habitats for wildlife. And thus was born a new Joe Cartwright scheme to make money by renting boats to fishermen. Whoever heard of such a thing?
Guess Adam was right. In many ways Joe personifies Virginia City. He’s full of optimism and high spirits, ever ready to turn a borrasca into a bonanza, always looking for new ways to achieve the impossible.
History of the Big Bonanza by Dan DeQuille
History of the Comstock Lode by Grant H. Smith
Virginia City and the Big Bonanza by Ronald M. James and Susan A. James