Most people think of Nevada as flashy casinos, lavish floorshows and crooning cabaret singers. But Nevada is more than blinking lights, lounge lizards and the call of Roulette. This gambling state holds in its hand four aces of topnotch historic sites and natural beauty: The Ace of Spades is Virginia City where 19th century miners thrust spades into Mother Earth and hit the Mother Lode, creating a silver and gold rush that swelled the population of Virginia City, bringing along the necessary saloons, gambling halls, brothels and bankers to service the hungry prospectors. Protected by mountains above and below its main street, Virginia City, a National Historic Landmark, has neatly preserved its boomtown heritage: the entire area remains intact, exactly as it was over 100 years ago. Nevada's Ace of Diamonds is the Blue Diamond area where a 7-mile loop road passes through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area amid big rocks and Bighorn sheep. Farther on the road is Spring Mountain Range State Park, a spring-fed ranch once owned by eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes. The state's Ace of Hearts is Cowboy Country in the heart of Nevada that spills into the wild beauty of Ruby Mountains where towns like Lovelock, Jackpot and Battle Mountain are replete with cowboy and pioneer relics and legends. And Nevada's Ace of Clubs is what the state is famous for: the glitzy casinos and nightclubs of Reno and Vegas where you can wrestle a "one-armed bandit," tango with Lady Luck, stay up all night playing your favorite game of chance, and satisfy your pent-up hunger with All-You-Can-Eat buffets of entire rooms filled with exquisite cuisine and decadent desserts. Excess is not only allowed here, it's encouraged. "Have another drink. Try your luck again. Go on up for seconds."
STATE TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 638-2328
Carson City, named after the famous Western scout, Kit Carson, holds all its historic treasures within a few city blocks off Carson Street, the tree lined boulevard that passes the state museum, the railroad museum, the silver-domed capitol, historic hotels, casinos, shops and coffee bars. Beyond this small historic area, the city sprawls out into the typical strip malls and chain stores found anywhere in America (which is why we stayed in Virginia City this week.) Carson Street is known as Route 50, previously the trail for the 19th century pony express riders and dubbed "the loneliest road in America" by Life Magazine.
Tip: The Visitor's Center provides a walking tour of historic homes, including "Talking Houses" where you can set your radio to a certain number on the dial and listen to the house tell you its history. Mark Twain had lived in one of these houses when he first arrived in Nevada with his brother who had been appointed secretary to the territorial governor.
Statehouse (775) 687-6800
Silver made this state, and the statehouse tips its cap in acknowledgement with a cap of silver, rather than the typical gold or marble dome. Although it's not real silver, the dome remains unique among capitol domes. It looks like a bit like a 19th century Kaiser's helmet, and an old bell. It's six sides catch the different rays of the passing sun so that it sparkles all day long. (Originally an elliptic dome on the second floor provided light and ventilation through the cupola observatory, but it created an echo and invited bats to swoop down on unsuspecting tourists. It was removed in 1977.) This is a small but charming capitol, especially the grounds outside. Its shade trees and green lawn present an oasis in this hot, dry landscape. Encircling the capitol grounds is a delicate wrought iron fence erected in 1875 to keep the livestock out. Seems the townswomen at that time complained of stepping in dung when visiting the capitol. Bids went out to contractors and two local women were awarded the job: Hannah Clapp and her lifelong companion, Eliza Babcock. They earned $1000 for the job. Not bad money for two women in 1875.
Check it out . . . Try the old-fashioned crank-phone in the capitol lobby. For just 35 cents you can place a local and talk on one of these old voice boxes -- get a feel for the olden days.
Tip: The Supreme Court on the second floor details some surprising cases . . . like the case of woman who sued a saloon for ruining her marriage; or the when the state was sued for charging a dollar to anyone leaving the state; or when the state supreme court sued the state treasurer. Although you can listen to these cases via audiotape cassettes in the Courtroom the State Archive building next door has a free booklet describing these cases, which you can take home and read at your leisure.
