This is the true story of how one man sacrificed everything for a city, San Francisco, and his dream that it would one day be the most beautiful city in the world. And all for the love of a woman. The year is 1854 and William Ralston’s fiancée has just died. She, the granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, was to move with Ralston to San Francisco and help him transform the squalid Gold Rush town into a beautiful, modern city. Now, alone, he will take up the quest in her memory. When the Comstock Lode is discovered, the quixotic dream seems suddenly plausible: Ralston, a banker, will funnel the wealth of the silver mines into his fledgling city -- build theatres, magnificent hotels, museums, finance businesses. But others have designs on the Comstock, including Prussian immigrant, and would-be engineer, Adolph Sutro.
Jessalyn Ohhlson is a prostitute with a remarkable characteristic: she bears a striking resemblance to Ralston's deceased fiancée. When Ralston sees her, he can't help himself and, although he is married now, they begin a torrid affair. Finnian Gillespie is an Irish street fighter; he too has seen Jessalyn, or Jessie, and is smitten. Jessie moves to Virginia City (and the Comstock) to start fresh and become a schoolteacher; Finn also moves there to make his fortune in the silver mines. When he meets Jessie, she reluctantly agrees to see him, but only to give reading lessons. Finn falls hopelessly in love and soon proposes; Jessie, however, afraid to reveal her past, and still seeing Ralston, declines. Finn is bewildered but won't give up. These two star-crossed lovers will eventually be swept up in Ralston’s grand scheme, with dire consequences. And the true identity of Jessie will, in the end, will be a great shock to Ralston.
Adolph Sutro, meanwhile, proposes to build a four-mile tunnel beneath the Comstock. If successful, he would gain effective control over the silver mines, something Ralston cannot allow--it would jeopardize his plans for San Francisco. Thus begins a decade-long battle, a battle that Ralston, the most powerful banker in California, should easily win. Except that Sutro proves to be very resourceful and incredibly stubborn. The battle rages from California to Washington D.C., and even Europe, while the fate of San Francisco, and of innocent lives, awaits the outcome.