Podcast Episode: Ron Gallagher of Virginia City
Hear about the Bucket of Blood, Ponderosa, Shooting Gallery, and take a virtual walk around Virginia City with a resident and local historian whose family has lived there since the 1860s.
Listen to the Episode
Having not traveled to Virginia City before (I got close, as you will hear), I needed a local to give me the history and the feel of the place. After reaching out to the city, I was put in touch with Ron Gallagher, whose grandfather worked as a janitor at the Fourth Ward School back in the 1860s during the boom.
He saw Virginia City return as a tourist town after the show Bonanza hit the airwaves in 1959. We talked about a whole host of things including:
- Ron's recollections of the summers in Virginia City in the 1940s
- What C Street looked like during the ghost town years
- Family arrived on the Comstock in 1861 during the boomtown years
- Shooting historic bottles
- The westerns vs the real Virginia City
- Bonanza as a blessing and a curse
- What brought people initially to Virginia City?
- What is the Comstock Lode?
- How big was Virginia City?
- Mothers and daughters vs ladies of the night?
- Barbary Coast and the Shooting Gallery
- The diversity of one bit and two bit saloons in Virginia City
- The Great Fire of 1875
- The Sazerac, the Ponderosa, and the bank vault
- The tunnels and old mines
- Exercise happens in Virginia City
- How they solved the water problem in Virginia City
- Champagne and oysters
- The saloons and opera house
- The Territorial Enterprise and Mark Twain
- The oldest continuously running saloon
- The Senator and The Bucket of Blood
- Segregation vs the Virginia City of old
- The most authentic saloons
- Bartenders vs mixologists
- I had a lot of fun talking with Ron and hope you enjoy the interview. It's great supplemental information in addition to Chris and my episodes on Virginia City.
This Whiskey Lore exclusive interview is brought to you by Whiskey Lore's Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon. Learn the history and process of making bourbon, get insider tips on how to plan a trip to bourbon country, learn tasting techniques, then read my detailed 32 Kentucky distillery profiles that'll help you craft the perfect itinerary for when you head to the Bluegrass State just head to whiskey-lore.com/kentuckybook
Welcome to Whiskey Lore, I'm Drew Hannush.
I hope you're enjoying some of this great Old West content that Chris and I are bringing to you. And this was a very interesting situation for me in putting together an episode for Whiskey Lore. Normally I either hear stories first hand at distilleries or I actually go visit the cities or places that I'm talking about - but because of this little thing called a pandemic unfortunately I did not get a chance to go to Virginia City and I felt a little off-kilter in presenting this to you without having too much first-hand knowledge. Now what I did do was I read a book by a woman named Kelly Dixon and her research was really helpful in trying to figure out more about saloon life in Virginia City because she was taking part in that archaeological dig where they were going through the footprints of some of these former saloons and pulling up all of these really cool artifacts that were telling a story. That was a good bit of information but again I didn't feel overly connected. I would say that the closest I came was I went to Genoa Nevada last year and while I was there I got the chance to go to the oldest bar in Nevada and that was also a place where Mark Twain went and Teddy Roosevelt went there and Genoa was the first Capital of the Nevada Territory and its first newspaper was the Territorial Enterprise where Mark Twain ended up working when it moved to Virginia City. So by extension I was sort of close, but I wanted to get a lot closer. So I went ahead and reached out to Virginia City and the response that I got from Amy DeMuth was fantastic. I mean she helped me get in touch with the distillery and she helped me get in touch with a local historian by the name of Ron Gallagher. Now Ron is just the kind of person that I like to bump into when I'm doing this kind of research. His family has been in Virginia City since the early days of the boom town in 1861. And Ron was an absolute joy to interview. We did the interview by phone we talk a little bit about the saloons in here but we also talk about Virginia City, the Bonanza effect on the town, and also the Big Bonanza effect on the town. Lots of interesting stories in here. His recollections are just the kind of thing that I like to have here on Whiskey Lore, you know, capturing those stories while we can.
So I hope you enjoy this interview. And I started off by asking Ron about his earliest recollections of Virginia City.
