January 11, 2006

Nevada's Online State News Journal

 

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Nevada History:

[From James G. Scrugham, Nevada: The Narrative of the Conquest of a Frontier Land (1935), vol. I]

II

EARLY MINING AND THE COMSTOCK LODE

 

            In the rush to the California El Dorado tens of thousands paused for a day or a few weeks at the eastern base of the Sierra Nevadas to rest and recuperate from the losses and privations of the desert travel, and during this pause they may be said to have stumbled over a greater wealth than most of them ever found in California. It was gold they were looking for, and placer gold at that, and nothing short of the golden sands in the California rivers and bars could satisfy them. Some free gold was discovered, as has been noted, on the eastern side of the mountains as early as 1850. But, to quote one of the early writers[1], "the gold being fine (i.e., like dust—in fine particles), and the quantity not being up to their expectations, nearly all pushed on to California, where they expected to make fortunes in a few weeks or months. . . . . Finally Spofford Hall, of Fort Wayne, Indiana, arrived across the plains and, thinking it a good point at which to establish a permanent station, erected a substantial log house at a point not far from the mouth of Gold Canyon. This was for some time known as Hall's Station. . . . This house stood on ground now (1876) covered by the town of Dayton and was still being used as a store at the time of the discovery of silver, it being then owned by Major Ormsby. . . . This discovery of gold at the mouth of Gold Canyon was undoubtedly that which led to the discovery, some years later, of the Comstock Lode—the first step, as it were, to the Grand Silver discovery of the age."

            A voluminous literature has been written concerning the discoveries which made Nevada "the Silver State." As early mining history is replete with records of claims, counter claims, and physical and legal controversies, so likewise there are any number of versions as to the "original discoverers." Perhaps as clear and trustworthy a statement as any concerning the discovery of silver in Nevada is that contained in the surveyor general's report of January 31, 1866:

            In 1852, H. B. and E. A. Grosch, or Grosh, (sons of A. B. Grosch, a Universalist clergyman of considerable note and editor of a Universalist paper at Utica, New York), educated metallurgists, came to the then territory, and the same or the following year engaged in placer mining in Gold Canyon, near the site of Silver City, and continued there until 1857, when, so far as I can learn, they first discovered silver ore, which was found in a quartz vein (probably the one now owned by the Kossuth Gold & Silver Mining Company), on which the Grosch brothers had a location. Shortly after the discovery, in the same year, one of the brothers accidentally wounded himself with a pick, from the effects of which he

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soon died, and the other brother went to California, where he died early in 1858, which probably prevented the valuable nature of their discovery from becoming known. In the meantime placer mining was carried on to a considerable extent in various localities, principally in Gold Canyon.

Johntown and Gold Hill.

            The community center for most of the miners along Gold Canyon was a place called Johntown. From about 1856 up to 1858, says Wright, "Johntown was the 'big mining town' of Western Utah—at least was the headquarters of most of the miners at work in the country. All told, the camp contained only about a dozen buildings, some of which were mere shanties, but many of the miners preferred to camp out during the spring and summer months—they had no use for houses." This was "home" for such men as Henry Comstock, Peter O'Reilly, Patrick McLaughlin, James Finney (Old Virginia), and others. At the mouth of the canyon, where gold discoveries were first found, a number of Chinamen had collected, so that this locality came to be known "Chinatown."

            The dominating feature of the topography of this region is Mount Davidson, originally known as "Sun Mountain." Gold Canyon heads on the south side of this mountain. Early in 1859, during a spell of mild thawing weather a group of prospectors including "Old Virginia," Comstock, John Bishop, did some prospecting in the vicinity of the head of the canyon. The result of the washings determined them to measure off the ground. The situation was a knoll to which they gave the name Gold Hill. While they claimed the ground for placer mining, and the diggings were worked to yield gold from the decomposed croppings, Gold Hill eventually was found to be imposed upon some of the richest sections of the Comstock Lode, where were located such famous mines as the Belcher, Crown Point, Yellow Jacket, Imperial and others.[2]

The Comstock.