State Museum (775) 687-4810
Nevada' State Museum is in a glorious old building that operated as US Mint from 1870 to 1895. One of only 40 mints in the country, it has a colorful history of based on the efforts of one man, Abe Curry, who used his personal funds to travel to Washington DC, and convinced a money-strapped Congress to help fund a Mint in the capital of the Silver and Gold producing state. A film on the first floor tells the tale of the rise and fall of the mint -- ending with a dash of scandal. The museum exhibits the minting process, the mining process, a recreated ghost town, and the traditional state-museum fare of its natural history, native history and native art and culture.
Tip: Don't miss the self-guided tour of the recreated mine that descends below the museum. It's one of the best ways to understand a miner's life. Life-sized mannequins demonstrate all aspects of mining procedures. The dangers are all too apparent. (Note: make this your last stop at the museum because the mine leads outdoors and you can't get back into the museum without buying another ticket.)
Check it out . . . You can really appreciate the mine tour (described above) if you first check out the display of rocks on the third floor. See silver and gold in their raw state, as well as amethyst, cinnabar and other rocks gleaned from mining. Also on the third floor is, of all things, a button collection. An entire wall of buttons. Sounds a bit mundane, but truly fascinating. See old-fashioned policemen's buttons, wood-carved buttons, buttons made from jewels, and buttons made from some of the most unusual sources. It's a real kick.
Reno was named after the Civil War hero, General Jesse Reno. And the town got it's nickname, "The Biggest Little City in the World" from a 1927 town contest for a catchy slogan to be put on an arch over the town, welcoming the new transcontinental highway. The nickname stuck and so did the arch with its slogan that is forever associated with Reno. If you come here expecting dingy sidewalks filled with down-and-out gamblers donning cowboy hats and drinking booze from brown paper bags, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Reno's well-managed casinos are full of family entertainment and wonderful restaurants with a clientele of neatly dressed elderly couples and young couples with children in tow. South Virginia Street is where all the gaming action takes place, but what makes Reno nicer than Vegas in this respect, is it's restraint. It's not overwhelming like Vegas. It boasts no extravagant, larger-than-life theme parks. Instead, each casino has it's own unique personality and specialty, which makes choosing where you spend your time-- and your nickels -- very easy. Virginia Street is full of excitement, without a trace of dereliction. Its large brick sidewalks are neat and clean, dotted here and there with flowered planters and well-lit by old-fashioned streetlamps. Really, quite lovely. And if you like to eat, choose a buffet from any one of the casinos and feast on prime rib, roast pork, turkey, shrimp, crab or lobster, followed by desserts that would make a French chef jealous -- all for one fixed price of $10.99 per person. In addition to its gambling attractions Reno offers a charming riverside park, a great planetarium, and an enormous auto museum (each decade of automobile style and engineering is represented -- from the late 1800s to today, showcased in period" town" settings). Fun for the whole family.
Picture in your mind a huge mountain with its middle scooped out 1600 feet deep, creating a crater-sized hole and leaving the surrounding crust of earth in a circular rim of tall, jagged peaks, looking like the pronged crown of a giant king. Now fill the crater with cool turquoise water, and frost the surrounding peaks in an icing of pure white snow. That's Lake Tahoe. Oh yes, and don't forget the stately, sweet-smelling pine trees that provide shade overhead, and a cushioned ground of soft pine needles beneath your feet. Mark Twain described it as, ". . . a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that tower aloft a full three thousand feet higher still! . . . The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious. And why shouldn't it be? -- it's the same the angels breathe."
Ponderosa Ranch, Incline Village (775) 831-0691
"This here is Cartwright land!" Anyone whoever saw an episode of the long-running TV show, 'Bonanza" has surely heard that line. I think it appears in just about every script. "You're on Cartwright land, mister." They accuse some hapless stranger. And no wonder someone was always on their land. There was almost no other way to get from Utah to California. According to the fictitious map, the Cartwrights owned Lake Tahoe and all the land around it, (which today encompasses something like four or five towns, and several highways). But at the Ponderosa Ranch theme park you see just the small tract of land used for the show. But this piece of land reveals much. You can see the Cartwright house, including the dining room, living room and Hop Sing's kitchen. You can also see the ranch, the "town" the boys always rode into for supplies and a few fistfights. The "town" includes the bank, the saloon, the general store, the livery stables and the blacksmith (a blacksmith works there every day and sells some humdinger, dinner bells, the kind used in the opening of "The Real McCoy's" TV show with Grandpappy Amos . . . "Come and git it!").
