​Hospitable, Haunted Virginia City

After the Comstock Lode in a former Nevada boomtown, ghosts are said to roam.


Virginia City, which maintains an old timey Wild West feel, is allegedly very haunted.

Tim Hilton

When you’re in kindergarten, it’s OK to call Halloween your favorite holiday. Fast-forward a few decades and this admission becomes a bit embarrassing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still true.

Stuck midway between two Octobers but craving a few screaming skulls? Fear not. Or, better yet, fear a lot. Because in historic, hospitable, and allegedly very haunted Virginia City, Nevada, every day of the year is Halloween. 

Nestling wooden-sidewalked and wagon-wheeled atop biscuit-hued high-desert hillsides honeycombed with some of history’s most bountiful mines, this perfectly preserved former boomtown 20 miles southeast of Reno and 40 miles east of South Lake Tahoe is where pioneer miners discovered the incomparable Comstock Lode. That spawned an all-out, come-’n’-get-it silver rush 10 years after California’s Gold Rush. The Comstock Lode’s yield from just one year, 1877, would be worth nearly $500 million today. Fortunes were made here, and magnates born.

Once home to 30,000 miners, ranchers, gunslingers, can-can girls and other wild westerners, Virginia City is now a steeple-skylined hamlet of 900. Quaint ice cream parlors and antique shops share its colonnaded main drag, C Street, with saloons such as the infamous Bucket of Blood, whose shimmery chandeliers, rifle-festooned walls, baroque golden barstools, and weather-beaten “suicide table”—where numerous hard-luck gamblers have allegedly shot themselves—hark back to its 1876 origins. Visiting bands delight rowdy crowds here and at the nearby Red Dog, which during the 1960s a team of bell-bottomed Bay Area transplants including Janis Joplin transformed from a battered hotel into the alleged birthplace of psychedelic music.

Dozens of annual events include the summertime International Camel & Ostrich Races (now in their 57th year), the early-fall Victorian Steampunk Parade and zombie-themed Redrun race, and the late-winter Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry, at which local cooks preside over testicle tastings. Simply sitting outside on C Street or roaming the surrounding slopes while sipping micro-roasted java from The Roasting House or nibbling house-made, hand-paddled treats from Grandma’s Fudge Factory plunges you into that strange sweet spot bridging several worlds: civilization and sun-seared badlands, present and past and, as Virginia City’s many resident ghost-hunters won’t let you forget, living and dead.



Both the SyFy Channel and the Travel Channel call this one of America’s most haunted towns. So maybe it’s inaccurate, when counting Virginia City’s population, to count only the living.

All year ’round, paranormalists lead guided tours, séances, and extended stakeouts at allegedly haunted landmarks. These include the red-brick Mackay Mansion, built in 1860 for a silver tycoon and now said to house a ghostly little girl and her equally ectoplasmic nurse; the Washoe Club, a boomtown-era gambling hall whose upper stories are now stripped spookily bare; its ground floor has been partly transformed into a funky saloon and a museum which has appeared in numerous ghost-based reality shows and whose exhibits include a mummified cat. Worth a visit for its red-brick, white-columned grandeur even if you don’t believe in ghosts, St. Mary’s Art & Retreat Center is a former frontier hospital whose sickrooms-turned-guestrooms reputedly echo with the spectral clanks of a phantom coach and a cowboy’s spurs.

It’s a short walk from St. Mary’s to the exquisitely iron-gated Silver Terrace Cemeteries, whose hillside-hugging white stones wistfully recall lives sidelined by mining accidents, gangrene and infant mortality.

In the heart of downtown, the steep-staircased Silver Queen Hotel, saloon and wedding chapel—where now-divorced pop pair the Captain and Tennille took their vows in 1975 and renewed them in 1997—maintains its Wild West ambience by sporting neither AC, TVs, nor elevator: The alleged spirits haunting its dazzling silver-dollar-studded bar and romantically retro rooms (swirling ceiling fans, snowy clawfoot tubs) include that of a wronged woman who killed her baby, then herself, in one of those rooms after her lover failed to arrive for a planned rendezvous.

Built in 1861, the rambling Gold Hill Hotel stood within spitting distance of 1869’s devastating Yellow Jacket Fire, Nevada’s worst-ever mining disaster. Its raging flames and fumes killed at least 35 miners. Guests can rent ghost-hunting kits from the management. Alleged resident spirits here include not only Yellow Jacket miners but also noisy card-players, naughty children, and “Rosie,” a mysterious lady who trails the intoxicating fragrance of rose perfume along a certain corridor.

Seasonal menus at the Gold Hill Hotel’s Crown Point Restaurant rival those of any urban hotspot, even though—surprise!—the Crown Point might be haunted. Kitchen staff members have reported a paper-towel dispenser operating of its own accord, cups flying through the air, and a boy with an old-fashioned Buster Brown haircut hovering near the stairs.

Bucket of Blood Saloon, 1 S. C St., 775-847-0322, www.BucketOfBbloodSaloonvc.com.

St Mary’s Art & Retreat Center, 55 R St., 775-847-7774, www.StMarysArtCenter.org.

The Washoe Club, 112 S. C St., 775-847-4467, www.TheWashoeClub.com.

Silver Queen Hotel, 28 N. C St., 775-847-0440, www.SilverQueenHotel.net.

Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 S. Main St., 775-847-0111, www.GoldHillHotel.net.

Published online on Oct. 13, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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