            About a mile from Gold Hill, and on the north side of Mount Davidson, was the beginning, of another canyon known as Six Mile Canyon. "In 1857 Joe Kirby and others commenced placer mining in Six Mile Canyon, about half a mile below where the Ophir works now are, and worked at intervals with indifferent success until 1859.[3]. . . . The discovery of rich deposits of silver ore was not made until June, 1859, when Peter O'Reilly and Patrick McLaughlin, while engaged in gold washing on what is now the ground of the Ophir Mining Company, and near the south line of the Mexican Company's claim, uncovered a rich vein of sulphuret of silver, in an excavation made for the purpose of collecting water to use in their rockers in washing for gold. This discovery being on ground claimed at the time by Kirby and others, Comstock was employed to purchase their claim, whereby Comstock's name has been given to this great lode, by which those entitled to the credit of its discovery have been defrauded—a transaction, to compare small things with great, as discreditable as that by which Americus

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Vespucius bestowed his name upon the western continent, an honor due alone to the great Columbus."

            This statement emphasizes the credit due to O'Reilly and McLaughlin as the "original discoverers" of the Comstock Lode. But the rejoicing of these men was not due to the discovery of silver, but rather to the unusually rich washings of gold taken from their rockers. It was gold, not silver, that precipitated the first rush to Mount Davidson. The unfamiliar "blue stuff" (sulphuret of silver) was not only dross to the gold found in its company, but the gold itself was a good deal "off color."[4] In spite of the unwelcome silver, the primitive methods of placer mining were producing free gold in quantities comparable to many of the more profitable mining camps of California.[5]

            Henry Comstock, according to all accounts, appeared on the scene just as O'Reilly and McLaughlin were finishing their first successful day's work at their rockers. Comstock had a keen eye for the value of a mineral prospect, and withal is described as very much of a boaster and a bully. Apparently O'Reilly and McLaughlin were impressed by Comstock's loud pretensions that the ground they were working was part of a prior claim located by Kirby, Comstock and others, or they thought that he was a dangerous man who would be more useful as an ally than as an enemy. In consequence Comstock was taken into the company which first comprised four members, Comstock, O'Reilly, McLaughlin and Emanuel Penrod. The first working was done as a placer claim. Penrod claimed the credit for convincing the others that it was a quartz lead or lode, and accordingly 1,500 feet of ground was measured off and located as a quartz lead. As finally recorded this Ophir claim named two other partners, J. D. Winters and J. A. ("Kentuck") Osborne.

First Towns.

            From this discovery, to quote again the surveyor general's report, "resulted the marvelous growth of Nevada. Immediately the lode was claimed for miles ; an unparalleled excitement followed, and miners and capitalists came in great numbers to reap a share of the reported wealth. The few hardy prospectors, exploring the mountains for hidden wealth, soon counted their neighbors by thousands ; soon walked along miles of busy streets called into existence by the throng of adventurers."

            As soon as the grand strike had been made at the Ophir mine by O'Reilly and McLaughlin, there was a great rush to that neighborhood ; not only of miners from Johntown, Gold Hill and Dayton (then known as Chinatown), but also

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from the agricultural sections of the country—from Washoe Valley, Truckee Meadow and from Carson and Eagle Valleys.

            Claims were taken up and staked off for a great distance north and south of the Ophir mine in the direction the lead was shown to run by the huge croppings of quartz that came to the surface, and towered far above the surface, in various places.

            It was not long before other companies had found pay, and soon there was in the place quite a lively little camp, the miners living in brush shanties, houses made of canvas, or camping in the open air in the sagebrush flats.