Tip: Don't worry about packing food, there's plenty to eat here. Go in the morning for a wagon ride through the Ponderosa's tall timbers then sit down to a hearty breakfast of sausage and flapjacks. Or come for lunch and have "hossburgers." There's a saloon in the recreated "town" and a couple of old-fashioned ice cream parlors.
Tip: Get great pictures by following the "Picture Trail," a road above the park where the camera crew set up to do the filming for the TV show.
Halfway between Carson City and Reno rises a preponderant Mount Davidson, (also known as Sun Mountain), and smack dab in the middle of this towering mountain lies Virginia City, carved into the mountainside like a tiered garden, each "tier" a street, labeled A at the top through F at the bottom, that descends down the slope like a giant's staircase. In the middle of this alphabetized city is "C" Street, the main thoroughfare that is lined on both sides with wood plank sidewalks and old wild-west building facades that now house old-fashioned candy stores, fabulously old saloons, restaurants and gambling halls. Of course adorable shops abound, too, selling anything from antiques, to handmade soaps, to outlandish western garb. Just about every building on C Street has a plaque telling of its origin, and some, like the Bucket O' Blood saloon, the Washoe Club, and the Silver Dollar Saloon are originals.To walk down C street is to walk into a world we never knew, but have seen enough times in movies and on television, particularly shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza." In fact, Virginia City looks like a movie set, only it's real -- the buildings are real, and the tales behind each structure are true stories of real people, real events. There are probably 50 such buildings to see in Virginia City. Here are just a few:
Territorial Enterprise, C Street
A gift store now sits on the site where Virginia City's newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise once cranked out the daily news during the silver mining heydays. This is the newspaper where Samuel Clemens got his first job as a paid writer. He arrived here in 1863 as a cub reporter writing stories of miners and misers. This is where he first penned the name Mark Twain. Downstairs from the gift shop is the Mark Twain museum. For just one dollar you can see the actual pressroom, Mark Twain's desk, reference books, and even his potty chair.
Julia Bulette Saloon, C Street
"A" and "B" Streets in Virginia City are where the rich people lived, the Silver Kings, bankers and mining engineers. "C" Street was the street of commerce, as it is today, featuring saloons, gambling halls, eateries and stores. "D" Street was where there prostitutes lived. It's said that men could drink in the saloons on "C" Street, then take the backstairs down to "D" Street for a different kind of nightcap. One of the most famous prostitutes of Virginia City was a sophisticated lady named Julia Bulette. A saloon now sits on the site where she practiced her craft. She's the cliche, "prostitute with a heart of gold." Although a woman of the night, she was educated, dressed like an elegant lady, held classy soirees, and donated funds to local causes. One night she was murdered by one of her midnight callers and robbed of some clothes and jewelry. The townspeople reacted violently as though a patron saint had been slain. The culprit was quickly apprehended and summarily hanged before a crowd of thousands. Today the basement of the Julia Bulette saloon has a "Red Light" museum, where for the price of one dollar, you can see some of her possessions, as well as some of the remnants from the red light district of Virginia City. Incidentally, the saloon upstairs has fantastic views of the mountainous landscape, particularly as the sun is going down.
The Castle, B Street
Built in 1868, this is one of the original mansions from the Silver heydays of Virginia City. Rising high above C Street, it has fabulous mountain views and is filled with the original furniture imported at the time from Europe -- not restored, mind you -- but the actual pieces of elaborate furnishings and works of art. The mansion features an Italian hanging staircase, curtains of handmade lace (cost in 1868: $3,000 per panel), pure silver doorknobs and stair rods, Carrara marble fireplaces and 200-year old crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia. A magnificent walk into the lives of the "Rich and Famous" of the 19th century Wild West. There are several other mansions to tour, too many to list here, but all worth visiting.
