Sunday, December 13, 2009

Slippery Gulch

In September 2009, I spent four days in Virginia City, Nevada, researching a new series of books.

Virginia City was a wealthy and rowdy mining town in the 1860's and 1870's. On the famous Comstock Lode, it produced billions of dollars of gold and especially silver ore. Mark Twain was a reporter there from Sept 1862 until May 1864. The town had gunmen, prostitutes, native Americans, miners, con-artists, saloon-keepers as well as bankers, lawyers, mine managers, journalists and speculators. There were even a few respectable women and children. Mark Twain once remarked that his days there 'were full to the brim of the wine of life.'

By the early 20th century, however, Virginia City was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Then in the late 1950's, something happened to revive interest in it. A hugely successful television show called Bonanza made Virginia City popular again. However, the show got several things wrong about Virginia City. Because it was filmed in Los Angeles, Virginia is shown as a flat town. But one of the most distinctive things about Virginia City is that it is built on a steep hillside. This is something you have to experience to believe.

No photo really shows you how radical the steep streets are. Imagine a city built on the slope of a pitched roof. Or a city built on stairs. The stairs are the north-south running streets, named after the letters of the alphabet. 'A' street is high up Mount Davidson, 'B' Street is further down, then the famous 'C' Street, with all the saloons and shops. In the olden days 'D' street was where the 'soiled doves' had their 'cribs' and 'F' Street was Chinatown, etc. But the east west running streets are ramps on almost a 45ยบ angle! Now they are paved, but in the olden days they were just dirt. Imagine trying to walk on a muddy, icy street, or worse yet, trying to drive a carriage!

My great-grandmother grew up near Virginia City and remembers how a man and his wife were riding in a carriage when the horses lost their grip. Down they went, down and down and right over a cliff. The horses and the husband died. The wife was in a coma for several days and when she came out of it she discovered her broken and reset left arm was two inches shorter than her right. Apparently runaway carriages were almost daily occurrences in the 1860's. One of the many nicknames for Virginia City is 'Slippery Gulch'...

Another thing they never tell you about Virginia City is the physical effect it has on you. It is over 6000 feet high and the air is thin and dry. The first time I went I felt slightly sick and dizzy and had heart palpitations. This time I noticed the extreme dryness. My eyes felt scratchy and my nose prickled. You get used to it after a while but it really has an effect on you physically.

From the time of the late 1950's, Virginia City has attracted bikers. They love the scenic roads up to Virginia City and the saloons once they get there. Sometimes the streets throb with the sound of Harley Davidson motorcycles. In one bar you get leather-clad patrons and heavy metal music, in the saloon next door cowboys and Country Western music. Mostly everyone gets on with everyone else.

It was fun that Labor Day Weekend to see equal parts bikers and Civil War re-enactors. And sometimes both combined.

There really is nowhere in the world like Virginia City.

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