Virginia City: Miners, Writers, and Whisky (with Legends of the Old West)

Drew Hannush of Whiskey Lore and Chris Wimmer of Legends of the Old West team up to tell the story of Virginia City, Mark Twain, saloons, and whisky.

Listen to the Episode

Show Notes

Hear about Virginia City through the historical research and storytelling of Chris Wimmer (Legends of the Old West podcast) in the first half of the episode and then I'll divulge the history of saloons and whiskey in the Old West while setting up the story of Piper's Opera House and the Boston Saloon in the follow up episode.

Chris' Half

  • Sam Clemens and his brother
  • How Henry Comstock became the namesake of the strike
  • The view of the boomtown known as Virginia City
  • Mark Twain and the Territorial Enterprise
  • Growth of Virginia City
  • A Saloon every 15 steps
  • A famous bender

Drew's Half

  • Was Twain's account correct?
  • Bonanza and the Old West we know from Hollywood
  • Saloon Archeology
  • Old Virginny Finney
  • The importance of the saloon
  • Twain's opinion of bartenders
  • What saloons were like
  • The dangers of whisky in the Old West
  • Will the real Virginia City stand up?

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.


Sam Clemens jumped at the chance to head west. It was 1861, he was 26 years old, and his older brother Orion had just been appointed secretary for the governor of Nevada Territory. Orion graciously offered to take Sam with him, and Sam was excited for the adventure.

They made the trek from Missouri to Nevada. Orion settled into his job as the governor’s secretary, and Sam settled into his new life as a miner. After a year of unsuccessful prospecting, Sam decided to change direction.

In July 1862, he secured a job at the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City. And at that time, the United States was a tale of two countries. Out there in the northwest corner of Nevada, the people were most directly affected by the mining industry, obviously. The newspaper was filled with stories of the happenings in the area.

But in the east, the Civil War had been raging for more than a year. And it was about to take on new dimensions. Five days before Sam Clemens published his first article, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s men pushed Union General George McCellan’s army to the breaking point.

By July 11, five days AFTER Sam Clemens wrote his first article, President Abraham Lincoln decided he was done with McClellan. He replaced McClellan with General Henry Halleck, who became commander of the Union forces in the east.

That same day, Lincoln made General Ulysses S. Grant the commander of all the forces in the west. The next day, July 12, 1862, Congress authorized the Medal of Honor for bravery in battle.

All of that, and much more, happened less than a week after Sam Clemens began his career as a writer. It wasn’t his first career choice, but it was his last. And like many writers of the age, he didn’t use his real name for his articles. His byline featured a pen name that would soon be known around the world: Mark Twain.

And it all started in Virginia City.

The luck of the Irish was a fickle thing in eastern Nevada in the 1860s and 1870s. For Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, it was fair to middlin’, as my friends in Texas would say. For a quartet of men who came after Peter and Patrick, it was life changing. They’re luck turned them into some of the richest men in the world.

But their story is for the next episode. In this episode, I wanna tell you what happened when Peter and Patrick met a swindler named Henry Comstock.

The first reported deposits of gold in the area now known as Virginia City came in 1850. Mormon travellers made the discovery while they were hurrying to California to capitalize on the first major gold rush in North America.

Over the next couple years, a rough camp sprang up in that area of eastern Nevada. In the fall 1857, another notable deposit was discovered by two brothers who were also on the way to California to find their fortunes.

Sadly, neither brother found fortune. One ended up driving a pick axe into his own foot, which caused an infection that killed him. The other tried to make it to California late in the year and he died from complications of frostbite after suffering extreme exposure in the Sierra Nevada mtns.

And that’s where Henry Comstock comes into the story. By all accounts, he was a drifter and a braggart and something of a conman. He was prospecting in the same area as the two brothers, and when he heard of their deaths, he took their cabin as his own and he went looking for their mining claim.

Comstock was said to have been too lazy to bake bread, so he continuously made flapjacks instead… and he earned the nickname “Pancake” because of it.

