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Virginia City: The Big Bonanza (with Legends of the Old West)

When Mark Twain left the Comstock, it realized its biggest boom yet. Hear the tale of the richest place on Earth and the saloon owners who kept Virginia City drinking and entertained.

Listen to the Episode

Show Notes

Mark Twain moves on and an initial silver rush in Virginia City fades. Frustrated financiers look for a way to off-load their investments just before the Comstock yield's its greatest bounty.

Meanwhile, two men - John Piper and William Brown find their own fortunes by serving up drinks, food, and entertainment to miners and money men alike.

Join Drew Hannush of Whiskey Lore and Chris Wimmer of Legends of the Old West and hear the fate of Virginia City, Nevada.

Transcript

Welcome to episode 2 of a two-part series on whiskey and history in Virginia City. In the first half of the episode my friend Chris Wimmer of the Legends of the Old West podcast will tell the tale of the big bonanza that started in Virginia City in the 1870s. In the second half of the episode, I'll take you around the era's saloons and entertainment district and I'll introduce you to two prominent saloon owners and tell you the tale of a major event that helped change the saloon culture in Virginia City forever.

This edition of Whiskey Lore is brought to you by Whiskey Lore's Travel Guide to Experiencing Kentucky Bourbon. If you're dreaming of a trip to Kentucky's Bourbon Country this book will serve as a detailed planning guide. It'll cover the history logistics it has a tasting guide and detailed profiles of 32 distillery tours. Get your copy by searching Amazon for Whiskey Lore Travel Guide or go to whiskey-lore.com/kentuckybook And now on with our show.

This is Whiskey Lore.

Virginia City was in a bit of a decline. For the past six years or so, from 1859 to 1865, the mines performed wonderfully for their owners. They produced tens of millions of dollars of gold and silver. But most of those mines were surface operations. And by about 1865, the production started to fall.

Many prospectors assumed the mines were played out. Or they didn’t have the interest or resources to dig deep tunnels in the earth to pursue the veins any further.

Most of the original miners sold their claims and moved away. But as they migrated out, a ruthless businessman moved in. He didn’t actually move in himself, he used an even more ruthless man as his agent to gain control over virtually everything in the area.

As the two men and their supporters monopolized many of the industries around Virginia City, a rival faction slowly rose in opposition. This new group didn’t form specifically to challenge the first group, but that’s basically what happened.

Four Irishman invested in a struggling mining operation. They fought off attacks by the monopoly for two years until their fortunes literally changed. They found the real mother lode -- the richest vein of silver anyone had ever seen. 

When the full scope of the deposit was explored, the value in dollars was staggering. It not only changed the fortunes of the men who were directly involved, but also the American nation itself.

For a brief period of time, Virginia City, Nevada was the richest place on Earth.

Our tour guide for episode one, Mark Twain, departed Virginia City for California in 1864 or 1865. He had a roving spirit and he wanted to see more of the West. And by 1865, the mines were slowly declining in profitable production, so it looked like the boom in Virginia City might be done.

At about the same time Mark Twain was leaving, William Ralston was arriving -- figuratively. He was a shady lawyer and financier in San Francisco. And he didn’t physically spend much time in Virginia City, but he basically ran the show through his agent, William Sharon.

MUSIC IN

William Ralston got his big start in San Francisco when he used a series of schemes to gobble up land and businesses in the region. Those things gave him wealth and status, which earned him allies in politics and big industries in Northern California.

It was the same blueprint to accumulate power that’s been used since the beginning of time. When the discovery of gold by Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin helped launch the gold rush in Nevada in 1859, William Ralston started acquiring mines and businesses as fast as he could… by any means necessary.

In 1864, Ralson started the Bank of California through a series of complicated alliances and betrayals, and he brought William Sharon on board to be his bank representative in Virginia City. Sharon was a corrupt financier, and now he was deeply bitter about losing his fortune in Nevada. He was the perfect agent for Ralston.

Their favorite trick to acquire a mine was to give it a loan through the Bank of California, and then make the repayment schedule impossible to meet so they could foreclose on the mine and gain ownership with very little hassle.

