The legendary mining town of Virginia City blossomed in 1857 with the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the vast vein of silver high in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Today it’s a tourist destination, and the OZ team took full advantage of the many touristy things to do. Our main objective, of course, was to visit the cemetery, but we managed to ride a train, tour two mines, enjoy a good lunch, visit a museum, and stop for ice cream before reaching the cemetery gates on the northeast edge of town.
At first it didn’t look like much. Oh, it looked interesting, with its gleaming marble monuments rising here and there in the dusty, barren landscape, but it didn’t look like much. How misleading that first glance was.
We quickly discovered that there were several adjacent cemeteries on these hills, although they are known collectively as the Virginia City Cemeteries, Silver Terrace Cemeteries or Comstock Cemeteries. We parked outside the main gate of the Masonic Cemetery and began trudging through the dry brush, up and down rocky slopes, finding interesting headstones at every turn.
The dry climate and the elevation of Virginia City (over 6000 feet) have proven beneficial for the marble monuments here. We were amazed to find 120-year-old pure white headstones glistening in the sun, embellished with delicate carvings that looked as fresh and new as the day they were created. This was quite different from every other cemetery we’ve ever visited, where the elements have wreaked havoc on marble headstones. We expected to find carved evidence of the rough-and-tumble life of early Virginia City, but only one headstone provided it: the monument to August Bouhaben stated very plainly that he had been murdered.
We found the Exempt Firemen’s Cemetery just south of the Masonic Cemetery. Here we discovered quite a few wooden markers, a rarity in most cemeteries. A few retained their carvings but most were nothing more than cracked, dried boards. Some were actually modern reproductions. More surprising than the wooden grave markers were the wooden plot fences. Unlike ordinary fenceposts, these resembled 19th century porch railings with elaborately turned corner posts. Most had fallen over or rotted over the years, but a few remained standing.
To the east, the Mt. St. Mary Cemetery distinguished itself with a tall white metal fence. We noticed that this burial ground contained the graves of numerous Irish immigrants as well as some mysterious bas relief panels illustrating Biblical scenes. These panels, framed in concrete inlaid with small stones, were scattered seemingly at random throughout the cemetery.
Our visit to the Comstock Cemeteries was more physically demanding than any cemetery we’ve visited to date. The terrain was steep, rough and rocky. Our socks filled with foxtails as we trudged up and down the windswept hillsides to reach distant graves. The high elevation taxed our lungs and the sheer size of the place overwhelmed us. The visit was well worth the trouble, though. Picturesque views of Virginia City contrasted with enormous piles of mine tailings, dead trees poked up next to pristine headstones and a glorious blue sky hung over the harshly beautiful landscape.
Near the Masonic Cemetery gate we noticed a Comstock Cemetery Foundation trailer emblazoned with more than one hundred tiny headstones, indicating the number of gravesite restorations to date. The Foundation’s website notes that more people have gotten married in the cemeteries in the past year than have been buried there. In tiny, historic Virginia City, the relics of the past are never far from the present.
Find out more about this cemetery on Find A Grave.
Google Map location.