In January 1859, shortly after Pancake Comstock settled into the cabin of the two dead brothers, James Finney discovered the first big one. His gold strike was one vein of the larger treasure that was eventually called the Comstock Lode. You’ll hear more about Finney in the second half of the episode with Drew, and how he might be the namesake of Virginia City.

The area around Finney’s strike was soon called Gold Hill. As the weather warmed from winter to spring, miners increased their efforts. In the early days of summer 1859, Peter O’ Riley and Patrick McLaughlin found gold near the head of Six-Mile Canyon. As word of their discovery spread, Henry Comstock had an idea.

His strategy had worked once, so it could work again. A few months ago, he’d claimed land that didn’t belong to him. He did the same thing with Peter and Patrick. 

When Comstock learned of the discovery by the two Irishmen, he informed them that they were working HIS land. He said he’d already claimed it for what he called “grazing purposes,” even though he didn’t own livestock of any kind.

Rather than fight it out violently or legally, the Irishmen agreed to share the gold strike with Comstock. So with no physical effort of his own, Henry Comstock was now part owner of a vein of ore that would prove rich in the future.

But neither Comstock nor Peter or Patrick really capitalized on the strike. Peter and Patrick were surface miners. They didn’t have the resources to dig deep tunnels and haul the ore out of the ground with machinery. The Irishmen soon sold out and moved on.

And so did Henry Comstock. In 1862, he sold his stake, and bounced around Oregon and Montana before his story came to a depressing end. Eight years later, in 1870, he was broke and disillusioned, and he shot himself.

Henry Comstock’s only real contribution -- if you can even call it that -- was that his name was somehow attached to one of the richest deposits of gold and silver in U.S. history. He probably talked about his part-ownership in the claim so much, and gave himself so much credit for its discovery, that people began calling it the Comstock Lode. And the name stuck.

But before Henry Comstock and the Irishmen bowed out of the story, they stayed in the area long enough to see Virginia City rise out of nothing to become the hottest boomtown in the west. And the year Comstock left -- 1862 -- was the year the readers of the Territorial Enterprise newspaper were introduced to a new writer named Samuel Clemens, but they knew him as Mark Twain.

By 1860, just one year after the series of gold strikes that led to the creation of Virginia City, thousands of people now lived in a tent city. They’d flocked from all corners of the continent to get rich in the newest boomtown.

And over the next two years, they KEPT flocking. By 1862, the tents had been replaced by buildings of wood and even brick. There was clearly a sense of permanence. But like many boomtowns, the city had grown so fast and so haphazardly that it’s layout was a chaotic mess.

Here’s what it was like, according to the July 1862 edition of the Daily Alta California newspaper

This burgh is not handsome, nor picturesque, nor even comely, for there are no two streets of the same width, nor two parallel streets, and the lots and blocks are of every conceivable size and shape. It was not laid out until after it was built…...

But for all that the city is a wonder of the nineteenth century, for here are handsome brick and hammered or rough hewn stone buildings, great stocks of goods, first rate hotels, some of the most profitable and extensive mining works in the world, and a real line newspaper - the “Enterprise”.

The same month the Daily Alta introduced its readers to Virginia City, the Enterprise introduced its readers to a new writer: Mark Twain, real name Sam Clemens. Sam had arrived the year before, in 1861, with his older brother Orion. Orion was the secretary for the territorial governor, and Sam tried his hand at prospecting, like virtually everyone else.

But Sam found little success, like most prospectors, and by the summer of 1862, he needed a job. He was 27 years old, and by his own count, his jobs up to that point included: grocery clerk for a day, law school student for a week, blacksmith apprentice, bookseller, drugstore clerk and finally prospector.

During Sam’s first year in the mines around Virginia City, he’d sent letters to the editors of the Enterprise newspaper and he claimed he was constantly surprised the letters were published. And then, as he hit rock bottom as a miner, he received a great surprise: a letter arrived at the post office that offered him the job of City Editor of the newspaper for 25 dollars a week.