Saloons, C Street
ALL the saloons in Virginia City are fantastic. The antiques alone in these establishments . . . the beautiful bars and barstools and lustrous wood cabinets and old paintings are a feast for the eyes. For example, the Silver Queen Saloon has a life-sized "painting" of the Silver Queen, a beautiful woman dressed in a gown of real silver dollars, with bracelets and a choker made of real dimes. The Delta Saloon has the old "Suicide Table,"a game of chance that caused many to take their bad luck to the ultimate conclusion. This saloon has wonderful old photos and stories of VC's famous. It also has the oldest globe in the world, hand-carved of beautiful wood. The Bucket O' Blood Saloon is full of antique Tiffany lamps and chandeliers, old photos, paintings, and a beautiful bar with a 100-mile wide panoramic view of the mountains and high desert.The Washoe Saloon is the oldest. It was once a private men's club with famous patrons such as Mark Twain, U.S. Grant, and other biggies. This bar is the favorite of the locals who claim the place is haunted by a woman whose visage appears in the "indoor" transom window. These are just a few; there are probably 20 of 'em lining C Street. Each one has it's on character and claim to fame. Marvelous fun.
Piper Opera House, B Street
It may have been a mining town, but unlike other bachelor-filled mining towns, Virginia City was home to many families, and the Piper Opera House served up art and culture in this western frontier. Famous actors and actresses, like Edwin Booth and Lilly Langtry performed here. Today you can tour the Opera House, and even venture onstage to see the "raked" or tilted floor, designed to create a sense of depth and to offer better audience viewing so that all could see the performance. The stage floor also had springs underneath for dancer's comfort. The original drop curtain still has the 19th century advertisements on it, ads for the local baker, butcher, saloons, and markets. Tourists are allowed backstage, and can even sit in the elaborate box seats and pretend to be a haughty Silver King. The piano is original as is the center chandelier, designed to be raised in the summer to prevent the gas lights from overheating the audience, and lowered in the winter for the opposite effect, although every corner of the room had a "lighthouse" stove for heat. The orchestra seating is removable and sits on is uncarpeted, tongue-and-grove oak floor, allowing the Opera House to be converted into a roller-skating rink, a bowling alley, and a forum for political rallies and bear fights (no . . .they are not the same thing). Mr. Piper wanted full use of his expensive building.
These are just a few listings of what you'll find in Virginia City, but truly, there is much more . . . like the old Silver Terrace Cemetery, other old mansions, old saloons, old underground mines, where you can go down under and feel the claustrophobic sense of a mining life. There's also the old Virginia & Truckee Railroad that hugs the mountainside as it makes its way to the next town over, Gold Hill. There are historic hotels, haunted houses, old schools, and magnificent churches. When you visit Virginia City, plan to stay at least a week, and walk. Walk everywhere. Poke your nose into every establishment on C Street. Climb up to A street and cover every street, every building right down to F Street. And take a stage coach ride to imagine the discomfort our ancestors withstood to travel just a few miles. If you like history, you'll be amazed at what you learn. Virginia City is one of the few places where you can personally experience the past. It's not a recreation. It's not a replica. It's a real, old-west town that has survived time. Oh . . . and did I mention the fantastic natural beauty and fresh, clean air? The sunsets and sunrises are spectacular.
Tip: Come to Virginia City in September for their annual Camel Races. We missed this event, but the photos we've seen depict hilarious fun.
OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK:
Virginia City RV Park, Virginia City (800) 889-1240
This place is Heaven on Earth. The RV park sits on a piece of land that has extraordinary mountain views above and below it. Also, just a stone throw away is the old town graveyard, the Silver Terrace Cemetery. Old tombstones askew from advancing age and the sloping landscape share space with towering crosses and twisted wrought iron fences, presenting an eerie scene of shapes and shadows -- especially at dusk and dawn. And if you do get up at dawn, you might catch some wild mustangs tearing through the cemetery, kicking up dust, for there are plenty of wild horses in this area. Some even venture down C Street, as do wild goats and other western spectacles. The RV Park is located on F Street, just a few blocks from town. Churchbells and music from nearby multi-spired St. Mary's Church bring a magical quality to the air, as does the old-fashioned train whistle from the old Virginia and Truckee train. The RV Park is run by the town sheriff and his wife and they maintain the facilities fastidiously. They even dish up some great meals in the small cafe in the rear of the general store. Truly a fantastic place to stay and very reasonable rates.