As in all early-day Western communities, prostitution was a ubiquitous and accepted facet of local society. Most of the men who flocked to the first mining discoveries were single and very far from wherever they called home. The ratio of men to women was consistently off-balance, usually remaining so for many years following the original boom, and Virginia City was no exception. A census conducted in August, 1860, showed 2,390 men in Virginia City and only 118 women, or a ratio of more than 20 to 1.
While never officially legalized by ordinance or statute, prostitution was nonetheless regulated to an extent. In Virginia City there were three main districts where this activity was allowed: The main red-light district on North D Street, the rude bordellos of Chinatown which housed only Asian women, and the infamous "Barbary Coast" area of South C Street. The only licensing required, however, was for those establishments which sold beer or liquor.
Known as "hurdies," "fallen women," or the "fair but frail," prostitutes occupied social strata according to their clientele and where they worked. The best class lived in quite fancy brothels, often with parlors containing a piano played by a paid musician which gave rise to the term "parlor house." Such places were used as much for their social as their sexual atmosphere, though the women employed there were of the best caliber and often charged $10 to $20 per customer.
Next down the social ladder were the single prostitutes who lived alone in rented cabins, such as Julia Bulette, the most famous of all Comstock prostitutes. These women were usually quiet, discreet, of "good" character, and often allowed only one customer per night.
Below them, in descending order of social class, were the women employed in the disreputable brothels, those who worked the back rooms of the saloons and dance halls of the "Barbary Coast," and the Asian women sold into slavery who occupied the Chinatown brothels. This last category were the worst off, usually having no choice as to occupation, taking many customers per night at $1 each, and being forced to turn over all of their earnings to their masters.
Alcoholism and drug addiction were quite common among the lower-class prostitutes but the rate of social diseases was relatively low, probably owing to frequent medical checks by most of the women. Only in the half dozen or so saloons comprising the "Barbary Coast" was there any real atmosphere of underworld activity, and here it was as easy to be served a "Mickey Finn" as an honest drink.
By and large, prostitution was carried on in Virginia City quietly and without much notice. There were the occasional acts of violence, and local newspapers bowed to "respectable" pressure once in awhile to urge abolition of the red-light district and the Barbary Coast, but as long as there were men with money around the business flourished. When the population began to dwindle as the mines cut back or shut down, the "fair but frail" moved on to more lively towns until by the 1940's there were only a handful left. A rare few married and settled down, but many of the "girls" working the "line" at Rawhide, Goldfield, and Tonopah had previously occupied cribs on D Street.
In 1947 prostitution was finally outlawed in Virginia City, although two decades later the County Commissioners made history by passing the first county ordinance in the U.S. actually legalizing this business. They did, however, relegate it to the extreme northern portion of the county, many miles from the Comstock Lode.
On the morning of January 20, 1867, the well-liked prostitute known as Julia Bulette was found murdered in the small frame house she rented on D Street. As she was an honorary member of Virginia Engine Co. No.1, the deeply-shocked firemen turned out en masse to bury her, then a determined search was launched for her murderer.
On May 26 a Frenchman, John Millian, was charged with that crime. So much evidence had been collected against him that when his trial finally began on July 2, the outcome was practically a foregone conclusion. The verdict was guilty, and Millian was publicly hanged on April 24, 1868, while some 3,000 persons looked on.
Storey County District Attorney Bishop summarized the situation. "Although this community has, in times past, seen blood run like water, yet in most cases there was some cause brought forward in justification of the deed, some pretext. But on the morning of the 20th of January last, this community, so hardened by previous deeds of blood, was struck dumb with horror by a deed which carried dread to the heart of every one; a deed more fiendish, more horrible than ever before perpetrated on this side of the snowy Sierra. Julia Bulette was found lying dead in her bed, foully murdered, and stiff and cold in her clotted gore. True, she was a woman of easy virtue. Yet hundreds in this city have had cause to bless her name for her many acts of charity. So much worse the crime. That woman probably had more real, warm friends in this community than any other; yet there was found at last a human being so fiendish and base as to crawl to her bedside in the dead hour of the night, and with violent hands, beat and strangle her to death; not for revenge, but in order to plunder her of these very articles of clothing and jewelry we see before us. What inhuman, unparalleled barbarity!"