It was good news, and perfect timing. But joy quickly gave way to worry. Sam was essentially caught between two fears: the fear of having to beg for money if he didn’t take the job, and the fear of taking a job for which he had no experience.

But as Sam wrote in his book Roughin’ It, under his soon-to-be-famous pen name Mark Twain, “Necessity is the mother of taking chances.” So he took the chance and accepted the job. 

When he met the owner of the paper, he received instructions for his new job: go around town, ask all sorts of questions to all sorts of people, then write articles about the information learned.

The directions seemed simple, but as Sam found out on his first day of work, they were not. He spent five hours wandering around town and asking questions of everyone he met. He was amazed to discover: nobody knew anything.

Through that experience, he learned the first lesson of journalism: how to make something out of nothing. Soon enough, he was reporting on genuinely substantial issues, AND using his trademark dry humor to make something out of relatively nothing.

Here’s a short article, which is basically just a paragraph, in which he informs his readers about the sorrowful passing… of produce:

“We learn from [Hatch & Brothers], who do a heavy business in the way of supplying this market with vegetables, that the rigorous weather accompanying the late storm was so severe on the mountains as to cause a loss of life in several instances. Two sacks of sweet potatoes were frozen to death on the summit, this side of Strawberry. The verdict rendered by the coroner's jury was strictly in accordance with the facts.”

Over the next two to three years, Sam Clemens -- now known as Mark Twain -- discovered that his true calling was the written word. Writing hadn’t been his first calling, but it was his last. And as Virginia City grew, there was plenty to report on. 

Within six months of Twain’s first article, the city was teeming with every type of person imaginable. Somewhere between 15- and 20,000 people had flocked to a town that was home just 200 scattered miners a couple years earlier. By the time Twain’s new career was in full bloom, this was how he described Virginia City...

There were military companies, fire companies, brass bands, banks, hotels, theatres, “hurdy-gurdy houses,” wide-open gambling palaces, political pow-wows, civic processions, street fights, murders, inquests, riots, a whiskey mill every fifteen steps…

...a Board of Aldermen, a Mayor, a City Surveyor, a City Engineer, a Chief of the Fire Department, with First, Second and Third Assistants, a Chief of Police, City Marshal and a large police force, two Boards of Mining Brokers, a dozen breweries, and half a dozen jails and station-houses in full operation…

...and some talk of building a church.

From Twain’s accounts, and those of others, Virginia City experienced the same chaos and lawlessness that was typical in boomtowns like Tombstone, Deadwood and Dodge City. Gunfights seemed to be so common that it sounded like Twain casually shrugged off some of them with barely a mention in the paper.

And of course, most of the riotous behavior was centered on the saloons. Twain probably wasn’t exaggerating when he said there was a whiskey mill every 15 steps. It was said that there were over 100 saloons in Virginia City during its heyday. And even though the population was huge for the time, the town wasn’t that big.

So it probably DID feel like there was a saloon every 15 steps. And it sounds like every miner in there fell into one of two categories: those who were genuinely making money off their mines, and those who swore that any day now, they’d strike it rich. 

Those who were making money did so at an impressive rate. For the first six years of the initial boom, the mines around Virginia City pulled 50 million dollars worth of ore out of the ground. The big winners of those mines spread their money around everywhere, and it trickled down to all walks of life, including newspaper editors.

Twain said he didn’t even bother collecting his salary, which was now up to 40 dollars per week, because he had so many other ways to make money in town.

You’ll hear another fantastic quote from Twain in the second half of this episode, but here’s a quick example of how much money was floating around Virginia City in the early 1860s. This was one of Twain’s personal experiences.

At one point, two friends came to visit him in Virginia City. They were both newspapermen, and he took them out on the town. They spent 237 dollars on drinks and merriment in one night. That’s about 80 dollars per person, and for some people, it could even be considered a lot of money TODAY. 

Now consider that a high-end glass of whiskey cost 50 cents. I don’t know about you, but with those prices, and the strength of the whiskey at that time, I’d be down for the count after spending about three bucks.

