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How Virginia City Became An Old West Tourist Draw

1940 Virginia City
Courtesy Special Collections Department, UNR Libraries.
Virginia City in the 1940's.

Today, Virginia City, Nevada attracts more than two million visitors each year. But that wasn’t always the case. In this segment of “Time & Place,” Alicia Barber explains how early promoters helped turn the historic mining town into a national tourist destination.

In the warmer months, C Street in Virginia City, Nevada, is jam-packed with tourists who cannot get enough of its historic western charm. It’s a far cry from the years prior to World War II, when the town seemed practically abandoned. Once the largest community in Nevada, Virginia City had been losing population ever since the mines of the Comstock began to decline back in the 1880's.

By the 1930's, the town had only a few hundred residents, but some saw the potential for a new bonanza. Tourism was on the upswing in nearby Reno thanks to the state’s legalization of gambling and the six-week divorce. Visitors just needed to be persuaded to make their way up to the Comstock.

Mildred Giuffra moved to Virginia City in 1945 with her first husband, who had grown up there. Interviewed in 1986, she described how deserted the town appeared when she first arrived.

“There was a grocery store and a post office and a couple bars and a restaurant,” Giuffra said. “All these old buildings were just dust and cobwebs all over. You could have bought any building in town for $500, and the smart people did.”

One of those savvy investors was Paul Smith, a master promoter who ran the Museum of Memories, a souvenir shop on C Street, where he sold relics of the Comstock—some more authentic than others—along with vintage clothing, books, and other memorabilia.

John Zalac had moved to Virginia City in 1933, and spent a few years mining before he went into the liquor business. By the mid-1940s, he noticed that tourists were mostly interested in the Hollywood version of the Old West, a land of gunfighters and dancing girls, where the saloons had crushed red velvet drapes and poker tables. Local bar owners paid attention.

“See, after the war, people start traveling,” Zalac said. “They had money. Everybody was hunting for antiques and stuff. That's why all the bars up there put all those hanging lamps in and whatever antiques they could get they’d put in the bars.”

Zalac became part-owner of a working-class bar called the Smokery, in a historic building on C Street that had once housed the Delta Saloon. He and his partners reclaimed the name of the Delta and decorated it with chandeliers and antiques, and the tourists came flocking—not just there, but to the nearby Bucket of Blood Saloon, the Crystal Bar, the Brass Rail, and a whole slew of new museums and shops that adopted the same embellished Old Western style.

“When it was original, they didn’t want to see it. When you put all that stuff in for them to look at, that’s when they came in. Because that’s what people wanted to see. They didn’t want to see an authentic old mining camp,” Zalac said.

Still, despite some of the liberties taken with lore and decor, Virginia City retained an underlying authenticity, a fact that was recognized in 1961 when the National Park Service designated the Comstock a National Historic Landmark. Today, visitors can experience everything from rollicking C Street to the quieter charms of restored Gothic-style churches, the Piper Opera House, and the Fourth Ward School Museum, all nestled together in one of Nevada’s most unique landscapes.

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app RenoHistorical.org. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. Full oral history transcripts can be found at Comstock Memories: 1920s - 1960s Oral Histories.

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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