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On This Site in 1897 Nothing Happened

You’ve probably seen this plaque about in any heritage district with a sense of humor. I first saw it on the side of a gift shop in Virginia City back in 2010, and I had a good laugh, because of course I had already chosen 1897 as the year for my Ghost Town Novels, and the sign was less than one block away from where I had set several pivotal scenes.

Of course, by 1897, the Comstock had gotten a lot sleepier. The boom days were back in the 1860s and 1870s, and by the late 1890s, both Virginia City and Gold Hill were in decline, lending them that extra veneer of nostalgia and atrophy that made for a perfect “ghost town” setting.

But why 1897 specifically? Well, it was a pretty lively year! The inspiration for J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Peter Llewelyn Davies, was born. Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee. The Klondike Gold Rush began.  Bayer Pharmaceuticals started selling Aspirin.  William McKinley was sworn in as president of the United States. And for my purposes: Bram Stoker’s horror novel Dracula was first published in London (it wouldn’t be published in North America until 1899). I never could pass up a mythology gag.

Mapping the Comstock

Maps Are Life. I’ve always loved cartography. It’s genetic: I grew up on a diet of yearly road trips, watching my mom sitting shotgun as the Official Navigator with her pile of AAA maps. On a high school camping trip I earned acclaim for spotting the mountain we were hiking on a terrain map while everyone else was trying to find north. My favorite memories involve me correcting the onboard GPS after realizing someone got X Avenue West and X Street North mixed up. It is now understood that on family road trips I am the Official Navigator, and I take my duties very seriously – even if I’m looking on Google Maps instead of the paper ones.

But when I started work on the Ghost Town series, I found myself with a bit of a problem.

A Map of Virginia City by Marie and John Gorham. High on atmosphere, low on meat.

 

This was the first 1800s map of Virginia City I had to work with, found in a book I borrowed from obscurity at the University of Victoria library.  It was utterly darling, and introduced me to  several important Comstock concepts like the Washoe Zephyr and the V&T Railroad. But as the majority of the action was NOT going to be taking place in mining offices, I knew I needed something with more substance.

Survey map of Gold Hill from 1890, by the Sanford Map Company courtesy of historicmapworks.com

NOW we’re talking! A visit to Historic Map Works got me the survey maps of Gold Hill, and I knit them all together into my main source for all my cartographic plotting. I found out where Bill Crawford’s jail sat in relation to the Catholic church where Charlie was forced to hunt for husbands, and just how close the Yellow Jacket and Kentuck mine shafts were to the center of town. It showed me how many houses had already become abandoned, and I picked relatively uninhabited areas to insert my strictly fictional locations, like the Brennan’s Canyon Hotel and the Crown Point Livery Stables.

From there I was ready to move on to the really fun stuff: Google terrain maps!

Now I just need to overlay 1897s features on 2010s terrain.

 

While the mining has destroyed several topographical features over the years (RIP Crown Point Ravine), the streets of Virginia City and Gold Hill have hardly changed since the 1890s. So I generated some terrain maps and painted locations overtop.

For years this was enough for me, especially as I could not include maps in the actual novels. Working with my Frankensteinesque collection was more than enough to plot and scheme. But as I got deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of Photoshop cartography, mapping out my new world of Bifrons, I knew I had to return to Gold Hill.

The Comstock Lode of the Ghost Town Novels (c) Jane Senese 2020

Using my terrain map as a base, and the wonderful brush packs of K. M. Alexander (a godsend to any aspiring cartographer), I finally have my definitive Ghost Town map. This one is an overview that works for all three novels, but I’m planning to make three specific ones for each story, with more detail. (I had to REALLY simplify Virginia City’s street plan to make it fit.)

Inspiration – The Very Beginnings

It all started with this:

Fourth Ward School, Virginia City, Nevada

Wait… actually, it all started with THIS:

Phantom Manor, Disneyland Paris

I’m an unabashed Disney Junkie, and one of my absolute favorite rides is the Phantom Manor in Disneyland Paris: it combines the classic Disney Haunted Mansion vibe with a great western feel.  And the worldbuilding! The backstory about the failing mining town of Thunder Mesa and its malevolent founder Henry Ravenswood adds so much to the experience.

So when I had a notion (inspired by a very bizarre dream involving the phrase “you may now bite the bride”) about a wild west vampire, I knew I wanted to lean into that Phantom Manor aesthetic.  A quick glance through my Disney art books revealed that the Phantom Manor was based in large part off the Second Empire style of the Fourth Ward School in Virginia City, Nevada.

I had a setting!

Now, I knew literally nothing about the Silver Rush or even boom towns in the most abstract terms.  While I’m sure I had heard the phrase “Comstock Lode” before, it had never caught my interest. But soon I was wading through websites and ransacking the shelves at my local university library, ordering books and pouring over Google Maps terrain images. It was the wildest self-taught crash course I’d ever embarked on, and I was hooked.

Most of A Ghost Town Vampire was already written before I got my chance to visit the Comstock in the flesh, but being there and feeling the environment  added a last-minute richness to my descriptions that I never could have managed working off photos alone. And of course, among all my other sight-seeing, I had to pay a pilgrimage to the Fourth Ward School.

Imagine if the Disney Imagineers hadn’t mentioned their inspiration for old Phantom Manor!