Whether Millian was actually guilty or not is still being debated today, but the true outcome of the sensational murder, trial, and hanging was the phenomenal growth of Julia Bulette's legend.
In recent years it has been stated that she owned either a fancy gambling hall or an opulent bordello, that she was always attended by servants and rode through town in a coach-and-four, that she was one of the first women on the Comstock and the miners rallied to her defense during the Indian battles of 1860, and that she was not a white women but was a Louisiana Creole. All of these assertions are patently false.
In truth, the woman known as Julia Bulette was a Caucasian born in England in 1832. When very young she emigrated to New Orleans, there marrying a man named Smith. By 1852 she had appeared in California, working as a prostitute, and had adopted the pseudonym of Julia Bulette before moving to Virginia City in April, 1863.
On the Comstock she lived and worked simply as an upper-middle-class prostitute. The early-day volunteer firemen were her champions, calling her "Jule," and paid her a great tribute by naming her an honorary member of Engine Co. No. 1.
Never wealthy, she lived and worked alone in a small frame cottage at No. 4 North D Street. Julia Bulette was Virginia City's most famous harlot. She is shown above in the mid-1860's wearing a fireman's shirt, belt and helmet as badges of her role as honorary member of Engine Co. No.1. She could never have afforded servants or a coach, as when her estate was sold at auction after her death the proceeds amounting to less than $800 were insufficient to pay her outstanding debts. She did not even own the house she lived in. She was buried in the original, and now abandoned, cemetery in Virginia City. That cemetery was located on Flowery Hill which is located approximately 2 miles east of Virginia City.
The extravagance of her legend is an outgrowth of the tourist boom which descended upon Virginia City in the early 1950's. The fence around her grave was moved to make it visible from C Street saloons, deeds of her selfless sacrifices for the miners were invented, an attractive but fictitious painting purported to be her was placed on display, totally erroneous books of her life story were published, a highly fictionalized episode about her was televised on "Bonanza," and even a local saloon was named in her honor.
In all truth, the Territorial Enterprise once described her as being "kind-hearted, liberal, benevolent, and charitable." While the facts of her life fall short of her legend, she must indeed have been a very exceptional woman for the time and place.
From "The Legend of Julia Bulette and the Redlight Ladies of Nevada" by Douglas McDonald.
The cover of a contemporary booklet about the murder of Julia Bulette and the hanging of John Millian, her convicted murderer.
The supposed gravesite of Julia Bulette. It is very unlikely that this site is the location of her burial.
A view of Virginia City as seen from the location of Julia Bulette's gravesite in the now abandoned original Virginia City cemetery located on Flowery Hill.
A panoramic view of the remains of the United Comstock Merger Mines Mill located in American Flat, Nevada.
Gold and silver mining began in American Flat after 1860 when the Comstock discoveries extended beyond the Gold Canyon ravine. By 1864 American City had become a town and its citizens tried to secure the territorial capital from Carson City.
Promoters at American City offered $50,000 to the Nevada territorial government if it would relocate here. The legislators rejected the offer. During 1864-66 this thriving town had two large hotels amid other businesses and had its own township officers. In March 1866 a post office was established. But the community never took root and in late 1867 American City gave way to sagebrush and the coyote. The area remained relatively quiet until 1920, when the United Comstock Mining Company constructed a $1.5 million four-story cyanide mill of reinforced concrete to process low-grade ores at the south end of the Comstock Lode.
A two-mile-long spur was built from the mill to the Virginia & Truckee's main line. Three years later the Comstock Merger Mines Mill was formed to operate a group of Comstock mines in the middle of the lode and in 1923 acquired the United Comstock Mining Company's mill when that company went out of business. The small company camp of Comstock just below the mill included a store, houses, a post office and other buildings until December 1926, when the Merger Mines company terminated operations because of the low price of silver. A San Francisco firm bought all equipment and salvaged removable parts, but large concrete mill remnants are left.