But if you were a person of greater fortitude, which Mark Twain surely was, you would have had an epic bar crawl for 237 dollars. And as I’ve said, there were plenty of watering holes to choose from. To hear more about them, and saloon life in Virginia City, here’s my friend Drew Hannush.

Thank you Chris. As you have discovered in researching and writing about the Old West, oft repeated tall tales, myths, and legends - many advanced and enhanced by books and movies, make finding the real truth beyond the lore an incredible challenge.

For the seeker of truth in the world of whiskey’s storied history, I find myself bumping into many of these same obstacles. This idea of combining whiskey and the Old West may be edging on madness, but I’m happy to say we’re both up to the challenge.

I was happy that you chose Mark Twain, a well-known enthusiast of whiskey, as the starting point for a story of Virginia City. In so many ways, his dry wit and satire created a breeding ground for the lore that drives our imaginations, and leading us to our wild impressions of what Virginia City was. His competition at the Evening Bulletin, was not shy about painting him as a pilferer of stories and a man of wild exaggerations. But his readers loved him and so do we.

But it begs the question, what was Virginia City really like?

The stories of the city framed during Twain's time were of a rough and rowdy, over-crowded city where a man gained his stature by either being a saloon proprietor or by killing a man. Yet, after he left the paper in 1864, this rowdy behavior began to slow and the impressions of Virginia City mellowed into stories of a cosmopolitan city. Was this because the town was maturing after experiencing it’s wild boomtown days - or did the departure of the Territorial Enterprise’s most witty and imaginative reporter have something to do with it?

Well, thanks to a devastating fire that took out more than half the town, including the archives of the local newspapers, accounts by more tempered reporters have been lost to the ages. So for well over a century, the history of saloon life in Virginia City was left up to the sometimes factual, and sometimes satirical style of old Sam Clemens, as well as through movies and through the television show Bonanza, which showed Virginia City as a typical western boomtown with its wooden buildings, boardwalks, dusty streets, and its single saloon - in this case, The Bucket of Blood.

But as Chris points out, the record shows, this wasn’t the real Virginia City at all. It wasn’t a single dusty thoroughfare where everyone gathered at a single saloon, it was a bustling city, bursting with thousands of people, and by many accounts, well over 100 saloons.  

So as a fan of whiskey and conveyor of whiskey stories, it leads me to question what real saloon life was like in Virginia City?

Well thankfully in 1997, a group of archaeologists began digging and researching around the locations of some of the city’s more prominent and also notorious saloons, and what they found paints a fascinating picture of both the 19th century drinking house and the very nature of Virginia City.

But before we learn more about the artifacts that they uncovered, the saloons themselves, and the personalities of the saloon-keepers that ran them, it might be good to take a step back and get beyond that Hollywood impression of the Old West saloon and try to paint a more accurate picture of how they developed, their stature in the community, and their impact on the lives of westerners.

To a minor of silver or gold in the American West, when a new vein of precious metals was discovered, there were two things you could be sure of - plenty of tents around, filled with eager prospectors waiting nervously to stake their claim - and at least one very popular tent where an enterprising soon-to-be saloon proprietor would be ladling out spirits to the masses.

And this primitive bartender had no need for fancy decorations or a building, just set up two barrels, run a board across them, get some tin crockery, and instantly you’re in business. Heck, you didn’t even need the tent, just serve it straight from your wagon.

For most minors, whiskey was part escape, part social, and part survival.

But in the case a certain drunk prospector from Virginia, whiskey was likely more important than even life itself.

James Finnimore was the prospector’s name, but most people knew him as Old Virginny or simply as Finney. His original claim on the east side of Sun Mountain (which was later renamed Mount Davidson) was the precursor to the discovery of what would later be called the Comstock Lode. But for Old Virginny he seemed less interested in digging and more interested in drinking. In fact, another prospector easily wrestled Old Virginny’s claim away from him in exchange for an old horse, some blankets, and a bottle of whiskey.

