The Silver Terrace Cemeteries memorialize the diverse laborers who worked the Comstock and made Virginia City a boom town.
Virginia City sprang up as a boomtown with the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode, the first major silver deposit discovery in the United States.
Growing to more than 25,000 people by the mid-1870s, the town supported an opera house, grand hotel, 110 saloons, six churches, a private school, five newspapers and a railroad that made more than 30 arrivals and departures daily.
Dominated by San Francisco moneyed interests, Virginia City was heralded as the sophisticated interior partner of San Francisco. “San Francisco on the coast and Virginia City inland” became the mantra of west coast Victorian entrepreneurs. Early Virginia City settlers were in large part the backwash from San Francisco and the California Gold Rush, ten years before. Mine owners who made a killing in the Comstock mines spent most of their wealth in San Francisco.
In 1878, mining would begin to decline, but during those first 19 years, more than $300 million in ore had been taken from the mines.
“Between 1863 and 1880, nearly 300 miners were killed and another 600 injured in various mine-related accidents. The unstable nature of the Comstock lode, as well as the extreme temperatures encountered as the shafts plunged deeper and deeper into the earth’s core, combined to create, as historian T.H. Watkins described it, “a catalog of horrors to challenge Dante’s tour through the Inferno.” Besides falling down a mine shaft, miners could be torn to shreds by premature explosions of blasting materials, roasted in underground fires, hit by falling equipment, or crushed by a runaway ore car.” – Source
Before the 1860s, the dead were buried haphazardly on a site far from the town. As part of the burial ritual, the bodies were covered with wax and placed in open carriages for the ride to the grave site. Soon, however, townspeople began noticing a disturbing trend. On hot summer days, the wax would melt, distorting the faces of the dead.
By 1868, the townspeople had begun using a site much closer to town known as Silver Terrace, a series of terraces dramatically located on a steep, windswept hillside. A wide variety of fraternal, civic and religious groups established burial yards there, including: Masons, Pacific Coast Pioneers, Virginia City Firemen, Roman Catholics, and Odd Fellows. Each fraternal organization developed their own cemeteries for their members and their families.
Nearly every plot at the Silver Terrace Cemeteries is fenced or bordered, a typical practice of the Victorian period.
Unique decorative fencing was placed around each cemetery to help differentiate the numerous groups.
The majority of the population in Virginia City was foreign born.
Lured by the promise of gold and silver, their gravestones show they came from Switzerland, Italy, Wales, Ireland, France and Germany.
Grave markers range in materials from wood to metal to cut stone.
Historic records show a variety of causes of death, from scarlet fever and smallpox to “summer complaint” and “brain fever.” Sometimes, coroner reports simply read, “dropped dead.”
“Although a firemen’s section had been laid out in the Pioneer Cemetery on Flowery Hill years before, in May of 1868 the Virginia Fire Department purchased a section of the Silver Terrace Cemetery for its use from undertakers Charles M. Brown and Josh W. Wilson for $50.00. The Virginia Board of Alderman had sought other property for a firemen’s cemetery. But after investigation of suggested property, First Ward Alderman T.M. Adams, and Fourth Ward Alderman Laurence Bass deemed the area unfavorable since it was located too close to buildings in Virginia City. So purchase of the Silver Terrace property was concluded. To date, there are documented 115 burials in the Virginia Exempt Fire Association Cemetery of which 40 are unmarked, although recent ground penetrating radar results indicate there are many more.” – Source
Due to past vandalism and theft, the Silver Terrace cemeteries are only open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. No one is allowed on the premises at night.
Prior to 2000, most of the antique iron fencing that separated each of the cemeteries had been stolen. Once the foundation installed new fencing in 2004, vandalism plummeted by more than 80%. In 2005, the Nevada Legislature raised cemetery vandalism from a misdemeanor to a low-level felony which helped protect all the historic cemeteries within the state.
The Comstock cemeteries provided some of the first public park-like areas within the city.
These “Victorian gardens” offered townspeople sanctuary from the loud, dirty, industrial landscape that made up Virginia City at that time.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful sections of the cemetery can be found towards the back of the property where Virginia City’s Catholic population was laid to rest.
Faded wooden fences…
…crosses carved in stone…
…and ornate iron masterpieces protecting alabaster gravestones dot the hillsides of this section of the Silver Terrace Cemeteries.
Among the ghosts said to roam the hills are a woman in a bustled brown dress seen with a child playing at her feet and a ghost of a little girl. Ghost hunters have captured what they believe to be the spirit of a man in a coat and tie, who appears after storms have passed through the area. It’s also been said that there is a glowing gravestone located somewhere within the cemetery, though it grows dimmer as brave souls search it out, making its exact location difficult to pinpoint.
Repairs to damage done by vandals or years of neglect can be found in numerous sections of the cemetery.
Age has a way of making some things more beautiful as time goes on.
Visiting the dead at the Masonic Cemetery requires a walk through a brick and iron entrance gate.
“A huge marker stands over the burial of the namesake of the county, Edward Fairs Storey. He had only been in the area for about a month before being killed in the now-famous Pyramid Lake Indian War. A former Texas Ranger and Mexican War veteran, he arrived on the Comstock driving a herd of cattle. Although he missed the first battle of May 12, he quickly organized a militia company called the Virginia Rifles. During the second battle on June 2, he was ambushed and killed. He was first buried in the Spanish graveyard, then reburied near the Brunswick Lode. Finally, his body was moved to the Masonic graveyard and quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until 1930 that a monument was erected for the newcomer for whom the county was named.” – Source
A man living to the age of 72 in 1875 was almost unheard of back in those days. Mason magic perhaps?
A broken marble gravestone lies on top of a concrete plot in the Masonic cemetery.
An abandoned building sits below the Masonic section of the cemeteries.
The town’s Jewish cemetery was established on a separate hillside located nearby while Chinese laborers and prostitutes were buried outside the cemetery. Most of the bodies of the Chinese have now been exhumed and returned to China for burial.
“One of the most unusual grave sites can be found just outside the Masonic graveyard. It belongs to Mary Jane Simpson. She worked in the mines for almost two years and was a favorite of miners before she was killed in the great fire of 1875. Her gravesite is unusual because Simpson was a mule. She was lowered to the depths of the Belcher Mine, where she worked pulling cars of ore from the Belcher to the main shaft of the Yellow Jacket. After being replaced by steam-driven engines, she was put to work hauling ore from the Consolidated Virginia Mine to the mill, it was there she perished in the raging flames. Ben Smith, her groom, gathered what was left and buried her just outside the fence at the Masonic Cemetery and erected a marker that read (complete with misspellings) “Sakered to the Memory of Mary Jane Simpson, The thing was only a mule. Still, she was nobody’s fuel. Stranger, tred lightly.” A new marker was put up by the fraternal organization, E Clampus Vitus in 1993. – Source
The Comstock Cemetery Foundation is now in the process of turning this former miner’s cabin into their visitor/cultural center. Memberships and donations help the Foundation protect, preserve and restore these beautiful cemeteries of the old west.
From Reno, take US Highway 395 south to Nevada 341 east. Take first left and another left into the city to reach the Silver Terrace Cemeteries.