Through the second half of the 1860s and the early 1870s, they bought -- or acquired -- everything they could: mines, mills, forests that were used for lumber to construct the growing city, the water works that supplied the city with fresh water, and transportation companies.

A railroad didn’t arrive until the early 1870s. So during the first boom, the only way to get things to and from the town at the base of Mount Davidson was by wagon train. It was an immense amount of work haul supplies to the boomtown, and to haul the gold and silver OUT of town.

By 1872, Ralson and Sharon controlled nearly every major mine and company in the Comstock, which included the Consolidated Virginia company. Sharon was thrilled when four Irishmen wanted to buy a controlling interest in the company.

The Consolidated Virginia operation had struggled for all five years of its existence. Sharon called the company “a bankrupt piece of property,” and he thought this new investment would be two wins for the price of one. He would make easy money from these amateurs AND he would push four more competitors out of the race. 

He could not have been more wrong.

John Mackay was the first of the four Irishmen to arrive in Virginia City after the Comstock rush started in 1859. He and his partner had been prospecting in California when they learned of the discovery. They made the trek over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and soon started toiling in the mines of the Comstock.

Eventually, Mackay got lucky. He took out a loan and bought a small mine that looked like it was worthless. But right before his loan came due, he found a rich deposit. The mine paid out more than a million dollars over the next few years, and it made Mackay rich. And now that he was rich, he wanted more.

Around the same time as Mackay was getting rich, James Fair was the superintendent of the famous Ophir mine in the Comstock. He’d had success as a miner in California and he was the true expert in the soon-to-be partnership.

Mackay and Fair teamed up in 1868, and then joined forces with two San Francisco stockbrokers, James Flood and William O’Brien, who’d made small fortunes betting on the Virginia City mines. The four Irishmen bought a controlling interest in the Consolidated Virginia company for 100,000 dollars. The company had already wasted more than a million dollars trying to find gold or silver, and William Sharon was only too happy to take their money.

For more than a year, the four men poured money into the failing operation. They dug tunnels that produced nothing, until the fall of 1873. Mackay and Fair were actually on the ground in Virginia City, and on one lucky day, they noticed a thin vein of silver in one of their tunnels.

They pushed their workers to dig deeper. They traced the vein as it disappeared and then reappeared. When the tunnel was 1,200 feet deep, the men must have been giddy at what they were seeing. When the tunnel was 1,500 feet deep, it’s hard to imagine their reaction.

The vein of silver that had started so thin that it was hard to track through the earth was now 50 feet wide. It was one of, if not THE, richest deposit ever discovered. They had found the heart of the Comstock Lode, the true mother lode.

Mackay and Fair quickly wired Flood and O’Brien in San Francisco. The miners told the money men to buy as much stock in the Consolidated Virginia company as they possibly could. The four Irishmen -- three of whom were born in the old country and one of whom was born in New York to Irish parents -- watched as their lost cause of a mine poured forth more money than they dreamed possible.

John Mackay, James Fair, James Flood and William O’Brien became four of the richest men on the planet. They were known as the Big Four and the Bonanza Kings, and their discovery launched the second boom in Virginia City, the silver rush called the Big Bonanza.

The Consolidated Virginia mines went from deeply in debt to paying out more than a million dollars per month. That’s more than 20 million dollars per month in today’s money. Over the next 10 years, that operation alone paid out 65 million dollars in gold and silver. 

All told, it’s estimated that the collective mines of the Comstock -- which included the Ophir, and George Hearst’s Gould and Curry mine, and many others -- produced between 300 million and 400 million dollars worth of gold and silver. 

That would be well over 10 billion dollars in today’s currency. The money that was put into circulation helped pull the United States out of an economic disaster. A financial crisis began in 1873, the same year as the Big Bonanza. It crippled the American economy for four years, and it caused the downfall and destruction of William Ralston.

Ralston had monopolized much of the business in Virginia City through his Bank of California and its agent, William Sharon. That all ended in 1873. Two years later, in 1875, the financial crisis finally hit the Bank of California.

While the four Irishmen grew wealthy beyond belief, Ralston’s years of shady business practices came back to haunt him.

On August 26, 1875, a run began on the Bank of California in San Francisco. Depositors were scared of losing all their money in the financial crisis and they rushed to the bank to withdraw it all in cash. At 2:35pm, the bank’s cash was gone and it was forced to close its doors. 