            At this time the camp was spoken of, in documents placed upon the records, as "Pleasant Hill" and as "Mount Pleasant Point ;" in August, 1859, it was designated as "Ophir" and "the settlement known as Ophir," and in September, as "Ophir Diggings." In October the place is first mentioned as "Virginia Town," but a month later it was proposed to "change the name of the place from Virginia Town to Wunu-muc-a, in honor of the chief of the Py-utes." Old Winnemucca, chief of all the Piutes, was not so honored, and in November, 1859, the town was first called Virginia City, a name it has ever since retained.[6]

            Before the end of June, 1859, nearly all the ground had been claimed on which were subsequently developed properties that were a synonym of fortunes on the stock exchanges and in the popular mind not only in the West but throughout the world, including the Ophir, the Mexican, the California, Union Consolidated, besides those at Gold Hill.

            In July, 1859, some of the silver ore from the Comstock was taken over the mountains and assayed in California.[7] Then for the first time it was discovered that the value of the silver, which had been thrown away, was greater than the gold content. Efforts were made to keep the discovery secret, but the facts in more or less exaggerated form were circulated, and in a few days the trails were crowded with prospectors and speculators rushing to

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the Washoe diggings. In the meantime it had been realized that, whether for gold or silver production, the Comstock was a quartz lode, and for its proper working necessitated the introduction of machinery and capital, instead of the simple equipment and manual processes of the placer miners. By October, 1859, a small four-stamp mill had been set up at Dayton. The ore was obtained from Gold Hill, and was milled for the gold. There were no local facilities as yet for the reduction of the silver ore, and this ore was sewed up in bags and packed over the mountains, quantities of it being shipped to England for smelting.[8]

            One of the first problems that faced the mining camps on the Comstock Lode was that of transportation. The camps were situated on the rough mountain side, and the only method of getting in supplies or taking out the ore was on the backs of pack mules until reaching the wagon road on the California trail. In a short time after the discovery of silver, work of constructing roads up the side of the mountain was begun, in a number of places the ways being blasted through solid rock, and after they were completed teams of mules could haul great wagons laden with supplies and lumber for the construction of houses. Of the two towns on the Comstock, Gold Hill and Virginia City, at first separated by a distance of about a mile, the older was, as has been noted, Gold Hill. Gold Hill is on the south side and Virginia City the eastern side of Mount Davidson.

            The first house built in Virginia City was a canvas structure, 18 by 40 feet in size, erected in 1859 by Lyman Jones, one of the pioneers of the country. Mrs. Jones was the first white woman who lived where Virginia City now stands, and her daughter Ella was the first white child seen in the camp. The first white child born in Virginia City was a daughter of J. H. Tilton, one of the pioneer wagon-road builders in the country. She was born on the 1st of April, 1860, and was named Virginia.[9]

            According to Wright[10], who was himself a newspaper man, a weekly news sheet, written, not printed, on foolscap paper, was published at Genoa, edited by S. A. Kinsey, and another at John-town, edited by Joe Webb, between the years 1854 and 1858. The first real newspaper, The Territorial Enterprise, began publication at Genoa December 18, 1858. In November, 1859, it was removed to Carson City, and in November, 1860, to Virginia City.

The Discoverers.

            Before closing the account of the discovery of the Comstock Lode, a few words should be said concerning some of the more conspicuous pioneers. Henry Comstock soon disposed of most of his mining interests, and afterwards claimed he had been robbed or swindled of some of his rights. He took a bride, who soon ran

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away from him, and he then opened stores at Carson City and Silver City. He gave credit to everyone, and in this way his fortune was soon dissipated. After that he wandered and prospected through Idaho and Montana, and while in Montana he ended his own life, September 27, 1870. In a letter he wrote for publication he stated that he had first arrived in the Washoe country in 1853. He claimed a record of service in the Black Hawk Indian war and the Mexican war, and had also fought in the "Patriot war" in Canada, his native country. "I have been in the wilderness since a child ; was bound to the American Fur Company ; my boss died and that's the way I got with old Black Hawk. My first recollection was packing traps ; trapped all over Canada, Michigan and Indiana ; but the Rocky Mountains have been my home ; I have been a guide these years and years."

