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Recent excavations in Virginia City have history lovers anxious for the future.
Photo: Ron James (Maguire's Opera House excavation)
Old dusty buttons, rusted nails and bolts, and pieces of broken bottles and dinner plates. Most would classify these items as trash, but not those who dig for a living—or want to.
“Archaeologists love garbage,” says state historic preservation officer Ron James.
James’ agency provided the federal funds to finance the University of Nevada, Reno’s recent excavations of two historic areas in Virginia City, the Barbary Coast and the site of the original Maguire’s (later Piper’s) Opera House. Although the Barbary location yielded “spotty” results, according to James, the Maguire’s findings might just shed some light on a mysterious era in the town’s history.
“From the field work, we think we found remnants from when the opera house burned down in 1875,” James says. Some of the glass found appeared to be melted or scorched, for instance. “But deep below that there were some other objects that appear to date to a period before the 1863 construction of the opera house,” James adds. “It’s really exciting because that part of Virginia City’s history is practically myth.”
The Northern Nevada community, 24 miles from Reno, was founded in 1859 after the discovery of the Comstock Lode and still maintains the rustic look of an 1800s mining town. Maguire’s Opera House opened in 1863, was sold to John Piper, and became Piper’s Opera House in 1867. Piper’s burned down in 1875, relocated to its current home at B and Union streets in 1877, but was lost to fire again in 1883. The current theater dates to 1885.
The plan, besides the main purpose of educating anthropology students at UNR, is to use the lab results (preliminary findings are expected this winter) to come up with the best strategy for a follow-up excavation next summer—which just happens to coincide with Virginia City’s sesquicentennial celebration. “Anything we find is going to tell us a great deal that we don’t know right now,” James says.
The prospects are especially intriguing for historians like James, who can’t help but feel antsy when he daydreams about Mark Twain attending performances at Maguire’s Opera House in the 1860s. As UNR students analyze the buttons, bottles, and other artifacts this winter, James can’t help but think what else might be looming in Virginia City’s soil.
Virginia City Sesquicentennial
Virginia City celebrates its 150th birthday June 5-7. Many of the events scheduled are free to the public. Costumed characters participating in Civil War reenactments and a Mountain Man Rendezvous will greet visitors. An old west gun show, pastry cook-off, and a rock-drilling competition are also on tap. The Fourth Ward School, St. Mary’s Hospital, and the Silver Terrace Cemetery also have special activities scheduled. Food vendors will be scattered throughout town, and a parade with marching band will kick off the event. Parking and in-town shuttles will be free. visitvirginiacitynv.com, 800-718-7587
Taking artifacts from public land is a crime, and trespass on private property compounded with the theft of artifacts could also result in prosecution. Visitors to historic sites should respect and photograph what remains. Please leave the remnants of the past as they are so others can enjoy them.
In Nevada Magazine’s January/February 2009 issue, read about the history of Maguire’s and Piper’s opera houses.