The bank’s board of directors called Ralston to the building to account for the catastrophe. It turned out that he owed the bank more than 5 million dollars, and the bank needed it NOW. And of course, he didn’t have it.

The board forced Ralston to resign. The next day, Ralston went for his daily swim in San Francisco Bay, and he never came back. His body was found floating in the bay an hour after he entered. William Sharon, Ralston’s cutthroat agent in the Comstock, had used his money and power to get himself elected to the U.S. Senate by the time Ralston died.

Sharon organized a lavish funeral in San Francisco and then spent two months rehabilitating Ralston’s image and the image of the bank. In late October, the bank reopened with great fanfare, and in the process, Sharon found a way to take ownership of all of Ralston’s major properties. Sharon must have hated watching the Bonanza Kings find fortune in the Comstock, but he came out on top in California.

Meanwhile the four Irishmen -- Fair, Flood, Mackay and O’Brien -- lived lavish lifestyles in San Francisco and used their fabulous wealth to invest in just about every type of business in existence. John Mackay went into the communications industry and his company was the first to lay cables across the Atlantic Ocean. He made yet another fortune, the third of his life.

Three of the four gave generously to numerous causes and charities. When the Great Fire of 1875 leveled Virginia City -- an event you’ll hear much more about in the second half of this episode -- John Mackay put up much of the money to rebuild the Catholic church and many other buildings.

But the most fun story of charitable giving comes from William O’Brien. And since Drew is about to tell you some great stories about the historic saloons in Virginia City, it’s fitting that we end the first half of the episode with a story set in a saloon.

William O’Brien and James Flood were the stockbrokers of the Bonanza Kings and they spent most of their lives in San Francisco. Before O’Brien died in 1879, he liked to spend his afternoons in McGovern’s Saloon on Kearney Street. He played poker endlessly and chatted with friends.

And while he did so, a stack of silver dollars sat next to him on the table. It was common knowledge that if a regular customer fell on hard times and needed some help, he could take a silver dollar to get by. When the dollars began to run low, O’Brien would hand a 20-dollar gold piece to the bartender and tell him to replenish the supply.

And now, here’s Drew to bring the story all the way up present day. You’ll hear about one of the first saloons owned and operated by an African American entrepreneur; the Great Fire of 1875 that might have been caused by a woman named Crazy Kate; the decline after the Big Bonanza finally ended; and a whole lot more.

As big as it was, the Comstock Lode was not the first Big Bonanza in the Old West. Just 11 years earlier, Sutter’s Mill would launch the great California Gold Rush, ushering the area quickly into statehood and bringing hundreds of thousands of people to America’s Pacific Coast, in search of wealth beyond their dreams.

Late to the game were three brothers from Fischerhude, Germany - John, Henry, and Joseph Piper. Arriving in San Francisco in 1850, andit was the eldest brother John who took up the responsibility of providing for the family in this new world. He opened up a fruit and vegetable stand near Portsmouth Square to help them get their feet on the ground. 

It wouldn’t be until the late Summer of 1860 before the lure of riches would take the brothers away from their adopted home in San Francisco to the foot of the Eastern slope of Mount Davidson. 

When they arrived, they found themselves way behind the 10,000 prospectors who had already made their claims in Gold Hill and Virginia City. The Piper’s probably didn’t realize it at the time, but the silver at the Comstock Lode was not something you could easily pan, it would take heavy machinery and innovation and there were some 17,000 claims ahead of them.

But being the industrious entrepreneur he was, John quickly realized if the family was going to succeed in Virginia City, it wouldn’t come from the mines, but instead from supporting the minors. And it makes one wonder if John Piper’s example may have been the inspiration for Mark Twain’s famous quote, “During the gold rush it's a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.” 

John knew the best way to loosen dollars from minors hands was to provide them with a hot meal, a cold beer, and a place for after hours comradery. So Piper laid down his money for a plot of land on B Street in the burgeoning commercial district and built a saloon. 