            Comstock could dress and act the part of a man of the world, but "Old Virginia" (James Finney or Fennimore) was to the last a hard drinking, rough and typical frontiersman. He was born in Virginia, whence his popular name, had gone to California at an early date and, as has been noted, preceded John Reese to the Carson Valley. He lost his life at Dayton in July, 1861, being thrown from his horse while under the influence of liquor.

            Peter O'Reilly, one of the original discoverers of the Comstock Lode, realized probably more than any of his partners, but sudden wealth was more than he could stand. He put some of his money in a hotel at Virginia City, allowed some of his friends to use his funds to speculate on the mining exchange, and eventually he was once more a poor prospector out in the hills. Eventually he died in an asylum in California.

            While thousands were joining in the rush to the communities around the Comstock Lode, transportation and communication to and across Nevada were making great progress. In 1851 the firm of Woodard and Chorpening had undertaken to carry the United States mail from Sacramento to Salt Lake City, following for the greater part of the way the trail of the California Argonauts. On one of the early trips Colonel Woodard was killed by Indians.[11] After the death of Woodard, Chorpening continued the service alone until 1853, when he formed a partnership with the renowned Ben Holladay.[12] After 1857 the mail from Sacramento to Genoa was carried in the tri-weekly line of stages, but Holladay and Chorpening continued the mail service from Genoa to Salt Lake City. The Utah war and Indian hostilities during 1857-58 were made a pretext for the temporary abandonment of the central route, and until 1861 the chief favors of the government were granted to the southern overland mail route. In 1858 the service through Salt Lake was resumed, with mail and passenger stages running from Placerville to Salt Lake City.


 

[1] William Wright (Dan de Quille) History of the Big Bonanza.

[2] The first quartz claim located on the Comstock Lode was made by "Old Virginia" on February 22, 1858. The other locations were placer claims. [Editor's note -- This footnote is numbered "3" in the text.  There is no footnote numbered "2".]

[3] Surveyor General's Report for 1866.

[4] "For some weeks they dug down the rich decomposed silver ore, washed the gold out of it, and let it go as waste—throwing it anywhere to get it out of the way of the rockers. They not only did not try to save it. but they constantly and conscientiously cursed it. Being very heavy, it settled to the bottom of their rockers, covered up the quick silver they contained, and prevented the thorough amalgamation of the gold. The miners all thought well of the diggings, but for this stuff. It was the great drawback."—Wright's History of the Big Bonanza, 55.

[5] "Notwithstanding their troubles with the sulphuret of silver," says Wright, "they were taking out gold at the rate of a thousand dollars or more per day; their dust selling at about eleven dollars per ounce. In some spots they obtained from fifty dollars to one hundred and fifty dollars in a single pan of dirt."

[6] Wright, History of the Big Bonanza, 59.

[7] The accounts of this incident vary as to individual names and particulars.

[8] According to Wright, the first mill for the reduction of silver ores was "The Pioneer," located at the Devil's Gate. It was started in 1861, but others were started within a few days.

[9] Wright, History of the Big Bonanza, 216.

[10] Concerning the author of the History of the Big Bonanza, Mark Twain, in the introduction said : "The writer of it has spent sixteen years in the heart of the silver-mining region, as one of the editors of the principal daily newspaper of Nevada : he is thoroughly acquainted with his subject, and wields a practiced pen."

[11] Col. A. Woodard had taken a prominent part in the citizens meetings in November, 1851, as previously described.

[12] Ben Holladay was the great genius of the overland stage routes. He was born in Kentucky in 1824, served in the Mexican war, at the close of which he acquired a large equipment of government war material and in 1849 went to Salt Lake City as the first Gentile trader among the Mormons. In 1862 he acquired the enterprise of Russell, Majors and Waddell and instituted the great overland stage service between the eastern frontier and California points.