Archaeologists investigate Civil War-era opera house
University of Nevada, Reno archaeologists working in historic Virginia City, Nev., have moved their latest excavation project from the Barbary Coast to the original site of Thomas Maguire’s Opera House on D Street.
The project is intended to shed light on life in the fabled town during the time when Mark Twain called the place home. Students working on excavation are part of a summer field school from the Department of Anthropology and the Extended Studies office at the University. The project is made possible through volunteer and student labor, although a National Park Service grant supports a few professional archaeologists to manage the excavation.
“Maguire opened one of the West’s most important theaters in July 1863,” said state historic preservation officer Ron James, whose agency is providing the federal funds to support the project. “Mark Twain rushed back from San Francisco to Virginia City so he could attend the premiere act, which featured the best actors of the day including a brother of the future presidential assassin, John Wilkes Booth.”
Maguire’s building dates to the earliest period of Comstock development. “Because the site is in the center of town, we hope it will yield information not only on the opera house that stood there, but also on still earlier development,” said James. “This was the dynamic time when Virginia City was taking shape, and Samuel Clemens arrived in town, eventually taking his name, Mark Twain, while working as a reporter.”
“The intent of this part of the project is to arrive at a better understanding of an important part of early Virginia City,” said project director, Don Hardesty, a professor and chairman of the University’s anthropology department. “This place was important to the region and in the history of the American theater.”
Hardesty has directed several excavations in Virginia City including work at Piper’s Opera House and at the African-American-owned Boston Saloon.
Maguire operated his theater for several years before John Piper, a local businessman and politician, purchased it in 1867. Piper turned the institution into an important cultural venue. Twain lectured twice on the stage during 1866 and 1868 visits to his former home. Many other internationally known acts appeared at the Maguire-Piper Theater before it burned during the great fire of 1875. At that point, Piper relocated the institution to the corner of B and Union streets. The facility that still operates there dates to 1885, and the theaters have attracted talent like Edwin Booth, Henry Ward Beecher, Buffalo Bill, Emma Nevada, John Philip Sousa and Al Jolson.
The Maguire Opera House site is owned by the Mark Twain Saloon. Archaeologists are concerned about the site being vandalized during the project and have contacted the Storey County Sheriff to watch for illegal activity.
“Artifact collecting on private property without permission can be regarded as theft and trespass, and unauthorized people who take artifacts from public land are in violation of state and federal law,” James said.
The excavation at the Barbary Coast site in July yielded many artifacts from that vice-ridden neighborhood. Archaeologists will take the artifacts to a University lab where they will be cleaned, catalogued and analyzed.
“Most of the actual discoveries are made in the lab,” said Hardesty. “The archaeology method depends on precise understanding of the retrieved material in its context, and it is from that process that it is possible to draw conclusions about the past based on what has been retrieved.”
Preliminary conclusions suggest that people were eating cheaper cuts of meat, but some fancy glass and crystal items suggest not all was humble. Other artifacts suggest the presence of women and children.
The public is welcome to visit the archaeological site while the team is working, Mondays through Fridays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Work at the Maguire’s Opera House site, near the corner of D and Union streets, below the Delta parking lot, is expected to run through Aug. 13.
The State Historic Preservation Office is an agency of the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs. The department serves Nevada’s citizens and visitors through cultural and information management, presentation and promotion of cultural resources, and education. For more information on the Department of Cultural Affairs, please call Teresa Moiola at (775) 687-8323 or visit the department’s Web site.
Editor's Note: Additional information was provided by the College of Extended Studies, Donald Hardesty, professor of anthropology, and Natalie Savidge, media specialist with University Media Relations.