The Federal Bureau of Land Management is scheduled to raze the remains of the United Comstock Merger Mines Mill site in 2014.
Once the largest concrete mining facility of its type in the country and now a crumbling, graffiti-covered hazard, United Comstock Merger Mines Mill should be razed, federal land managers have decided.
Closed to the public since 1997 but still a popular location for nighttime drinking parties, and other activities, the United Comstock Merger Mines Mill at American Flat is simply too dangerous to remain, officials with the federal Bureau of Land Management insist.
"We are very concerned about the liability there," said Mark Struble, a BLM spokesman. "The problem is it's a dangerous site."
Built in 1922 with a huge capital investment to process Comstock gold and silver ore using cyanide vat leaching, the mill only operated six years, closing after federal subsidies for silver mining were cut off, said Guy Rocha, Nevada's former state archivist.
"It was a major mining development that had a rather short life," Rocha said. "What that operation meant was an effort to revive the Comstock. When it went down, there just wasn't much mining left on the Comstock."
And if the Comstock's fate was to evolve into a tourist destination, the abandoned United Comstock Merger Mines Mill became a destination of its own right.
The mill's machinery was dismantled and sold as salvage but over the years, the cavernous interiors of its disintegrating buildings offered an irresistible spot for keg parties, target shooters and graffiti vandals.
Some people practiced rappelling from the mill's largest structure, BLM officials said. In May 1996, a 44-year-old Wisconsin man driving an all-terrain vehicle on concrete steps within one building was killed when the vehicle toppled over on top of him. Concrete floors are holed. Crumbling walls could collapse at any time. Underground mill sumps are full of water.
The death played a big role in the BLM's decision to close the mill to the public in 1997 but the move did little to stop dangerous visits to the site, Struble said."We've fenced the thing a number of times. They've always been torn down," Struble said.
United Comstock Merger Mines Mill as seen circa 1925.
Various businesses, including two hotels, were operated during the mid-1860's. A post office was established in 1866, but the settlement started to decline the following year. The post office was discontinued in February, 1868, with the town's abandonment occurring soon afterward.
Throughout the mid-1850's dozens of placer miners slowly worked their way up Gold Canyon. When winter set in each year they would abandon their diggings for the lower altitudes but in January, 1859, a nice spell of warm weather occurred. To get in a few more days of mining, John Bishop, Old Virginny, Alexander Henderson, and John Yount set out to investigate a little mound of promising ground high in the canyon. The first pan each man worked contained between eight and fifteen cents worth of gold, a very good showing. The men christened the place Gold Hill, each of the discoverers staking a 50 by 400-foot claim. A few days later the locators showed the site to Henry Comstock, James Rogers, Sandy Bowers, Joe Plato, and William Knight. These last five staked one 50 by 400-foot claim, giving each locator 10 feet of the ground.
The return of bad weather kept the men from working the area, but by April the placers were in operation. As soon as the new diggings were shown to be extremely rich, most of the Johntown residents picked up and moved to Gold Hill. Among the first structures was a log boardinghouse and restaurant built by Eilley Orrum, the future Mrs. Sandy Bowers. Then followed a frame grocery store owned by Sol Weihl, numerous tents, cabins, dugouts, and even brush shanties.
In June the Comstock Lode was discovered, prompting the founding of Virginia City and the start of the mad rush to "Washoe." By August, 1860, Gold Hill had grown to include 179 structures and 638 residents, of which 14 were women. It continued to grow, and five months later claimed a population of 1,294. On December 17, 1862, the community was incorporated by an Act of the Territorial Legislature.