I was born in 1941. I'm coming toward that magic age of 80. So my earliest recollections are probably in the late 40s before BB and Clay got there. Before it it became what it is today as a tour. Long before Bonanza I might add. So I remember it as a town that had tourists and by the way there were tourists coming to Virginia City in the 1870s during the boom period when the railroad was completed to Reno and then to Virginia City. We had we had tourists coming to see the town because it was so unique so tourism isn't brand new to the Comstock. But my earliest recollections were somewhere around Memorial Day we started to get cars coming in my folks ran a grocery store so it was right on the main street so I watched the cars come in. And then June July August got to Labor Day the town shut down and it was just a little town of about 700 people. And school had in high school there were 30 kids, grammar school 70 or 80. A lot of us went to school together for 12 years because it was a close-knit community of people that had hung around and been there for a long time so, as I say my earliest recollections would be riding the horse with my dad somewhere in 48 49 50 and learning to drive and whatever when I was about 10 or 11 back in the good old days so.
So did it look like a ghost town at that what did C Street look like back then.
Well you know it's funny because he the the liveliest ghost town in the west to us it was just our town and there were a lot of buildings that had no businesses in them they were just storefronts. My folks store was almost in the middle of town kind of at the south end so it was just Virginia City it's where we grew up. You went to the Crystal Bar or you went to the Sazerac Bar and and I could go in and play the pinball machine or if I got really bored I could play the nickel slot machine I think the statute of limitations is gone yes but and and and the Delta, the Smokery was there the Bucket of Blood some the ones that she mentioned if you wanted to go somewhere you went to Carson first and then you went to Reno so it was just a small Nevada town at that point in time.
So your family's been there since 1865?
My my mother's side Wilson's as near as I can determine doing some ancestry stuff they got there around 1861 62 my grandfather was born the house of still there in 1865. and his brother was born in 1864 in that same house so that's my mother's side. The Gallaghers were newcomers they didn't get there until about 1871 or 72. so yeah I have a pretty good thread on the Comstock.
So did you have any fun stories that kind of got passed down from generation to generation?
I was privy to stories and to buildings and to oyster shells and bottles we one of our jokes is that we we grew up shooting things one is it was a town where you started with a 22 and you hunted and then we also were a great basketball town so you were either shooting hoops or you were shooting guns but probably when I grew up we could take off didn't think a thing of it go hunting in the morning and come back and go to school with the gun in the car. And one of our jokes I've had this with some of my friends is we probably, growing up in this little town where you just took off and walked around and was very centralized there weren't any outlying houses you had to worry about, we probably shot up a million dollars worth of bottles. Because there were if you saw a bottle you took your 22 to see if you could shoot it and some of those were probably back in those days if we had known it they might have been five ten fifteen thousand dollar bottles so that's how we spend our time.
Well it it really was growing up in the Wild West for you then wasn't it well it was from the standpoint I guess yes in that terminology but in our case it was just the way and by the way Virginia City of course I'm prejudice is is the greatest industrial mining center in the world and truly a unique place but not unlike many small towns where kids just it was a different time a different era and guns were part of the culture and you did it right and other towns in in Nevada you could go out to Austin or you could go to Eureka or Elko or wherever kids were growing up the same way. Not like today but back in those days it was a neat place to grow up.
When you watched Westerns you know we get kind of that romantic Old West you know feel when we watch a Western did you get that same kind of do you get that same kind of feel out of watching Old Westerns or is it kind of like you know I see that every day.
Well actually when I watch Old Westerns in the broad term it's watching a joke to me because Virginia City growing up was not a cowboy town Virginia City was a mining town. Now you had buckaroos for carrows down well you were in Genoa Carson Valley Eagle Valley Virginia City was on the side of a mountain and when we grew up cowboys weren't other than to go to the movie and laugh about Hopalong Cassidy Roy Rogers and all of those we never had a picture that we were in any way a Wild West everybody had a horse and everybody had a gun it was a mining town and that's what my mom and dad and and family would talk about well back in the days when there were there wasn't much mining going on when I grew up it really all stopped in 1942 when the War Powers Act came in and shut down the couple of mines that were operating. Most of the people they lived in Virginia City the stores and the bars were operated by locals and then a huge number worked for the State of Nevada in Carson City or went to Reno to work for construction companies. And so we never when Bonanza what came on in 1958 59 everybody just chuckled okay yeah it had no well we watched Bonanza and enjoyed the show don't misunderstand me but it it had no relevance to Virginia City - riding across from Lake Tahoe we just laughed at that
History was was not being accurately portrayed as basically what you know
And really when you look at Virginia City today for those of us that are natives my view is that I view Bonanza as a blessing and a curse because it put Virginia City on the map from a tourism standpoint and that's the reincarnation of Virginia City from the greatest industrial mining center in the world to to a tourist location so from that standpoint people then came in to start businesses they they redid storefronts they've done work that held the buildings up that if another 10 years had gone by they may have fallen down but by the same token the the curse part is that Virginia City with its unique truly unique history is kind of lost in the shuffle.
