If you love a good ghost town with a strong sense of history, don't miss Virginia City, a half hour's drive from Reno. The old mining town had its heyday in the late 1800s, a time when its headcount numbered up to 40,000 people who worked in the mines and mills for processing ore. When the mines stopped producing, the city's population dwindled, and today less than 1,000 people call this dusty outpost home.
Tourism is the main business and visitors don't have to look far to see traces of the past, for the mountains around Virginia City are scattered with the remnants of old mines.
The shaft leading to one mine deep in Mount Davidson begins at the back of the Ponderosa Saloon, a bar on the main strip of C street. Cautiously we step inside a passage to the past, one littered with excruciatingly heavy mining equipment and other relics from the days when the Best & Belcher mine was active. We stop 300 feet inside the bowels of the mountain, and when the electric lights are extinguished for a few dark minutes, we get to experience the pitch blackness of this labyrinth where men once toiled in search of gold.
Among the men who spent time in Virginia City was Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, the famous American novelist who worked as a reporter at the local newspaper from 1862 to 1864. His desk remains in a dusty museum in the basement of a C street souvenir store, along with old typecases, composing tables and a printing press.
It's not hard to picture what life was like when Virginia City was a boom town. Several elaborate Old West saloons on wood-planked streets still serve beer, attracting locals who love to spin a good yarn, and tourists who love to listen. Locals dressed in period attire re-enact typical scenes in the city from 150 years ago, one of which is the Stagecoach ride. We board an original stagecoach for a four-minute, teeth-rattling gallop, a mode of transportation hard on horses and travelers alike, but one that was a common way of getting around back in the day. “This is the only place in America you'll get to go full throttle in a stagecoach,” the driver says with pride.
We spend the night in a more recent piece of history: Marilyn's room at Edith Palmer's Country Inn. In 1959, while filming “The Misfits” in Dayton, Nev., Marilyn Monroe spent time in this inn, scrawling her autograph on a photograph, and with it the hope that she'd always be welcomed back. We sleep in the room that carries her name and her image on the walls, wondering what thoughts coursed through the head of this celebrity who would end her life much too soon.
Before we hit the highway we delve into another Virginia City relic: the old St. Mary Louise Hospital, built in 1876. Now a center for arts, its wards have been converted into overnight accommodation and galleries where retreats are frequently hosted. But the beautiful old building hosts a great deal of paranormal activity too, says Angela Zelasko, the property manager. “This is a ghost-hunter's paradise,” she confides. “Day and night, when I'm alone in the building I'll overhear conversations, gurneys rolling upstairs and dark shadows walking down the hallway.”
Zelasko and her husband Ron, avid paranormal investigators, are unfazed by the spectral visitors and communicate often with them using divining rods among other special devices. Upstairs in the attic, which once served as the psychiatric ward, we're visited by a spirit named David, a past patient at St. Mary's who has a penchant for apples and card games. Recently, during a retreat for paranormal enthusiasts, one attendee played several games of blackjack with David in the attic, losing to him each time. No doubt, playing from “the other side” has its advantages.
More info: VisitVirginiaCityNV.com provides information about Virginia City attractions.