And if you think that infatuation with whiskey was sure to cause Finney even more trouble in the future, you would be right. On June 20th, 1861, an overly inebriated Finney fell from his horse, became tangled in the stirrups and ropes, and was dragged to his death.

Yet even for a drunkard, local legend suggests that he was so revered by the Comstock minors that they decided to name the Comstock’s developing community Virginia City, in his honor. But no whiskey legend would be complete without another competing legend. This one states that Old Virginny was headed home one night with the boys when he fell and smashed his bottle of whiskey. He proclaimed "I baptize this ground Virginia Town.”

However Virginia City got its name, one thing is for certain, just like the other boomtowns of the West, tent cities would eventually need to evolve into some semblance of a town. And as the claims started coming in it was likely the spirits peddling entrepreneur would have acquired enough working capital from his early sales to build one of the first permanent structures in the middle of town. He might even use stone or brick.

And sitting in such a prized location, this first saloon could easily become the main hub of activity for the community. If you were new in town, head to the saloon where all of your neighbors are hanging out. Need a meal? Head to the saloon. Seeking companionship, try the saloon. Need the sheriff? Probably standing at the bar. Need a doctor? Probably chatting with the sheriff over a whiskey while standing at the bar. Heck, even most stagecoaches used a town’s primary saloon as pick up and drop off point.

And for anyone looking for advice, look no further than the savvy saloon-keeper.

As Mark Twain, remarked in his book Roughing It, “for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker, the chief desperado, the chief gambler, and the saloon keeper, occupied the same level in society, and it was the highest. The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large, was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell whisky. I am not sure but that the saloon-keeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society. His opinion had weight. It was his privilege to say how the elections should go. No great movement could succeed without the countenance and direction of the saloon-keepers. It was a high favor when the chief saloon-keeper consented to serve in the legislature or the board of aldermen.”

As the town grew, the saloon would be a highly profitable enterprise, second only to brothels. But in many cases, the brothel and the saloon were actually on different floors of the same building.

Pointing to the matter-of-fact nature of this alliance, in Virginia City, when the old Greyhound Saloon finally shuttered its doors, it put its wares up for sale in the newspaper, advertising everything you need to start your own saloon - tables, bars, fixtures, billiards, chairs, stoves, beds, and bedding.

And contrary to some of the old Hollywood portrayals, saloons weren’t just wooden buildings slapped together with butterfly doors, dusty wood floors, a plain pinetop bar, and dusty old bottles, beer mugs and shot glasses. Saloon owners had money and they had a desire and a need to encourage the patronage of their clientele - especially if they were competing against some new upstart saloon across the street. In fact, many saloons provided free food to their patrons - featuring a menu filled with salted meats and other heavily salty delights that would drive the customer’s thirst and the saloon’s profits.

The front of the buildings would be ornate and inviting, with advertising banners meant to lure in thirsty guests. Inside, you would likely find thick rugs, wallpaper, and gas lights. Some of the more upscale saloons might even feature fancy chandeliers. And rather than the TV’s of today, saloons in the 19th century would feature a tastefully painted life-sized nude just above the bar. And the bar itself would likely be made of beautiful oak, cherry wood, or mahogany. Behind the bartender would hang an expensive glass mirror. Many saloons featured special mirrors shipped all the way from Europe. In fact, near the southwest corner of Lake Tahoe, the oldest bar in Nevada, the Thirst Parlor in Genoa, features a diamond dust speckled mirror that arrived there by steamship and train from Glasgow, Scotland.

And there would be a bevy of entertainments to keep guests mingling and drinking and distracted from their rough day in the mines. A standard accessory of any saloon was the piano player, later to be replaced by the fancy player pianos that gained favor after the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia. Some saloons provided dancing partners for guests and sometimes a bit more. And all manner of games would be played, not just card games, although poker and cribbage were quite popular back in that day, there would also be dominoes and in the case of Virginia City’s Barbary Coast, a shooting gallery.  