So let's talk a little bit about what brought people to Virginia City initially. Was it gold was it silver the and and what is the Comstock Lode we hear that that term and some people are probably like what what does that mean.
Well what brought people to Virginia City was the lure of gold. It was the greatest silver mining area in the world but that isn't what brought them up up the canyons they were they were placer mining looking for gold flakes when there was enough water to pan and if you look at where Virginia City sits it's sort of the perfect storm. California started in 1849 and of course all of the people were coming across the country leaving Carolina leaving New York to find riches in California and one of the main trails, the immigrant trail, follows what's called the Carson River comes through Lovelock comes across Interstate 80 to some extent and as people were on that trail they would stop and they were looking for gold and they looked up at what was called Sun Mountain that's where Virginia City is and they would go up and pan for gold. The Mormons by the way if you were in Genoa that of course that was the Mormon community to begin with they had found traces of gold in the 1850s long before 1859. But it was looking for gold that people went up the canyons over the years if they could make three dollars a day which was one ounce of gold that you'd acquire in a week by the way that's how you talk about hard-working three dollars a day they thought they were making good money compared to what you were making back in the East Coast. Finally in 59 there was the two gold strikes in that in that year and that's what brought people there but it was the silver that actually made Virginia City what it was. Silver far out out outline gold in terms of total tonnage and value. The Comstock lLode because of course it was named after Comstock and that's a whole story he's not the one that made the original discovery but his name got attached to it Comstock Lode is really the area of Virginia City and Gold Hill which is probably no more than about five or six miles by two or three miles if you do length and and width. And so when you say well the Comstock load normally that attaches to Virginia City but it also should attach to Gold Hill which is there virtually side by side only down the mountain a bit.
And there were several mines through this area correct
Many many mines and literally thousands of claims
So how many people were in this town because I've heard numbers that have ranged from 15 thousand up to somebody said eighty-five thousand this is getting into a metropolis by
That that's too high but I guess my answer would be and I've had that discussion with Ron James I grew up with and remember that this is passed down and where my folks got it Virginia City and Gold Hill had somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 000 people 25 in Virginia City and 15 in Gold Hill. That is a gross exaggeration in all probability because Ron has done the census 1870 1880 there was a Nevada census in mid-1870s probably the Virginia City in the neighborhood of approaching eighteen twenty thousand and Gold Hill five six seven so maybe twenty five thousand total in in the Big Bonanza time which would have been 1872 73 74 75 but but if you ever get a chance and hopefully you'll come out you. Have a standing invitation to come thank you I have a bar top from the old Virginia Hotel in Virginia City so you'd love to have a drink.
Oh very nice
Sure yeah put your elbows on it and if I have a couple of drinks I'll make up some people that I'm sure leaned on it back in the 1800s it it's just a fascinating place and and and time and we have some pictures where they were taken above Virginia City and it's it's literally wall to wall buildings many of them being apartment houses. So there were a lot of people jammed into really a one mile main street north to south and probably less than that east to west but lots of people. Mining drove it but there were clothing fine dress shops multiple religious Jewish establishments it was a fascinating multicultural city and that sometimes gets lost in the in in the translations.
Well it's interesting because we think of a mining town or we think of these little towns that popped up all across the west as boom towns and how they were mostly just men and they were coming to do their mining and the town was just kind of thrown up to support the miners and then it would collapse after everything was over. But it sounds like Virginia City actually was like a city it was probably a lot more men than women but that there would have been women in the town as well.
Well two things one is that that's your depiction of a lot of the small mining towns in Nevada that's pretty accurate they they were truly boom towns for two three four five years eight nine years maybe and they came and they went. The misconception about Virginia City is that well all the men and all the hookers the ladies of the night etc etc when it first started out. That's not really correct and Ron James points that out and there's also another book I'm giving you reading material. It's called the Bonanza King it's it's by a gentleman by the name of Gregory Crouch and it's a story of John Mackay who was the richest man in the world or second or third if not the richest as as they point his crouch's research points out and Ron James and and many others yes it was mining guys hard-nosed prospectors hard-working guys that that was their job was to find gold but from the earliest 1860 time frame after the winter of 59 the discovery there were a lot of miners in there multiple hundred and up to a couple of thousand but there were also women but they there were families up there from the very beginning because they had come from Grass Valley and Nevada City California and they came across with their husbands and they brought the children with them. So the number of of ladies of the night they were certainly there but if if you read about their history they didn't just run off to the next mining boom because so many of them fizzled as we talked about a few minutes ago and they weren't going to uproot a good business in Grass Valley to come to Virginia City so it wasn't until Virginia City got established and the population continued to grow during the 1860s that you really did get a kind of a more a broader cross-section of families and more ladies of the night to take care of all those single hard-working minors.
