Culture on the Comstock

Piper's Opera House

Exterior 1950s view of Piper’s Opera House

From the 1860s to the beginning of the 1880s, Virginia City was more than just a mining camp. Located in the area known as the Comstock, named for Henry T. Comstock one of the original stake owners, Virginia City quickly rose to prominence as the center of culture between Denver and San Francisco after its founding in 1859. As the largest city in Nevada, it boasted a population of over 2,000 in 1860 and grew exponentially to over 10,000 by 1880. As one would expect from a cosmopolitan city, it contained a number of opera houses and theaters among other establishments of ill repute typically associated with mining towns. Actors, actresses, and other performers provided a necessary escape from the difficulties and dangers that surrounded mining.

Some of the most famous actresses of the time toured the United State and graced the stages of Virginia City during its height as a roaring mining town. These actresses, such as Adah Isaacs Menken, the original pin-up girl and inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler in his book A Study Scarlet, and Addie Florence, famous for her portrayal of Mazeppa in Mazeppa, or the Tartar Horse based on the then popular poem by Lord Byron, were rivals in the eyes of critics and fans and would delight theater goers with their interpretations of well-known characters. Alice Kingsbury and Amy Stone, known for their performances in the Pearl of Savoy across the country in the mid-1860s, came to the Comstock because of its prominence and plethora of adoring admirers. Matilda Heron stunned audiences with her gritty and lifelike portrayal of Camille, which she adapted from a performance she attended in Paris. “Irish” sweethearts Lotta Crabtree, Kathleen O’Neil, and Fanny Hanks came with their perfectly ringleted hair and jig costumes to win the hearts of fans. All of them were already well-known outside of the Comstock, and would have both wowed and astounded citizens.

Additionally, performers such as Dan Martin “The Wizard,” the Pioneer Blind Troupe, and James Speaight, child violinist prodigy who died at 4 ½ soon after preforming in Virginia City, entertained citizens by bringing a unique perspective on entertainment and performing with them on tour. Members of the Museum of Living Wonder, such as giants Miss Anna Swan and Monsieur Joseph along with the Circassian Beauty, Zobedie Luti,came as novelties to fascinate miners and members of the community. Sisters Jennie, Irene and Sophie Worrell thrilled audiences with their rowdy burlesque act.

This sample of performers represents just a fraction of the number of individuals who came to the Comstock to entertain and delight residents. They came because of its prominence as one of the largest cultural centers on the west coast outside of San Francisco. All of the images exhibited here were collected by Alfred Doten, Nevada newspaperman, who was captivated by the talent these individuals brought to the Comstock. The images represent a unique cross section of what culture meant to Comstock residents during the mining boom of the 1860s to 1880s.

[Reprinted from the Special Collections exhibit When the Lights Dim: Arts and Culture in Nevada]