I squeezed my eyes shut to keep myself from seeing the shadowy figures the moonlight cast through the lace window curtains. Every creak and slight settling in the house sent chills up my spine. All I could do was hunker deeper under the blanket as the sound of the wind whistling through the tree branches outside lit up my imagination like a dry weed catching fire.
Then I heard footsteps. And they were getting closer.
I held my breath. There’s no such thing as ghosts was on repeat in my head, despite the evidence shuffling my way.
By this time, it was well past midnight, and I was now convinced that the restored 1862 house where we were staying in the historic mining town of Gold Hill, Nevada, was the new Amityville.
“Hello?” I finally croaked, startled by the sound of my own voice.
I was met with an immediate but tentative “Mom …?”
I flipped back the covers to see my Jack, then 9, as well as Kate, our brave teenager, standing over me, eyes as wide as saucers. “Can we sleep in here?”
In truth, I was hoping we might get a little spooked on this family trip to Nevada. Clinging to the sagebrush-covered hillsides here are what’s left of a once-prosperous boomtown—more than $300 million in minerals, mostly silver, were scooped out of what became known as the Comstock Lode. The crown jewel was Virginia City, and during the mining heyday from 1859 to the early 1880s, silver barons built spectacular mansions and spread wealth all the way to San Francisco and beyond.
We had arrived on a brisk October evening to explore this lively spot, tucked in the hills east of Reno, Nevada, and Lake Tahoe, California. My first job as a reporter had been at the newspaper just down the hill in Carson City, Nevada’s capital. My husband, Steve, and I wanted to show our city kids some old haunts where we’d walked in the footsteps of another famous reporter and resident of Virginia City: Mark Twain.
I was also curious about a tourism trend sweeping the Comstock: ghost hunting. We checked in to the 1859 Old West—chic Gold Hill Hotel, about a mile south of Virginia City. Our accommodations in the hotel’s nearby three-bedroom Brewery House, which had a cheerful living area, kitchen, and multiple bathrooms, seemed at first unlikely to be hosting residual spirits. That first night, however, the power of suggestion got to us all (although Steve slept through most of it).
The next morning, we gathered in the Gold Hill Hotel’s small lobby and giggled over the previous night’s spooky escapades. Now we were ready to seek out Virginia City’s true spirit.
We chose the Bats in the Belfry Ghost Tours of Virginia City, at the Silver Queen Casino Hotel, for a nighttime ghost tour. The saloon and hotel is famous for its hauntingly beautiful mural of a woman whose dress is made of more than 3,000 real silver dollars. As we entered the Silver Queen’s narrow upstairs hallway, an electromagnetic field detector that we carried lit up like a Christmas tree when we entered Room 11—reportedly where a young woman named Rosie ended her own life. Another spirited stop on the 60-minute tour was the Old Washoe Club, an 1862 saloon where a number of paranormal investigators and ghost-hunter reality TV shows have headquartered in search of rumored apparitions. Perhaps its most famous is Lena, an ethereal lady in blue who has been spotted atop the saloon’s spiral staircase. To make matters spookier, tour takers can peek into The Crypt, a back room that in the late 1800s was used as overflow space for the town morgue, which often filled up during the winter months when the ground at the cemetery was too frozen for grave diggers. Lively guides lead hour-long tours for $20 per person, cash only, reservations required. 775-815-1050; virginiacityghosttours.com.
The Virginia and Truckee Railroad, a former short line turned tourist train, offers 35-minute excursions from the historic V&T Depot. It took us past abandoned mines and sweeping landscape panoramas before making a quick stop in Gold Hill. We all got a thrill when the steam locomotive chugged through Tunnel No. 4, covering us riders in the open-air cars with a thin coat of soot and steam. From $12. 775-847-0380; virginiatruckee.com.
Back in Virginia City, we ducked into the Territorial Enterprise and Mark Twain Museum, housed below a gift shop. Among the type cases and musty artifacts was the desk where former Territorial Enterprise reporter Samuel Clemens worked. The first time his nom de plume of Mark Twain appeared in print was in a letter he wrote to the paper.
Get a good history overview aboard 20-minute Virginia City Trolley Tours. $5. 775-847-7500; visitvirginiacitynv.com.
Café del Rio’s Gospel Fried Chicken is legendary on the Comstock, although its Mexico-inspired dishes, such as the Santa Fe Stacked Enchiladas, are a good way to top off a day of exploring. 775-847-5151; cafedelriovc.com.
The Canvas Café brings big-city farm-to-fork options to this tiny mining town. The menu might include chef-owner Richard Oates’ signature Medieval Duck, or you can name your price and preferences and Oates will make one of his chef’s choice Blank Canvas dinners for you. 775-453-5167; canvascafe.wixsite.com/canvascafenv.
The upscale Crown Point Restaurant at the Gold Hill Hotel dishes up popular entrées including chicken Parmesan and rib-eye steak. 775-847-0111; goldhillhotel.net.
Nevada’s oldest lodging, the Gold Hill Hotel, just over a mile south of Virginia City down State Route 341, offers rooms either with or without modern amenities (think no TV or hair dryers). Rates start at $70. 775-847-0111; goldhillhotel.net.
The Cobb Mansion Bed and Breakfast is housed in a cozy converted mansion built in 1876. Rates start at $119. 775-847-9006; cobbmansion.com.
Top photo: Main Street in Virgina City, Nevada. | Photo by Leon Werdinger / Alamy Stock Photo
Your AAA travel agent can provide trip-planning information. Visit your local AAA branch, call 800-814-7471, or go to AAA.com/explore.