Yeah and so this is what was it really interesting about reading Kelly's book is that when you read it it almost gives you the opposite impression I read a book by a historian named Cy Martin it was written in the 1970s about brothels and saloons in the Old West and the way he described them, you didn't have a saloon without having a brothel somewhere nearby, which was kind of the the focus of his book so that's probably why he gave that impression. But after reading Kelly's book I got more of an impression that yes there were some saloons that had this, but there were other ones that were like old Pipers that was a little more upper class or that that catered to a different clientele that may not have been as interested in that kind of activity.
She was right on because the idea that that there was a place to go upstairs after a couple of drinks there were certainly saloons that catered to that. The Barbary Coast is one of an area of a couple of blocks that was the original hardcore bad area in Virginia City probably starting in the late 1860s and 70s and that's where the the one with the had the Shooting Gallery in it and - that building was still there by the way when I was a kid you asked me to our recollections and I was too damn dumb go down and check out the solutions just another abandoned saloon who knows what I would have found when the building was still there if I had picked around and that's where they did one of the digs but - but anyway the perception that that there was a brothel attached to every and there were there were certainly ladies but, they were not all prostitutes that worked in those places, there were also all kinds of small bars that catered to the Irish or catered to the Cornish and and they served food to entice the miners to come in they had cigar bar that was so big, some days they served champagne and oysters. The are you familiar with the term the one bit saloon in the two-bit saloon
I think she mentioned that in her she she did mention that but I forget exactly what the what the connotation was for that.
Well the connotation was if it was a one-bit saloon it was lower price didn't mean that it was a just a dumb but and then the two-bit saloon was one that had a little better label on the whiskey bottle I guess or served a little better food but if you look at the number of saloons and some would say in Gold Hill and Virginia City it probably approached 80 to 100 and I think that's probably correct. But it was also a town there was also a population of 20-something thousand. She also points out and so does Ron James in his research that if you looked at the number of people in a number of saloons and what they probably consumed, it really wasn't a whole heck of a lot different than a lot of other cities around the country. It's been glamorized that you know that it was just a hard drink everybody drank and that's not quite correct so.
Well you had some some people as she pointed out that were teetotalers so they weren't going to be drinking whiskey anyway and that they would have alternate drinks for them to enjoy it in fact she goes into one thing talking about how some of them would drink bitters not realizing that bidders actually have alcohol in them.
Again Virginia City had the whole cross-section of whether you wanted to compare it to Denver or you wanted to compare it to San Francisco. It was a marvelous city with all the elements some very poor people some Native Americans that were just kind of living on the side of the hill and some very wealthy folks that were there so neat neat neat place and and the bars catered to all of those various groups everything from the little neighborhood bar that was mainly Irish to Pipers to the International Hotel of course when it was particularly when it was rebuilt after the fire 75. So I'd love to go back about 1876 77 and wander around.
Yeah well how much of the town burned during the Great Fire because there were as I understand there were several fires that occurred in Virginia City but this one was mostly devastating although it happened in the middle of a boom so rebuilding wasn't wasn't terribly difficult to do I guess.
Well you're absolutely good the Steve Frady has written any number of books on fires in Virginia they call it the fire fiend because the fire of 75 october 75 was the biggest fire and it took out multiple multiple blocks and literally probably hundreds of buildings in one way or another so that was the Great Fire of 75 there were many other fires that took structures hotels etc etc but the fire of 75 was the big one and took the church and in fact part of Virginia City burned and was rebuilt in 75 and that's all still there today but there are buildings that were built in the 1860s south of where that fire started that are really old Virginia City. When you walk up the street the Washoe Club being won in her book the Sazerac or
the 62 Bar etc those go back to the earliest days in fact the Sazerac which is now forget the new one they changed the name that was the Bank of California building.
