One the first towns I visited after Calico, California was Virginia City, Nevada near Lake Tahoe. My brother was getting married in San Jose, California and I scheduled a trip after the ceremonies to Mount Shasta (ohoto to right), Yosemite (photo of El Capitan below) and Virginia City with my sister. I drove my new Porsche targa from Los Angeles on its first long trip. (This was before I traded in the Porsche for a station wagon – that’s another story!).
Although Virginia City is not a ghost town, it remains one of the most important mining cities built in the 1860s and today is a major tourist attraction. The Comstock Lode silver strike in 1859 made Virginia City a boomtown almost overnight. One of the silver mines continued its output until 1916. It was here that Samuel Clemens, a reporter on the local Territorial Enterprise newspaper, first used his pen name, Mark Twain. Although a tourist destination today, it still retains some of the atmosphere of the 1860s. Built on a hillside, the main street runs straight through the town on the midlevel of the hill and houses and buildings run up and down the hill from there. Many of its buildings are in good repair and still in use.
I returned to Virginia City (view to right from below the main street) a few times in the early 1970s taking photos each time. I’ve included some of my favorites here. My method of photograph a town like this is to combine photojournalist shots with art shots. This allows me to document the place for later personal reference and to capture the art photos I’m really look for. I look for dramatic or unusual lighting and strong compositions. After exploring the main street, I walk around the back streets and the edges of the town. I single out details of buildings and features that may have not existed in the town’s heyday, but were interesting when I was there. At the same time I take photographs of the decay.
The photo of the approach to the Virginia City graveyard, to the left, gave me a chilling feeling as I took it and it still does today as I look at the image. How about you? The intensely blue sky against the stark white statues and grave markers and the trees that look like they are haunted creatures from the grave add to the feeling.
The wooden grave marker, to the right, although still there when I took the shot, surely would not be readable today. It’s my hope to be able to return to some of these ghost towns and see what’s left after forty years.
I especially like the shot of the head frame in the distance during late afternoon (below). The head frame was essentially a pulley from which the cable pulled filled ore cars from the mine. This head frame was at the edge of town surrounded by a pile of tailings, the remains from the ore mining process.
The old church to the right was still in use when I was there, sits near the center of town. The early morning sun caught and this silhouetted view against unusual cloud formations is another favorite of mine.
After Virginia City, the following year I took a week’s vacation and drove to many places in the area where the gold rush started in California. I’ll tell you about that trip next time.