Filed Under Urban History

The Virginia City Great Fire of 1875

Considered one of Nevada’s fastest growing cities in its day, Virginia City quickly became a pile of rubble after an 1875 fire ravaged the city for nine hours, leaving more than 2,000 structures destroyed, and hundreds homeless.

Fire was feared throughout the West. Most boom towns were constructed of lumber since wood was cheaper, more accessible and easier to ship. However, this made towns major fire hazards. Virginia City battled several fires throughout its history, but the ‘Great Fire of 1875’ was the largest. On the morning of October 26, 1875 at 5:15am, a single lamp caused the biggest fire in the town’s history. The fire started on A Street in Kate Shea's boarding house when a lamp was accidentally knocked over, probably due to the rough, rowdy atmosphere. Within minutes, the fire consumed the dry timber, quickly burning the entire building. To make matters worse, nature intervened. The westerly wind, known as the “Washoe Zephyr,” began to fan and push the flames further into town.

The fire quickly consumed all buildings in its path. Reportedly, even the few buildings built with brick melted due to the intense heat. Several attempts were made to extinguish the flames, but to no avail. The volunteer fire companies tried to combat the fire, but their water hoses could not pump enough water to fight the flames. Even a bucket brigade did little good in competing with the large-scale fire. The greatest fear was the fire reaching the Consolidated Virginia and Ophir mine shafts. If the fire reached the mines, it could potentially cause extensive damages and leave most of the town jobless. As fire continued to destroy everything in its wake, the wind finally shifted in the afternoon, leaving only the southern end of town standing. By 2:00pm, most of the flames were extinguished, leaving behind only a memory in the charred remains of one of the largest cities in the Nevada.

The damage was severe. Over 2,000 structures were destroyed, including homes, churches, saloons, businesses, mills and other mining buildings. The burnt section of town spanned three-quarters of a mile long and half-a-mile wide. Over $1,000,000 was estimated in damages, causing stocks to drop overnight. Further problems arose as over three hundred people were left homeless and sought shelter in the only remaining public buildings standing, the school houses. Rioting began in the streets, causing city patrols to ask for additional help from the National Guard to protect still-standing property. The city also forced the remaining saloons to prohibit the sale of alcohol, trying to prevent further problems. The biggest concern was providing food, clothing, and shelter for the fire victims.

Luckily, immediate humanitarian relief was sent from California, providing food and clothing for the victims. The mines reopened the following day after the fire, since minimal damage to the shafts in the Ophir mine allowed miners to go back to work. Optimistic townspeople reported to newspapers that “the town will be all right in a week or two.” Although the total amount of money lost estimated to be almost $10,000,000, the townspeople proved to be resilient and the fire became just another minor setback in the rich history of the Comstock.


Extinguishing flames on C Street
Extinguishing flames on C Street While this picture does not depict the actual fire in 1875, it does show how the fire department and the town fought the flames. Source: The Historic Fourth Ward School Museum.
Map of Virginia City Fire
Map of Virginia City Fire Source: Found in Steven R. Frady’s Red Shirts and Leather Helmets: Volunteer Fire Fighting on the Comstock Lode, page 178.
Babcock Chemical engine of Eagle Engine Company No. 3
Babcock Chemical engine of Eagle Engine Company No. 3 Source: Found in Steven R. Frady’s Red Shirts and Leather Helmets: Volunteer Fire Fighting on the Comstock Lode, page 173.
Burnt remains of a cat
Burnt remains of a cat Source: Special Collections Photographs, University of Nevada, Reno.



Rachel Hendrickson, Brigham Young University
, “The Virginia City Great Fire of 1875,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 18, 2024,