And the Old Corner Bar ended up turning quite a profit for John and his brother and business partner Henry. Even with more than 40 saloons as established competition by 1861, the brothers' business flourished. And they themselves became quite the men about town. As saloon-keepers with a great reputation, it wouldn’t be long before Henry would find himself earning a place in Nevada’s new territorial government as an assemblyman. And John would serve as an alderman and then the Mayor of Virginia City and finally a state senator. 

And their skill at loosening a portion of those $4 a day union wages from the miners' hands would pad their pockets enough that they ultimately purchased an entire block in the northwest corner of B and Union Streets..

It wouldn’t be long before Virginia City would feature over 100 saloons for its more than 15,000 inhabitants. And while that may still seem like an inordinate amount of drinking establishments, one of the main reasons for so many saloons was due to the Comstock’s notoriously bad water supply. And any good water that came from local wells was being diverted to mining activities. With minors dying by the day from bad drinking water, a mug of beer, or a shot of whiskey or gin became a critical substitute.

With the immense amount of wealth coming out of the ground and the miner’s steady wages, there was a change happening in the Comstock. Minors began bringing their families to Virginia City. And the stretch between Silver City and Virginia City was soon filling up with permanent housing. 

With wives and children around, the men suddenly needed to diversify their leisure activities. And out of this need came the Howard Street Theater. Boasting 1000 seats, it provided a venue for plays, music, and poetry. It was followed by the Melodeon in early 1861, Topliffe's and several others in 1862 and the ultimate in upscale entertainment was realized when Tom Maguire built the city’s first opera house. The opening was such a glorious event that even Mark Twain left his new assignment in San Francisco to attend the premiere. The inaugural show just so happened to feature one of the best actors of the day, Edwin Booth, the brother of the soon-to-be presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Having found success during the rougher years of the Comstock, John Piper was well aware that those days were heading into the past. And the only way to survive in the evolving atmosphere was to make his mark in the entertainment arena. So he and his brother Henry purchased Maguire’s Opera House on D Street in Virginia City in 1867 and helped it become the most famous Victorian-era theater in Nevada. Under the Piper’s guidance, the theatre featured crowd pleasing lectures from the likes of Mark Twain and Susan B. Anthony - as well as dog shows, comedy troupes, and theatrical plays including performances by America’s most famous actor Frank Mayo playing Davy Crockett. Even Italian opera troupes would cross the Atlantic and Pacific and perform at Piper’s Opera House. 

But to the residents of the Comstock, there was nothing that could compete with a performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Tickets to that play would be an unheard of $1.50 per performance, but that never stop the show from selling out. 

And what was unique to the Comstock was that everyone was welcomed. In an era when the Irish were being scowled during America’s anti-immigration movement, Irish productions and poetry sessions were held frequently at the Piper.

John Piper would go on to become one of the most influential theater owners in the West and ran numerous theaters in Reno, Truckee, Carson City and San Francisco, and he also maintained his own traveling troupe. 

His brother Henry would become what is called a "box herder." His job was to handle the drunk women and miners that would whoop it up the Piper’s performances. 

As the money poured in, the brothers would invest in a second saloon they would call the Figaro, which was placed at the corner of C and Union Streets.

Having survived the downturn in the economy during the late 1860s and early 1870s, the brothers were ready for Virginia City’s second act, as the Big Bonanza was about to throw silly amounts of money into C Street saloons and entertainment venues.

Just a block down the hill from the future Figero, William A.G. Brown was using the funds from his first successful Virginia City saloon to move from the outskirts of town to a more centralized location near the corner of D Street and Union. Here, he would create one of the most upscale saloons in the city, naming it the Boston Saloon as a nod to his hometown in Massachusetts. 

During the archeological dig in 1997, the discovery of the Boston Saloon’s remnants under the parking lot for the Bucket of Blood Saloon became the most exciting find of the venture. 

During the heavy excavation some amazing artifacts were found that told a story much different than we’d expect from a western mining town’s saloon, French champagne bottles, a bottle of Gordon’s London Dry Gin, imported European water, a newly patented gas light system, a trendy tin ceiling, stemware, ladies dress beads, oyster shells, and bones that signified the serving of high quality meats. They even found an empty bottle of Tabasco Sauce, a product that was only introduced to the market a couple years before. 