Oh that's the building has a history that is amazing oh is the Ponderosa
Ponderosa now why couldn't I think of that but it was a Sazerac when I grew up but it was originally the Bank of California building and that's where Sharon made his money etc
And that's a very interesting one because they actually do tours of the mines underneath and there's a bank vault in there still from what I understand
Yeah so you've done your homework yes that's an interesting story it's actually my cousin's husband that put that tunnel in and it's absolutely authentic but of course there was not a tunnel there to begin with. That was put in in the late 1960s or 70s and it's a great 150 200 250 foot walk everything is authentic. Couldn't do that today by the ocean whatever but it was a little easier back there when and he was son of a son of a miner a greg. And so he put it in and there are only two tunnels to go through that one which is an absolute reincarnation of a real tunnel and then there's one that's opened the Golden Curry or no the oh come on Ron it's below the Fourth Ward school and that is that goes back to the earliest days that tunnel was there and there was a huge mill there and it's open at least during the summer.
Okay so in that area the mines are have all basically been closed up and that you don't really get to tour any of the old mines that were there.
No one of the the great sadnesses judy my wife and I have traveled a bit and we've gone up for example to Butte Montana and you go into Butte and there's no question it's a mining town now they're not operating now but there are the gallows frames and the mills and they're fenced off and there are several that are open and you just know it's a mining town when you go into Virginia City today other than seeing the dumps we we just don't have any true remnants of the mining heritage they were all burned down or were - the steel and the parts were all taken to various other locations over the years and so no it's it's it's just a shame that you can't go in and say oh my god what a wonderful mining town.
Right well I've been to Butte I actually went last year and it's it's interesting when you drive around the bend and all of a sudden you look and you see that the town is built on what looks like strip mining so it's yeah it's very obvious that Butte is still you know has some activity going on there. And what I find interesting about these mining towns too is that they're built on the side of mountains like or or large hills. Like Jerome Arizona outside Sedona or Bisbee yeah yeah uh-h yeah I mean these these places are fascinating you go down to Bisbee Arizona yeah yeah so so when you're in in when you're in Jerome there's actually the old jail is sliding down the mountain so do you have any quirky stuff like that going on because I mean I'm sure you get lots of exercise in Virginia City but are there any buildings that are are kind of traveling on their own?
Well that's yes I'm sure there are Virginia City is at 6 250 feet above sea level and so if you walk around Virginia City on a regular basis you're either going to be very healthy or die. (Laugh) And of course that's one of the things that the tourists run into is that they come from sea level and they start to walk around and go oh my oh my god my god my god. It's estimated that under Virginia City and including Gold Hill there are six to seven hundred miles of tunnels. Now many of those have been backfilled because there was no ore and they did the square set timbering and all of that good stuff so it's not as if we're on the whole town is on a forest underground. But there are sections where truly we are resting on some open ground and the dirt moves downhill so over the years there have been buildings that have slipped and are not there anymore. I hopefully that will not happen but there's there isn't probably of the old buildings there's not a level floor in Virginia City.
Yeah it's it's interesting to look at pictures of it when you go. I guess the way the streets are the alphabetized streets are not I mean you could walk down C Street and it looks like from the pictures I've seen that you are basically walking fairly level ground through that that whole walk.
Yeah a little slope but nothing that would kill you correct right
But if you decide to go down to d street or up to or I guess it's down to B street and up to do they go up or down?
Actually you you would go from C up to B and to A and then down to D E F G join.
Okay, I hear there's no J street is was there a reason for that
Yah there isn't and I'm sure there was a reason
I actually started counting on my fingers to see if maybe that was the 13th letter but it's the 10th letter so it's
I don't know don't know I don't know
If it has something to do with tens or not I that stuff like that always intrigues me
I we could go back and talk to somebody
Absolutely oh man I run into that problem all the time so one of the most famous residents of Virginia City was Mark Twain and Mark Twain has a quote I haven't found the exact quote but it's something to the extent of if you get a glass of water and a glass of of gin drink the gin and throw out the water because the the water in that area just was not of of good quality. Do you think that's part of the reason why saloons became so prominent in that area?