Virginia City had been named the county seat when Storey County was created in 1861, giving rise to a constant rivalry between the two neighboring towns. By 1863 feelings had risen to a fever pitch when the Legislature attempted to consolidate all the communities within the county under one municipal government. As Virginia City was so much larger than Gold Hill, it would effectively place control oi these towns under the rule of that city. This was unthinkable to the residents of Gold Hill, who countered by introducing a bill in the 1864 Legislature to create a separate county, of which they would naturally have the county seat. Eventually the furor died away, leaving the major towns with their own governments but still within the one county, although the rivalry between Gold Hill and Virginia City continued in many other ways for decades.
By 1865 Gold Hill was a lively town with three foundries, three fraternal organizations, two newspapers, two banks, four stage offices, a large business section, and three churches, although the latter had few members. Four years later the construction of the V&T RR through town brought an even greater period of prosperity, lasting for nearly a decade.
Millions were taken out of the Gold Hill mines during the 1870's, principally from the Belcher, Confidence, Crown Point, Imperial, Kentuck, and Yellow Jacket. Then with the overall decline of the Comstock Lode in the last years of the decade, the area began to suffer. The Gold Hill News, the town's last and most famous newspaper, ceased operations in 1882, followed by the inexorable closing of mines and businesses.
A brief resurgence occurred early in this century when the United Comstock operation began in nearby American Flat. Some open pit mining was also done in the area, but it was not enough to keep the town alive. The railroad through Gold Hill was abandoned in 1938, the 81-year old post office was closed in 1943, and the community became a virtual ghost town.
The modern tourist boom after 1950, with its resultant increase in population on the Comstock, brought new life to Gold Hill. Some of the remaining homes were beautifully restored, new ones were built, and the town now has two saloons, a hotel, and a few small shops. The Gold Hill News was reactivated for a few years during the 1970's, recapturing much of the flavor of 19th century journalism, but it has since folded. The expansion of the Imperial pit by Houston Oil 6k Minerals nearly brought about the destruction of a number of historic homes and the rerouting of the highway through town. At the last moment a reprieve was granted when the open pit mine shut down, coinciding with a fall in the price of precious metals. While it is still much smaller than Virginia City, Gold Hill nevertheless retains the character of an early-day mining community.
Virginia & Truckee Railroad
It is a paradox in Nevada that wherever rich deposits of gold and silver were found, water was usually in short supply. Such was certainly the case on the Comstock, so many of the giant quartz reduction mills needed to refine the ore were of necessity located along the banks of the Carson River, seven miles or more south of Virginia City. It soon became evident, though, that the cost of freighting huge quantities of ore to the 31 mills in the area was becoming prohibitive, as was the price teamsters charged to haul firewood back up the mountain to the Comstock to feed the boilers needed in working the ever-deepening mines. The Bank of California, which had acquired most of the major mines during the 1860's, quickly realized that this shipping problem was taking increasingly larger bites out of their profits. A permanent solution was needed, so William Sharon and his bank decided to build a railroad.
Several previous attempts to build a railroad out of Virginia City had all failed. Two different lines were promoted as early as 1861, before the first Virginia & Truckee RR was approved by a special act of the Territorial Legislature on December 20, 1862. The legislature decreed only that it must pass through Carson City on its way to the Truckee River, but insufficient capital stopped the project. It was not until the Bank of California undertook to build the road seven years later that the project finally became a reality.
Ground was broken on February 18, 1869, but delays in the arrival of equipment postponed the laying of the first rails until September 28. Once begun, construction proceeded quickly until Virginia City and Carson City were connected by rail on November 12. As the transcontinental railroad passed along the Truckee River only 30 miles to the north, it was decided that the grandest of all mining towns should be connected to it. On August 24, 1872, the line from Carson to the four-year-old community of Reno was completed, directly connecting Virginia City with San Francisco and the east coast.
The trestles, tunnels, and tortuous curves necessary to navigate down the steep mountainsides made the V&T an expensive line to construct. In September, 1873, a published table of costs showed that the amount expended to build the line and purchase equipment equalled $52,107 for every mile of track between Virginia City and Reno. The transportation problem had been solved, though, for by the following year 36 trains per day were being run on the track between Carson and Virginia alone.
