'Save the mines' while rest of Virginia CIty burns

Although Virginia City was celebrating a period of unprecedented prosperity in the fall of 1975, disaster was just a flicker away. Following is the next in our series of excerpts from the Sacramento Bee's tribute to the V&T.

"The evil days which eventually drained the life out of the Virginia and Truckee Railway and the city it helped to build arrived slowly, almost unnoticed at first.

"The silver capital of the world was thriving; at the height of her career.

"Miners worked three shifts a day and beds did double duty. Entertainment was at a premium. Each evening crowds thronged to Piper's Opera House. Silver barons drank from gold-laced goblets under the heavy chandeliers of the Crystal Bar or paused for liquid refreshment at the Senate Saloon.

"Bowers Mansion had been turned into a resort by Elly Bowers, and any excuse was good enough to send the miners there on a picnic or Grand Ball. Thousands climbed aboard the V&T several times a year and rode at special rates to the festive events on the impoverished widow's property.

"... by March 1975, the road consisted of 22 locomotives, 10 passenger coaches, 250 platform cars, 125 ore cars and many box cars. The bank Ring was taking a monthly dividend of $100,000 from the line.

"Then during the quite morning hours of Oct. 26, 1975, while Virginia City and the V&T were on the crest of their waves, a coal oil lamp overturned in the lodging house of Kate Shea.

"Fire bells meant little to the drowsy residents of the town, but the long wail of one steam whistle after another aroused them from their beds. They looked westward toward the center of the commotion.

"A wall of flame was moving from the wooden buildings high on Mount Davidson toward the heart of the city.

"Evening found most of the city in ashes.

"The flames, fed by the dusty dry wooden structures on the western fringe of town wiped out 2,000 buildings within a few hours.

"A Washoe Zephyr - Nevada's phrase for the vicious gales which sweep with hurricane velocity off the Sierra Nevada and across the Washoe Valley - was blowing at the time and hurled sheets of flaming material into the heart of town.

"Trained firemen were forced back, gradually at first, then in hopeless disorder. Before long it was apparent the city atop Mount Davidson was doomed.

"Legend tells of John Mackay standing before the beaten fire fighters and begging them to 'save the mines. We can build a new city.'

"Hundreds followed him to the new line of battle and explosives entered the fight to save the Comstock's life. Scores of buildings were destroyed in the effort to halt the onrushing flames while streams of water were played on the precious shafts. A few hours later, most of the city was gone but the mine shafts were intact."

To be continued.

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