Well it's certainly one water was such a fascinating subject on the Comstock because there was minimal water from the springs that came down and not only did you need that water - and that's why sometimes in the summer you couldn't even prospect back in the day because the water was that scarce so whiskey was a viable substitute in the beginning for many reasons including water wasn't that that prevalent. But what happened which is a story in and of itself that gets lost is that when the Big Bonanza began and they found the huge claims in the 1871 1871-72 time frame, they had to get water more water because of course that processed the ore and as people were pouring in they they couldn't survive. And that's where if you've heard of Marlette Lake which sits above Lake Tahoe we get our water in from Marlette Lake and that was viewed as the eighth wonder of the world when it was constructed. In the 1860s he said how do we get water to Virginia City well water doesn't run uphill from the Carson River we don't know what we're going to do no we can't get it from they call it the Sierra it's actually the Carson Range. All of a sudden in the early 1870s they asked again we've got to get water and there was a an engineer Schushler who had done work out of on on the West coast down by San Francisco he said we can do this. And from the time he said we can do this it was about 18 months less than two years that they built both pipe and wooden flume from this lake sitting above Lake Tahoe down across what we call Washoe Valley some 20 something miles and brought water into Virginia City. And it was as viewed as the eighth wonder of the world because they used wooden flumes part of the way and they drilled a tunnel up above the mountains and then they had to get the water across this valley to Virginia City. So they used iron pipe made in San Francisco and the engineering part of this what made it such a marvel is that the vertical drop from where they put it in the pipe down to the bottom of the valley and then through centrifugal force whatever, it went up and then into a wooden flume that was twice what had ever been done in the world the vertical drop was close to 2000 feet. And the pounds per square inch on the pipe was twice what had ever been engineered in the world; it was something like 450 pounds per square inch and this was 900. That's a story that doesn't get told about why Virginia City was such the greatest industrial mining center in the world because things like that were done. You wouldn't find the permit offices to build that today right in 18 months well.
And nobody would have wanted to stay if they if there was a water issue all the way through I mean there would have been no reason to continue a town there it would have been a boom town just like the rest that just kind of dissolved into history I would imagine.
It had to have water to survive both from the mining standpoint and processing the ore and from the people standpoint the the interesting thing is that they were pumping two and three million gallons of water from the underground mines each day into the Sutra Tunnel or that's why the sutra tunnel was built but we had so much water that was arsenic and bad that we couldn't do anything with that screwed up the mines and made it very expensive to to to work underground and no water on top of the ground that we could use so it was kind of an interesting dichotomy there. Too much water and not enough water yeah but we handled my ancestors handled both of those problems.
So it's really interesting to me because knowing about how whiskey is made and also knowing that iron is really bad for whiskey it will turn whiskey black, trying to figure out if they were making their own whiskey or if they were bringing whiskey in from other places and we're talking about oyster shells and I'm thinking you know there's no real sea close by how are they getting all of these oysters into Virginia City?
Well that's a whole story in and of itself now there were several breweries in Virginia City. I don't know that they made whiskey on the Comstock. It was it was brought in as far as I know and of course that was from Placerville and over Carson Pass and that prior to the time that the railroad was completed to Virginia City in 1870 and then it became pretty easy. The oyster shells are kind of a fascinating story in and of themselves when I grew up there were oyster shells all over now they're people have built some homes up there and they're not as prevalent but oysters were a symbol of the wealthy and the the miners that were making four dollars a day and thought they were rich by comparison to what they had left on the East coast, they said well if oysters are good for those folks that are running the mines by god they're good for us. So champagne and oysters became kind of a staple and when the Virginia Hotel opened well it burned in 75 and when the bottom floor was opened and I think it was late 76 before the main hotel opened in 77 they called a lot of those the bars chop houses and cigar bars and the first day that they opened they sold 2 000 oysters. And so the question is how do they get them there well from what I've read some came from the West Coast but they transported them from the East Coast and they came across by rail and they were packed in ice and sawdust.
Oh wow okay interesting yeah I mean the more I was reading Kelly's book the more I was like oyster shells oyster shells wait a second this isn't San Francisco?
And and the funny part of it is Drew when I grew up and you walked around as I say all over where there were houses there were and of course they didn't have a central dump back in those days they had the outhouse and they had the stuff they dumped out alongside the house oyster shells were all over.
So let's talk about some of the individual saloons and whether they're still in operation were they around and operating before Bonanza came in and and created this this boom, the Piper's Opera House was that always running and The Old Corner Bar were those still working when you were.
No, no,okay okay the opera house and when I grew up in the 40s and the 50s the the the iconic buildings of the Comstock they were quite literally falling apart and there was a delightful lady who loved the don't ask me I remember some of the stuff but as far as Pipers is concerned no the bar was not open she would sit up at the entrance to Piper's Opera House with a little tin box in the summer and she would charge people 25 cents to walk up into the opera house. Anything to pay for a window that was broken etc etc the the restoration of the opera house the restoration of the Presbyterian church, the respirat restoration of the Fourth Ward, all of those things did not occur until well into begin to occur well into the 50s and the 60s and Ron James being a huge part of that because he was able to get the grants to do the work. He's a story in and of himself it sounds like
Is he from there?
