"The “city” of Virginia roosted royally midway up the steep side of Mount Davidson, seven thousand two hundred feet above the level of the sea, and in the clear Nevada atmosphere was visible from a distance of fifty miles! It claimed a population of fifteen thousand to eighteen thousand, and all day long half of this little army swarmed the streets like bees and the other half swarmed among the drifts and tunnels of the “Comstock,” hundreds of feet down in the earth directly under those same streets. Often we felt our chairs jar, and heard the faint boom of a blast down in the bowels of the earth under the office.
The mountain side was so steep that the entire town had a slant to it like a roof. Each street was a terrace, and from each to the next street below the descent was forty or fifty feet. The fronts of the houses were level with the street they faced, but their rear first floors were propped on lofty stilts; a man could stand at a rear first floor window of a C street house and look down the chimneys of the row of houses below him facing D street. It was a laborious climb, in that thin atmosphere, to ascend from D to A street, and you were panting and out of breath when you got there; but you could turn around and go down again like a house a-fire—so to speak. The atmosphere was so rarified, on account of the great altitude, that one’s blood lay near the surface always, and the scratch of a pin was a disaster worth worrying about, for the chances were that a grievous erysipelas would ensue. But to offset this, the thin atmosphere seemed to carry healing to gunshot wounds, and therefore, to simply shoot your adversary through both lungs was a thing not likely to afford you any permanent satisfaction, for he would be nearly certain to be around looking for you within the month, and not with an opera glass, either."
"From Virginia’s airy situation one could look over a vast, far-reaching panorama of mountain ranges and deserts; and whether the day was bright or overcast, whether the sun was rising or setting, or flaming in the zenith, or whether night and the moon held sway, the spectacle was always impressive and beautiful. Over your head Mount Davidson lifted its gray dome, and before and below you a rugged canyon clove the battlemented hills, making a sombre gateway through which a soft-tinted desert was glimpsed, with the silver thread of a river winding through it, bordered with trees which many miles of distance diminished to a delicate fringe; and still further away the snowy mountains rose up and stretched their long barrier to the filmy horizon—far enough beyond a lake that burned in the desert like a fallen sun, though that, itself, lay fifty miles removed. Look from your window where you would, there was fascination in the picture. At rare intervals—but very rare—there were clouds in our skies, and then the setting sun would gild and flush and glorify this mighty expanse of scenery with a bewildering pomp of color that held the eye like a spell and moved the spirit like music." (Roughing It)
From The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871, pp 171-5
In the early 1860s Virginia City, Nevada Territory, was the epitome of a boomtown and the epicenter of “flush times.” In July 1859, three years prior to Sam Clemens’ arrival there, it “consisted of a single tent and a brushwood saloon,” according to the historian H. H. Bancroft, while Gold Hill, a mile south across a ravine, “contained one log-house and two miners’ cabins.” In 1860, the year after the discovery of the Comstock Lode, the population of Storey County swelled to 2,857, only 159 of whom were women, with bullion production of about $1 million. Both the number of residents and the yield from the mines increased exponentially over the next couple of years, from five to seven thousand people and $6 million, respectively, in 1862, the year Sam settled in Virginia City, to twenty-five thousand and $12 million in 1863, and to $16 million in 1864, the year he left.
While no longer a primitive mining camp, Virginia City was still a rough-and-tumble frontier town, with social demarcations as rigidly prescribed as the circles of Dante's hell. The upper-crust whites lived up the mountain, .... The working-class Cornish, German, and Irish neighborhoods were clustered below C Street, and Chinatown, with a population of about a thousand, on E Street below them. Paiute and Washoe Indians were banished to the gulch at the bottom of the mountain or to the outskirts of the city.
Jared Graham of the Daily Union claimed that over half of the population of the town “was made up of disreputables, including hundreds of desperadoes” from “played-out gold camps of California.” To avoid court costs, “the authorities allowed them to shoot without let or hindrance, so long as they did not molest or injure reputable citizens.”
Sam wrote at the time that if the devil were to visit Nevada, he would grow “homesick and go back to hell again.” According to Bancroft, in the city might be found “every form of vice, and all kinds of degrading amusements. On Saturday nights the underground population emerged from their tunnels; and while business houses were closed on Sunday, saloons, casinos, theatres, and bagnios were chockablock with customers. On his part, Sam was thoroughly familiar with the seamy side of life in the territory. As he observed in Roughing It, “Vice flourished luxuriantly during the heyday of our ‘flush times.’ The saloons were overburdened with custom; so were the police courts, the gambling dens, the brothels and the jails—unfailing signs of high prosperity in a mining region. ... A crowded police court docket is the surest of all signs that trade is brisk and money plenty.”
Prostitution was legal in Virginia City, then as now; the first ordinances to regulate it by location were not adopted until 1865. It fourished on the Barbary Coast on South C Street near Silver, with a popular pickup spot being the corner of C and Union. Brothels, joy palaces, dance halls, fleshpots, and hurdy-gurdy houses, employing as many as two hundred women by the mid-1860s, were clustered in Chinatown in the northeast corner of the town, down the mountain, and on D Street between Sutton and Union. The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise reported in 1863, in an unsigned news article likely written by Sam, that the streets were routinely infested with “a horde of ruffians” or rowdies and “a lady is hardly safe from insult in Virginia unless she goes armed, or has a male protector constantly at her elbow.” As late as 1875 at least one of every twelve women who resided there worked in the sex trade. Opium was readily available in Chinatown until 1877, and the first age-of-consent laws were not passed in the state until 1893.’
Virginia City was also a refuge for deserters from both Civil War armies. The Gold Rush became a bums’ rush. A San Francisco paper estimated that in 1862, the first full year of the war, nearly one hundred thousand people migrated west to escape the conflict. According to Sam, “most of the desperadoes & the deadliest of them” in town “were not from the South but from the North.”