Virginia City Then and Now

This house hasn’t quite been fixed up yet.Virginia City has lived three different lives. First it was an ordinary gold rush boom town, which grew into a metropolis after silver was discovered. These were the good years, and Virginia City once rivaled San Francisco in culture, wealth, and opulence. But once the boom ended and the mines played out, people realized VC was a desert town in the middle of nowhere, and they couldn’t leave town fast enough. This happened to town after town across Nevada, and most of them soon became ghost towns. In Virignia City, though, a few people refused to leave, and the town therefore clung to the smallest shred of life.

The early and mid 20th century was a bad time for Virginia City. Only the smallest percentage of residents had stayed behind. The town fell into neglect and disrepair. Buildings that had been the highlight of the town sat abandoned and rotting. The folks that stayed behind didn’t have the resources to keep everything up, and there was precious little money coming in from the outside. Virginia City grew closer to becoming a ghost town every year.

It wasn’t until the last thirty years that Virginia City was “rediscovered”, so to speak, and the tourist money really started rolling in. This third age of VC was a true rebirth. A suprising amount of buildings still remain from the boom years, even though they had sat empty for decades. Now they are being renovated, new ones are sprouting up, and the town is bursting with new paint. Almost all traces of the mining industry that built VC are gone, though. It is the goal of this project to compare Virginia City’s first two ages, the good and the bad, with how things are now.

Phase One - The Cushman Collection

Charles Cushman was an amateur photographer who traveled the country between the 1940s and the 1960s, taking color photographs and slides everywhere he went and keeping them in a meticulous filing system. After his death, his family donated the entire collection to the University of Indiana archives. There it sat for years, forgotten, until someone came across it and had the brainstorm of digitizing the 14,000 images and putting them on the web. After years of work, the web site went live. And buried deep in that collection are photos from Cushman’s three visits to Virginia City.

Charles Cushman captured VC at its worst. He made day trips there in 1940, 1952, and again in 1962. Each time he visited the town was a little bit worse. The boom was long over, and no one had gotten serious yet about preserving it. He took pictures of the decaying buildings, giving them such descriptive titles as “old house”, “old square brick house”, and “old frame house with funny gutter”. While browsing the collection I came across these photos and wondered what had become of the buildings he photographed. Had they been fixed up? Were they nothing but rotting timbers? Were they even still standing? The curiosity was too much to bear, so in the summer of 2004 I went on a hunt to track down these buildings. And since Virginia City has changed very little in the last hundred years, my mission was a huge success.

So browse through the following pages, and see how VC is basically the same as it was way back when. Only...nicer.

Let’s get started!