Yeah Reno and an Irish folklorist by trade studied and I think it was dublin just a delightful gentleman he and his wife are back in Iowa now and he continues to do research and and write books he not only writes about the west and Virginia City but but he's written some other marvelous books so fascinating personality if you ever get to talk to him do it so.
The Territorial Enterprise was the newspaper where I guess this was really Mark Twain's first meandering into he had worked around newspapers his whole life from what I understand but this was really his first time being a journalist is this is any of that still in existence?
Well he came in as Samuel Clemens and before he was Mark Twain and came with his brother who was getting a job with before it was Nevada was a state I believe. And his influence on the Comstock of course because he's associated with it is huge. His amount of time on the Comstock was quite minimal but he did write for the Enterprise and and and of course when there wasn't real news he made news up that was fascinating.
And and so is the building still there that he worked in or has that was that lost in the fire.
That was lost in the fire okay it was and it's not where the current Territorial Enterprise museum building is here and again Ron James has researched all of this but the building was a oh a block or two away but yes he was on the Comstock yes he did go to Gold Hill yes there was supposedly a duel that that was going to take place and then of course he wrote about it and became famous after he left. But but we have benefited from Samuel Mark being on the Comstock for a couple of years.
And so the other bars that you have in the area Delta Saloon so I understand is the longest continually operating bar this is something I run into in the whiskey industry with distilleries that will say we're the oldest continuously running and then you start researching the history and you find out that well actually during Prohibition they couldn't produce anything so they really weren't continuous through that time but had the longest life. Was was the Delta around when you were when you were a kid?
Oh the Delta was there the Washoe Club was changed hands a few times okay but and it's still operating the the Delta before it was the Delta was the Smokery and it was operating in the 30s and into the 40s and by the Petrini family. Angelo just sold it a few years ago so it it it's changed because they enlarged it and etc etc but it's still open. The Silver Queen, that became the Silver Queen more in the probably the 50s but it was the Molinelli Hotel so that bar had been there and sits almost next to where the International Hotel was. So it's been around a long long time. So yeah they've changed hands but they've been there are several up there - the Bucket of Blood was the Senator at one time and then the McBride family's had that since about 1931 so there are some old timers and some new timers up there.
Okay so and this it was called the Senator the Bucket of Blood was called Senator first before it became Bucket of Blood
Yeah back in the back in the day and I don't remember the exact history of that but it had been a bar okay before and the same thing with the Delta which was the Smokery and it was there when I was a kid as a Smokery and if if if we walk the street someday they've changed the names but it's been a bar for as long as I can remember long before before that some of them that are on the street right now
And it's the Bucket of Blood where behind that they discovered the remains under the parking lot of the boston saloon which I think is a fascinating story because it shows the different mindset that people had in that day where we think we think of segregation I did a story on even Sammy Davis Jr in Las Vegas and how segregation was going on then - but in this town not only were people not so segregated although you had your particular bars that that attracted a certain clientele but this this was a a black owned bar that was actually a very high class scale upscale bar yeah so did anybody in the town know about this beforehand? And how did they discover it?
I don't know who was doing the research probably Ron James because and he's been an influence on so many people in in including Kelly. I did not know that the saloon was there when I was growing up it was just the back end of the the Bucket of Blood. And in fact one of the stories that I always I don't like to make stuff up it's not on purpose but I'm sure a lot of James told me this. There was a black saloon operating down the street from where the Bucket of Blood is on the main street and the lot is still there. And it actually burned in the fire of 75 but one of Mark Twain's friends that I guess he knew perhaps from from back East so to speak as we say out here, was ran a black saloon in in the in the early early days in the 1860s he actually ran a saloon and was a friend of Mark Twain's. Virginia City was both benevolent and and and nasty all of the same things blacks were accepted somewhere Chinese of course were had their own area in Virginia City some two or three thousand at one time. So it a real cross section a lot of blending and a lot of not blending.
Yeah do you think the because it's fairly interesting that just the Chinese were had their own section in town do you think that's because they just kind of huddled amongst themselves and that just was a comfort thing for them or was it was that the only segregation that was really going on in the town.
