On November 28, 1876, the excited residents of Virginia City christened their new monument to education, the Fourth Ward School. Built to honor the nation's centennial, the majestic four-story building could accommodate over 1000 students, and it boasted state-of-the-art heating, ventilation, and sanitation systems, as well as water piped to all floors. Architect C.M. Bennett may have drawn inspiration from popular 19th-century architectural pattern books for the design of the Second Empire structure with its distinctive Mansard roof. Projected to cost around $30,000, the completed project came in at $54,000 including land and furniture.
The Territorial Enterprise called the new Fourth Ward School, "The finest structure of the kind in Nevada," adding "If it is our pride today, the time is not far distant when it will be our glory as well." Virginia City, at the center of the vibrant Comstock Mining District founded in 1859, suffered from serious overcrowding of its public and private schools. The community welcomed the addition of sixteen classrooms.
Students of all ages attended the Fourth Ward School, situated at the south end of Virginia City's C Street. The Primary Department contained first through fourth grades. Fifth and sixth graders were enrolled in the Second Grammar Department. Eighth and ninth graders pursued their education in the Fourth Ward's High School Department, which earned the distinction of awarding diplomas to the first students in Nevada to complete all nine grades. By 1909, the Fourth Ward's curriculum had expanded to include instruction through the twelfth grade.
From the turn of the century through the 1920s, Fourth Ward teachers educated hundreds of students, but the declining fortunes of the mining district and diminishing population caused the student body to shrink. By the mid-1930s, less than 200 students attended the Fourth Ward School. The building was in need of repair and it seemed to be an obsolete relic from another era. When federal New Deal funding provided an opportunity to build a modern structure, the community jumped at the chance. Situated in the middle of Virginia City, Storey County Middle School was originally an all-class replacement for the Fourth Ward School, which closed its doors after its last seniors graduated in 1936.
Abandoned to the elements, the Fourth Ward School seemed doomed. State grants in 1964 and 1984 rescued the structure, giving it the promise of a brighter future. A grant from the Nevada Humanities Committee funded a museum in the building, which reopened in 1986, fifty years after closing. Since that time, the Fourth Ward School Museum has received hundreds of thousands of visitors ranging from school groups to foreign tourists. With diverse programming, a changing gallery, and engaging exhibits, the Fourth Ward School has once again become a community center and a remarkable setting for those wishing to learn about the glorious past of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode.
$5 Adults, $3 Children (6-12)
Children under 6 free with an adult