Only the best in equipment and rolling stock were purchased for the V&T. The original rails were rolled in Sheffield, England; the first 16 of the lines's 29 locomotives were the best that could be turned out in the famous shops of Booth, Baldwin, American, and Cooke; and its coaches were splendid examples of plush Victorian rail transportation. So many gold and silver ingots were shipped via the V&T, either to the U.S. Mint at Carson City or to banking firms in San Francisco, that a special car had to be constructed just for this cargo. Even its passengers were noteworthy. Besides the frequent excursion and picnic trains to Bowers' Mansion or Steamboat, which delighted Comstock miners and their families, the V&T also carried Baron Rothschild; Presidents Grant, Hayes, Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt; plus dozens of governors, senators, and foreign realty.
So much revenue was generated by the V&T during the bonanza years of the early 1870's that the three Bank of California directors who actually owned the railroad: William Sharon, William Ralston, and Darius O. Mills, were sharing profits of $100,000 per month. However, as the mine production diminished in the latter years of the 19th century, so did the fortunes of the railroad. Mills, who had succeeded or outlived his partners, tried unsuccessfully to sell the line to the Southern Pacific RR in 1900.
By 1905 the line was foundering, so an attempt was made to generate additional income by extending track south from Carson to the agricultural town of Minden. Farm produce largely replaced silver bullion on freight way-bills, but the new business was sufficient to keep the V&T running. However, diminished passenger travel and increasing operating expenses prompted the V&T's purchase of three motor rail-cars, which were intermittently used in lieu of the costly steam engines to haul both passengers and baggage through the early 1940's.
Lack of traffic and high maintenance costs finally caused the abandonment and removal of the tracks between Carson and Virginia City in 1938. The line from Minden to Reno saw increased business during World War II, when gas rationing reduced highway travel, but the reprieve was brief. In 1950, after 80 years of operation, engine number 27 pulled the last train into Reno, and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad ceased to exist.
But legends die hard, especially in Nevada. In 1976 a shortened reconstruction of the line was opened to the public in Virginia City, returning the sound of live-steam locomotives to the Comstock once again.
Since the life of the V&T had extended well into the 20th century, much of its equipment has been preserved. The sight of four of the original locomotives are probably very familiar to most people, as they were used extensively by Hollywood studios in the making of television shows and motion pictures. Besides some of the old cars undergoing restoration at the new V&T car-barn in Virginia City, a state-owned railroad museum in Carson City is skillfully refurbishing their collection of 1870's V&T engines and coaches, while a new railroad museum in Sacramento has magnificently rebuilt three original locomotives.
Today the whistle of a V&T engine signaling for a crossing still echoes down Six-Mile Canyon, while its century-old predecessors have become gleaming museum pieces. They are both reminders of the glory years when this line was truthfully known as "the richest short line railroad in the world."
A GPS tracked route of my hike to visit the mostly forgotten, and isolated, Masonic and Catholic Cemeteries of Gold Hill, Nevada.
A view from the site of the Gold Hill Catholic Cemetery looking North. The Virginia & Truckee railroad tracks are on the left, the Gold Hill Masonic Cemetery is ahead, but it is indistinguishable in this photograph. Virginia City is on the far side of the ridge line straight ahead.
The Masonic and Catholic Cemeteries of Gold Hill, Nevada.