Beer would be served for a nickel in glass mugs. And the house whiskey would cost about the same and might be drawn straight from a 53 gallon barrel behind the bar. Or a cask might be used to refill the glass bottles that would be handed to customers on the honor system. If you were lucky enough to encounter Kentucky bourbon, prices could be upwards of 50 cents a glass. But even that elevated price wouldn’t fully relieve the concern that that barrel of bourbon may have been, watered down, diluted with grain neutral spirits or colored with tobacco spit, burnt sugar, or molasses.

But of all of the concerns about a whiskeys quality, those were the minor ones. Whiskey could be both damaging and deadly in the Old West. You really had to trust your saloon-keeper, the local distiller, or the liquid drummers that had brought the whiskey from back East. If a rookie or cheapskate distiller left the initial part of the spirit run in the finished product, customers would be drinking a hefty dose of deadly methanol.

It was this poison that resulted in many cases of what was called jake-leg, jake foot, or a jake walk. Basically the methanol would cause the victim to be partially paralysed resulting in the inability to walk straight. But worse than that, it could also lead to full paralysis, blindness, and eventually death.

If a creative distiller thought his fresh batch of hooch was missing personality, all types of additives could be employed. Tarantula Juice was a popular concoction around the Sierra-Nevada’s region and was a so-called gin made of turpentine and rosin, with a nice dose of poisonous strychnine - which was touted for its pleasurable effects. The only problem was, as the pleasure subsided, the consumer of the spirit would soon feel what seemed like thousands of little spiders eating at their skin. To overcome this, well meaning bartenders would suggest a second shot of Tarantula Juice be held over for the morning, to ease the spider bites. Maybe that was the hair of the spider that bit you, rather than the dog?

There were other notorious whiskeys in the Old West including Blue Ruin and Taos Lightning. And other common, yet unpleasant names included snake water, skull varnish, rotgut, coffin varnish, and tanglefoot.

If you wanted a safer solution, saloons in more affluent towns like Virginia City, might offer you California wines, or French brandy, Cognac, or Champagne. 

In fact, in those recent archaeological digs around former saloons in Virginia City. Piper’s Old Corner Bar and the Boston Saloon both revealed remnants of stemware used for drinking upscale spirits and libations. And those same digs show that the images that I’ve painted of saloons and whiskey in the Old West were just a small portion of the more diverse nature of saloons in Virginia City. What we start to see is that this was not your typical western frontier town.

Unlike some of its smaller rough and tumble counterparts, Virginia City grew to be a cosmopolitan oasis in the High Desert. Its gold and silver hungry residents were drawn to the city from all over the world. There were Irish, Cornish, Europeans, Australians, African-Americans, and Asians. And in a time-period that featured anti-immigrant sentiments, Virginia City bucked the trends by showing little sign of segregation. The Chinese were the only ethnicity that built its own community. There were definitely saloons owned and frequented by certain ethnic groups, but the Irish lived in the same neighborhoods with blacks, Hispanics, Germans, Cornish, and so on. There were good parts of town and rough parts of town, just like today’s modern cities, and that usually dictated the type of food, quality of libations, and games you would find at each saloon.

Drinking establishments would range from dives to well-respected upscale drinking houses. But it wouldn’t be unusual to see the rich and well-to-do co-mingling with the minors whose union won $4 a day wages made them feel they could punch above their weight class.

And as Chris reveals in the next episode, things were only going to get bigger, as the Big Bonanza was realized in the 1870s. And after he tells the story how Virginia City became the Richest Place in the World, I’ll introduce you to two prominent saloon-owners whose establishments were the highlights of the drinking and entertainment districts centered at Union and C streets. And we’ll hear of a major event that saw the end of a large majority of those 100+ saloons but an event that also brought us The Bucket of Blood.

Next time on Legends of the Old West, as Drew said, we’ll dive into the second mining boom in Virginia City. That one made the first one look like barely a blip on the radar. So much money came out of the ground in the 1870s that it helped stabilize the U.S. economy during a panic and it would have been enough to buy a small country.

That’s next week on Legends of the Old West.