Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Comstock Spirit Survives in Virginia City's Saloons

“The saloonkeeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society.” – “Roughing It” by Mark Twain

“There are in Virginia City about one hundred saloons, all of which have their customers.” – “The Big Bonanza” by Dan De Quille

Barkeeps and saloons have long held a special place in the history of Nevada. It’s been said that the first business to open in every 19th century mining town in the state was a saloon.

Naturally, the Queen of Nevada's mining camps, Virginia City, was no different. If Dan DeQuille’s estimate regarding the number of saloons in Virginia City in the mid-1870s is remotely accurate—and according to some sources, it’s a bit conservative—that would mean there was roughly one saloon for every 200 people.

While that’s certainly not the highest concentration of saloons in the state—at its peak, the mining town of Goldfield was estimated to have one bar for every 132 residents—it is an indication that saloons were common on the Comstock.

These days, there aren’t a hundred saloons in Virginia City, but there are several that have bloodlines that stretch back to the Comstock’s colorful past.

Most of the Comstock’s saloons can be found on C Street, the town’s main artery and business district (also called State Route 341).

While each serves basically the same kinds of refreshments, what makes them unique is their ambiance and, in some cases, quirky gimmicks to make you want to visit. These can range from an allegedly deadly card table to a mural made of thousands of silver dollars.

Among the oldest and most colorful is the Delta Saloon, said to have been in operation since 1876. The Delta, at 18 South C Street, is the largest bar in town and a bit boisterous with its rows of clanking slot machines. But it has a comfortable honky-tonk atmosphere with wood-paneled walls, Victorian lamps and a nice brass bar.

A visit to the Delta should also include a visit to the famed Suicide Table, a 19th century faro table (a card game) that allegedly was responsible for the deaths of several men. Apparently, the deceased were unlucky gamblers who lost heavily while playing at the table and committed suicide.

Across the street from the Delta is the Bucket of Blood Saloon. The Bucket of Blood, which claims to also date back to about 1876, features live music as well as a great view of nearby Sugar Loaf Mountain and the Dayton Valley.

Up the street is the venerable Silver Queen which is notable for its wall-size painting of woman whose dress is composed of 3,261 silver dollars (with a couple of dozen gold coins for a belt). The Queen also offers slot machines, an upstairs dance hall and a wedding chapel (where entertainers Toni Tennelle and the Captain were married).

An entirely different experience can be found at the Ponderosa Saloon, located in the former Bank of California building at 106 South C Street. In addition to the usual libations, the Ponderosa is the only bar to offer a mine tour. A shaft has been dug from the rear of the building that leads to a portion of one of the old Comstock mines.

Another Virginia City establishment with an historic pedigree is the Old Washoe Club. This old time saloon, said to have been built in 1875, traces its origins to a Virginia City drinking society whose members were millionaires. The club, at 112 South C Street, has an unusual spiral staircase, listed as the world's longest circular stairs without a supporting pole.

There are, of course, a dozen or so other Virginia City saloons, each with some type of claim to fame, so feel free to check them out.

For more information about Virginia City’s classic saloons contact the Virginia City Chamber of Commerce,

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