Archeologists knew that all of these artifacts dated back directly to the era of the Big Bonanza - because the Boston shut its doors in 1874 when Mr. Brown decided to retire and burned to the ground a few months later.

But the most extraordinary thing about this particular saloon is what it said about Virginia City. You see, William Brown was not only a successful entrepreneur, he was a black man. Now if you’re a listener of Whiskey Lore, you’re well aware from our episode about James Bond and Frank Sinatra where I talked about how in the 1950s, Las Vegas was segregated, forcing Sammy Davis, Jr. to be placed in the backroom of a restaurant away from white customers. 

But Nevada in these early years was much freer and more diverse. And it held such a strong anti-slavery sentiment that Abraham Lincoln rushed to have them admitted as a state before the 1864 election, to help him win enough electoral votes. In fact, it was so last minute that the 16,500 word state Constitution had to be sent by telegram over two full days of tapping out Morse Code. 

So why was the mix of ethnicities blending so well in Virginia City? Well if you think about it, black, Irish, Europeans, and white Americans all had to work day in and day out, shoulder to shoulder in the mines. Union wages or not, it was a dangerous life and race was likely much less important than knowing the guy next to you had your back.

William Brown’s first business, after arriving from Massachusetts in 1862, was a shoeshine stand. But not long after, he used the money from that venture to open his first saloon, the Boston on B Street, with the hopes of catering to the tastes of other black men. But he too realized families and diversity were the future - so he made his way from the edge of town to the busy commercial district. 

His clientele was predominantly African-American, but all races were welcomed and co-mingled. They did have poker and other games at the Boston, but it was apparently never a rowdy scene. In fact, the only incident ever reported in the Territorial Enterprise was the discharging of a gun in August 1866. 

The story went as follows: “A gunshot pierced the smoky air in the small, boomtown saloon. It came from the poker table, where all but one the players sprang to their feet. One of the players writhed on the floor as blood spilled from his leg. The shot was an accident, caused by a pistol falling from someone's lap and discharging when it hit the floor. Although his leg was sore for a while, the victim survived.” While this single story may have not been the only incident in the Boston, the lack of stories likely showed that this place had a reputation for civility - in fact Mark Twain even made specific remarks to that effect. 

The other item of note is that, even though the place was upscale, the Old West habit of keeping your pistol nearby was still a necessity. It wasn’t unusual for someone to jump from behind a building and force a gun to your head as you were coming home from a night on the town in Virginia City.

William’s decision to get out of the saloon business is a curious one. But perhaps his goal all along was to make enough money to buy his own land and settle down - and that is just what he did. And not a moment too soon.

The devastating news shot all across the Sierra’s and down to the Pacific Coast. In it’s October 28th edition, the Sacramento Daily Union told the grizzly tale of what happened to Virginia City. 

According to the story “a woman of ill repute” named Kate Shea, or Crazy Kate, had apparently left a candle burning in the night, as was in her nature to do. And within minutes of a neighbor spotting a strange glow emanating from her A Street house, the boarding house went up like a tinderbox. Nature spurred on the disastrous scene by supplying bursts of wind, firing down from the peak of Mount Davidson. It didn’t take long for the flames to engulf a large number of wooden structures along the way. Within minutes it had moved down from A Street to B Street. Panicked store owners broke their own windows and implored people to take what they could as there was no way to save their shops. Flames rose hundreds of feet in the air and the air was thick with the sounds of screams and explosions. As each new building caught ablaze, the ground was said to shake from those explosions.

Over two-thirds of the city was leveled. Nearly 200 stores were lost and over 3,000 people became homeless within hours of the inception of this dreadful event. 

The Virginia City community was at a total loss. No one knew how long the cleanup and revival of the city would take. But one thing was for sure, with the continuing boom of profitable ore coming from the mines, no one was contemplating leaving Virginia City.

Some of those explosions heard on that terrible day were likely the countless saloons filled with their own form of lighter fluid. The abandoned Boston went up like a tinderbox as did the Figaro. The Piper Opera House sat in ash as well. Only the brick and stone structures remained erect.