|The Virginia & Truckee Train Station in Gold Hill.||Steam locomotive at the Gold Hill Train Station. Locomotive built November 1907 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.||Catholic Cemetery. Looking North.||Farewell. John M. Kennedy died April 7, 1883. Aged 70 years. Fathers Grave. Gone but not forgotten. Catholic Cemetery.|
|Catholic Cemetery.||Catholic Cemetery.||Anthony Smith died June 6, 1906. Aged 58 years. May his Soul rest in peace. Bridget Smith his wife died Oct. 5, 1911. Aged 64 years. Catholic Cemetery.||Catholic Cemetery.|
|Catholic Cemetery. Looking West.||Alice wife of Luke Coyle died Apr. 17, 1895. Aged 54 years. A native of Ireland. Luke Coyle died July 17, 1884. Aged 48 years. A native of Roscommon, Ireland. Catholic Cemetery.||At Rest. Patrick H. Pollard died Nov. 14, 1907. Aged 51 yrs, 6 mos, 6 dys. Margarita his wife died Jan. 23, 1909. Aged 45 yrs. 9 mos. Catholic Cemetery.||Henry Pollard. Nevada. Corporal, 338 Butchery Co. Q.M.C. July 21, 1930. Catholic Cemetery.|
|Masonic Cemetery. Looking West.||Sidney Truscott. Died Feb. 4, 1892 aged 53 years. A native of England. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of John Williams a native of Cornwall England. Died Jan. 19,1898. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of James Stile who departed this life Aug. 29th 1873. Aged 29 years. A native of Devonshire England. Masonic Cemetery.|
|Irwin H., son of Fred & Cora Strauss. Born at Dayton, Nev. Nov.12, 1893. Died Feb. 16, 1913. Ralph W., son of Fred & Cora Strauss. Born at Gold Hill, Nev. June 12, 1895. Died Oct. 18, 1918. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of Frederick A, Strauss. Husband of Cora A. Strauss. Born June 20, 1866. Died Nov. 27. 1932. Native of Wurttemberg, Germany. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of Cora A. Strauss. Wife of Fred A. Strauss. Born Nov. 28, 1868. Died Apr. 27, 1929. Native of Gold Hill, Nev. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of Estacio G. Pedro: Died Aug 14, 1875: Aged 43 years. A native of Pico, Azores. Masonic Cemetery.|
|Armstrong. Masonic Cemetery.||Wm Henry Bennetts. A native of England. Died in attempting to rescue the lives of his fellow miners in the Alta Drift. June 2, 1882. 29 yrs & 3 months. Masonic Cemetery.||Richand Brey who lost his life by the bursting of the fly wheel. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of Samuel Arnold. Born in Westfield, Mass. Jan. 10, 1829. Died in San Francisco Dec. 15, 1864. Aged 35 yrs. 11 mo. Masonic Cemetery.|
|Robert C. Bruce. Died June 24, 1887. Aged 24 yrs. & 3 mos. A native of California. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of A.C. Hollingshead. Native of Mount Holly, N.J. Died March 4, 1864. Aged 33 years. Masonic Cemetery.||Dora M. Daughter of J.N. & H.O. Donnell. Born Mar 14 1870. Died Sept 25 1888. Budded on earth to bloom in heaven. Masonic Cemetery.||William Brown. Died Jan. 8, 1894 Aged 52 years. A native of London, England. Four little darlings asleep with Papa. Masonic Cemetery.|
|Edward Conradt. Born in Prussia Jan 3, 1833. Died Aug 22, 1897. Masonic Cemetery.||In memory of William Stewart. Native of Glasgow Scotland. Died Dec 17, 1874. Aged 39 years. Masonic Cemetery.||TONKIN. William Jan. 24, 1847. March 31, 1890. Celia March 15, 1873. Nov. 15, 1877. Henry R. March 31, 1852. Feb. 18, 1902. Masonic Cemetery.||Chaungey Griswold. Born Madison, Morris Co., N.J. April 1, 1839. Died Sept. 29 1868. Masonic Cemetery.|
|Ivy R. Fulton died Oct. 27, 1874. Aged 1yr, 9ms. 7d's. May Bell Fulton died April 12, 1876. Masonic Cemetery.||Amelia the beloved wife of J.D. McDonnell a native of Penn. Died Feb. 8, 1864. Aged 47 years. May Ball died Oct. 12 1875 aged 5 years. Asleep with grandpapa. Masonic Cemetery.||J.D. McDonnell died Nov. 21 1877. Aged 67 years. Masonic Cemetery.|
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This page originally created on 13 November 2011 and made ready for the Internet on 1 September 2013 (I was, um, somewhat delayed in posting this gallery of pictures). Photographs copyright 2011 by NEIL MISHALOV