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The Way It Was Museum sign.
The Way It Was Museum sign.

The Way It Was Museum

Field review by the editors.

Virginia City, Nevada

Virginia City was a 19th century silver and gold boom town, attracting a stampede of prospectors, miners and wealth seekers. Though that dust cloud settled long ago, V.C. continues to mine an inexhaustible tourism Mother Lode, packing its main street with historical displays, saloons-with-a-story, and vestiges of its celebrated past.

Underground Workings.
Underground Workings.

The Way It Was Museum functions as an alternate local history collection, wisely focusing on the mining "Bonanza" period. The sign on North C Street promises the establishment is "Of Great Interest to Adults & Children," a vintage sales pitch if ever there was one.

The museum's front lot is a visible jumble of wire-bound wooden pipes, rusted equipment, and ore boulders. Visitors wander around to examine larger, less delicate items, a few augmented with costumed dummies, fiberglass donkeys and horses. An old prospector sits in a shack. A plywood photo op of a stagecoach beckons. Signs provide explanations of obscure equipment, such as the "Wind Suction Vane" -- a large metal ventilation pipe that was part of a mine air system. Its metal vane would be turned by a strong breeze, causing the motion to pull stale air from the mine's depths.

Mannequins in a horse drawn Surrey.
Mannequins in a horse drawn Surrey.

Taxidermy wildcat and fight posters.
Taxidermy wildcat and fight posters.

Inside the building, exhibits on walls and behind glass chronicle the mining boom. There are rare photos and maps of the Comstock Lode, in 1859 the earliest major discovery of silver in the U.S., and a cutaway model of a silver mine. A replica mine entrance contains an Overhead Timbering Car from the insane Sutro Tunnel project, four miles long, proposed by Adolph Sutro to drain and ventilate the mines under Virginia City. It was completed in 1878, and though the need for it soon diminished, the deep mining techniques influenced future deep dig projects around the world.

"The Underground Workings" is a large exhibit comprised of painted sticks, like a 3D subway map, representing the complex, multi-level mine shafts and passages under Virginia City, and historical photos of the old operations. The model scale is 1 inch to 40 ft, depicting about 250 miles of passages (of the 800 total miles in the Comstock Lode).

19th century animal fight -- a typical savage public spectacle -- preserved as taxidermy.
19th century animal fight -- a typical savage public spectacle -- preserved as taxidermy.

The museum provides a patchwork glimpse into daily life, circa 1860s-1900: Chinese laundry stove, early chemical fire extinguisher, black smith tools. Two mannequins sit in a horse-drawn surrey. There's a Mark Twain doll in a glassed frame. Samuel Clemens first used the name Mark Twain while working as a reporter for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in 1863. Virginia City is home to two other museums focusing on the local paper and Twain.

Old prospector.

As you might expect, after a long day underground, the miners needed to unwind. They would flock to town or the camps for gambling and games of chance. The Way It Was Museum presents examples of the cards, dice, and devices that were used to cheat by the "Sharpie" (or Professional Gambler).

Virginia City's overflowing population loved to watch animals attack each other. The Way It Was Museum features a pair of taxidermy cocks flailing and sparring, as they did regularly in saloon pits. The gatherings were savage frontier entertainment. Over time, the variety of combatants grew -- coyotes, badgers, bobcats. An 1878 poster from the town's Alhambra Theater advertises a "large and ferocious" 42-lb. wildcat-vs.-dog fight. Another flyer promises a panther and bear fight. Not just any bear -- it's "The Celebrated Grizzly Bear Lola Montes." Many of the pit fights were to the death.

In contrast to VC's wild animal mayhem, an exhibit in the next room presents the vestments, regalia and formal group photos of the region's early fraternal orders. Signs inform that they "Were a dynamic part of the Western mining camp. These organized and took part in civic celebrations, sponsored dances, held picnics... Nevada's first libraries were established by fraternal groups." The Knights of Pythias, Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Knights Templar, Independent Order of Foresters.... a couple of the fraternal halls still exist in Virginia City. And when they weren't being pillars of civilization, some were probably at a Virginia City saloon, losing to the Card Sharps or watching the chickens and bobcats brawl.

The Way It Was Museum

113 North C Street, Virginia City, NV
North end of the main street, large sign and front yard full of historic junk and a mannequin in the ticket booth.
Daily 10:30-4:30 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
$4, Under 11 free.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Julia Bulette: ProstituteJulia Bulette: Prostitute, Virginia City, NV - < 1 mi.
The Suicide TableThe Suicide Table, Virginia City, NV - < 1 mi.
Silver QueenSilver Queen, Virginia City, NV - < 1 mi.
In the region:
1926 Reno Arch, Reno, NV - 17 mi.

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