And while Mr. Brown had the good fortune of escaping the disaster through perfect timing, others weren’t so lucky. The Washoe Club was one of them. Just three months earlier, the newly minted club built for the town’s elite had just put the finishing touches on their fancy B Street headquarters. The Washoe’s membership included a Whos Who of the Comstock Lode as well as actor Edwin Booth and General of the Army Ulysses S. Grant. Rebuilding would take time, but the money was raised and soon the Territorial Enterprise was boasting that the new Washoe Club was even grander than the old. Although in full disclosure, the owner of the Enterprise, Mr. R. M. Daggett was actually one of the charter members of the club. The Washoe survived the booms and busts of Virginia City and a visit to the Washoe Millionaire’s Club today will yield not only a chance to catch a glimpse of the opulence of yesteryear, the two secret doors in the back will tell a tale of other extracurriculars that the wives of these money men might not have approved of.

As for the other saloons present before the Great Fire of 1875, the majority of names and reputations have unfortunately disappeared into history. Only a few carried over and flourished again. The Delta Saloon was one of the first to be rebuilt. The Bucket of Blood followed shortly after. 

The Irish, who comprised about one-third of the town’s population opened several of their own saloons after the fire and some of them were excavated during the great dig of 1997, including O’Briens and Costellos. One of the rougher areas was the Barbary Coast, where the shooting gallery was just what you would think it was, a place to fire off your guns and let loose with drink, some gambling, and likely - some ladies of the night.

As for the Pipers, well, they were lucky. The brick structure that housed a safe with their family’s fortune was spared and not long after they rebuilt the opera house and The Old Corner Bar. However, the opera house would burn once more in the 1880s, before it was permanently moved to its current location at B Street and Union next to the still functioning bar. The rebuilt opera house would see new generations of performers, like Buffalo Bill, William Jennings Bryant, John Philip Sousa, and Al Jolson.

As for other people’s money - well some of it was spared. Even though The Bank of California succumbed to flames, the vault survived. Today, that location houses the Ponderosa Saloon, where you can not only view the old vault, but also see a recreation of the mine shafts of yesteryear.

The Comstock Lode slowly dwindled over the remaining years of the 1870s. It remained a viable source of silver but was no longer a highly lucrative one. By the end of the century William Brown and the Piper’s had passed away, the 1920s would see the opera house shuttered and condemned, and Virginia City and it’s small residential community lived among the ghosts of Comstock’s past.

It wasn’t until the fictional Cartwright family of Ben, Little Joe, Hoss, and Adam hit NBC Prime Time with the show Bonanza before a curiosity about Virginia City would renew. Although even that couldn’t save the old Shooting Gallery which was knocked down in 1967.

But today Virginia City is a bustling tourist town, sometimes playing up the Old West stereotypes, but always embracing remnants of her mining exploits, cosmopolitan past, and place in literary history. You no longer have to worry about the quality of the whiskey you might encounter when you visit the Red Dog, Washoe, or Old Corner Bar. And you’re not likely to bump into too many card games, unless you head to the Mark Twain Casino. But Piper’s Opera House is still operating. It had a long road back, spending some of its life as a museum, but today it is a fully-functioning performing arts center. 

Virginia City was a fascinating place for Chris and I to start on our journey of stories about whiskey and the Old West. It may be one of the most misunderstood boomtowns of that era. It definitely was more multi-layered than I ever expected. I hope you enjoyed our presentation and make sure to keep up with both the Legends of the Old West and Whiskey Lore podcasts as we head down more dusty trails, and find the best stories and saloons in the Old West.

I'm Drew Hannush, and this is Whiskey Lore.

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC. Research stories and production by Drew Hannush and Chris Wimmer. If you enjoyed this episode and want to support an independent podcaster well consider joining Whiskey Lore's Patreon for as little as five dollars per month I'll provide early access to shows and bonus content and your donation will help keep the show funded well into the future just go to whiskey-lore.com/patreon.

Thanks again to Chris of Legends of the Old West podcast for sharing his storytelling skills in these two Virginia City episodes thanks to Amy Demuth and also Ron Gallagher for their input and assistance. And catch the next two episodes where I'll be talking with Ashley and Colby Frey of nearby Frey Ranch Distillery and Ron Gallagher will give us more background on the fascinating history of Virginia City. Until next time cheers and slainte mhath.

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