FIREMEN’S MUSEUM – VIRGINIA CITY
Fire was the scourge of the old west. Hastily built shanty mining towns in the gold and silver rush of the west would go up in flames at an alarming rate and often the only thing between total destruction was the volunteer fire department. First only men with buckets, and then hand pumpers, though with any luck the city cisterns would actually have water in them to pump. Eventually, if the precious metal lasted long enough, the wooden shacks would be replaced by brick, to give us the few remaining examples that can be visited today. This was certainly true of Virginia City, the biggest rush town sprouted from the Comstock Lode. The city’s most famous resident, Mark Twain, wrote “Virginia City had grown to be the liveliest town, for its age and population…a dozen breweries, and a half dozen jails, and station houses in full operation… large fire proof buildings going up on the principal streets”. The building where Twain worked the Territorial Enterprise was itself a victim of fire “see Mark Twain Museum”. In 1875, a fire started in a store room of a Kate Shea’s boarding house and with flames whipped by a strong breeze, by 11 am most of the city had been reduced to ashes with almost 2,000 buildings vanished.
The fire station of the Liberty Engine Company No. 1, a volunteer heritage society, is just down the street, now the Comstock Fireman’s Museum also designated as Nevada State Fireman’s Museum. Originally a saloon built after the great fire of 1875, the building was taken over by the Storey County Fire Department in the 1930s and becames the Comstock Fire Museum in 1979. Housing some of the great fire-fighting apparatus of the age of volunteers, the museum tells the story of the fire companies and firemen of the early Comstock mining days and Western Nevada history.
The museum’s register lists all the members of the Virginia City Fire Department from 1861 to 1875, all who had to be voted into membership in the fire-fighting fraternity. Among the engine equipment is an 1879 Clap and Jones Steamer Pumper. The original Amoskeag Steamer pumper, the first of its kind in the west, built at the company shops in Manchester New Hampshire. The engine had its baptism of fire in Boston’s great fire of 1872, coming to Virginia City in January of 1873. Behind the pumper came the wheel cart which would carry the 1,000 feet of hose, dubbed “Faithful and Fearless” and under restoration, the Knickerbocker Engine No. 5, hand pumper from 1856. Other artifacts include period firemen’s equipment, helmets and nozzles, photographs, and records.
Visiting the Comstock Fireman’s Museum
It is a small museum, tucked cramped into the longest surviving fire station at the crown of what was called Gold Hill. The museum is maintained by volunteers and admission by requested donation. It is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day. © Bargain Travel West
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