It was the largest chunk of of segregation that I know of because they truly did have Chinatown and was segregated now there were certainly Cornish sections of town and Irish sections of town and probably Italian sections of town you know where that throughout history in the United States until you got your feet on the ground you tended to go where people look like you or people talk like you did or whatever. But the Irish and and the Cornish and they had their their own military Siegfield guards and whatever so they they were somewhat segregated but yet they also worked underground together so you better get along with the guy regardless of where he came from if if you're 2000 feet underground it's 135 degrees and dynamite's going off black powder is going off you better trust that dude.
So going back into the world of saloons let's let's finish on this idea of authenticity in portraying what Virginia City was. Which saloon or set of saloons would you say seem to give off an authentic character more than because we we go to a lot of these these towns will sometimes try to get very kitschy about how they're doing things and they'll try to advance the the lore that we've heard all our lives about what the Old West would be like. Which one or which ones do you think are best representative of what a saloon might have been like back then.
Well if you walk in the Washoe Club as you as I walk down the street the Washoe Club of course has been there forever and and was documented and there are pictures in in Kelly's book. The Crystal Bar which was really moved out of the Washoe Club in the 1920s by Bill Marks that's now the visitor center but if you walk in there and you look at the bar itself and you look at the chandeliers that is authentic back from the earliest day. It's not a saloon right now but if you just walk in to see you know the brass rail you could put your foot on and and and what was there and it's fascinating. As you walk down the street the the they were all saloons so a lot of the furnishings are authentic. I don't know that all of the owners know as much about the history of the building as some of us would like them to but but when you would walk in to have a drink you're walking you're walking in and putting your arm on a bar that's been there for a long long time. And that would be true of the Delta that and the Bucket of Blood which was the Senator before it. If you go into Connie Carlson's which is the Silver Queen put your foot up on the bar that's been there in one form or another it was the Brass Rail for a while and it's where I took my first steps when I was a little boy so the story goes oh wow learned to walk behind the bar.
Nice got started early.
And and then when you go down to what is now the red dog which used to be the Comstock that bar is authentic and it's been there for forever and ever so I'd probably not answering your question but the buildings are authentic most of the bars would be now the Bonanza for example that was a service station and my my Italian cousin made it into the Bonanza Club when he realized what Bonanza was doing for Virginia City so it's got a great view and it's got a great bar but it's not an original bar it was a garage but most of the others are are pretty authentic. One one quick story about just the saloons the bars in Virginia City the one bit the two-bit. When I grew up you had bartenders and you had mixologists. And bartender was great and you knew them and all the rest of it but there were one fella's name was Drysdale and that's from he tended bar behind the bar that I have down here in our house that was saved after the fire in 1940. He was a mixologist always had was upscale in terms of the way he treated you always had a white shirt on and a tie and when you walked in when you hit the door it was a Martini with two olives or whatever. And it by the time you sat down your drink was there. There were a few that that took the profession of bartending saloon keeping to a different level and I always found that interesting and that's probably what was more prevalent in for example Pipers and whatever you you you were treated as as an upscale patron by a mixologist.
Well it's interesting too because if you in reading some of Mark Twain's writings about saloons he would talk about the the fact that if you wanted to meet the most important person in town it was usually the bartender not the not the Mayor or not the Sheriff everybody would be gathering there and he said if you really wanted to gain a great reputation you would become a bartender before you would become anything else because they were the most respected people in town. So yeah it's interesting to see how how these things have evolved and you know Virginia City is an interesting case because it was big enough as a town that there were so many saloons. My research on saloons has basically shown me that in these really small boom towns, the saloon was the first thing to be set up whether it was just set up on two logs with a board across them and a and a barrel so that they could you know from from that outside a tent all the way to it being the place where the stagecoach would let passengers off because it was seen as the center of town.
That's where you went before you went anywhere else you got your food there you got your drinks there you might get some companionship there it was all in one spot yeah
And then maybe a little place to sleep that's absolutely correct because the the the barrels of of whiskey were in Virginia City in 1859 after the first discovery that you could always sell liquor
Yes amazing times, well I really appreciate you sharing all this this great information with me and it does it it's definitely some good stuff to help me move the story forward so I appreciate you good.
I'm glad you're doing it taking the time on that thank you drew and hopefully we'll be in touch and as I say when you come west just give us a call will do all right okay cheers have a great day
Ron Gallagher that was a great conversation. I really thank him and and Amy for setting us up and so we could have that conversation I hope you enjoyed all of this backstory on Virginia City and make sure to head to whiskey-lore.com/interviews and find the show notes for this episode including a list of some of the great books that Rob mentioned during the show. Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC. I'm your host Drew Hannush and until next time cheers in slainte mhath.