April 1, 2013
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[Isaac F. Marcosson, The Romance of the Comstock Lode, Part 1, Munsey's Magazine, May 1910]
THE ROMANCE OF THE COMSTOCK LODE
BY ISAAC F. MARCOSSON
AUTHOR OF "THE PERILOUS GAME OF CORNERING A CROP," ETC.
BEYOND the Great Divide, where the Washoe Range sentinels the snowy Sierras, a lone, timberless peak, nearly eight thousand feet high, rises out of the valley of the Carson, with Virginia City clinging to its side. Once the Indians called it Sun Peak, because its craggy summit caught the first glow of the new day, but later it was christened Mount Davidson. Its sides are seared with ravines and littered with the gaunt, ugly, and now inert machinery of mining. It seems desolate and abandoned ; yet once the eye and heart of the world leaped hungrily to this place, for under its easterly ledge nature had stocked an imperial treasure-house — the Comstock Lode.
To-day, after more than half a century has passed since the first miner burrowed into the generous breast of that mother lode, the sun never sets on the achievements that its wealth has wrought.
Its ramifications reach everywhere. The cable that girds the globe with electric life, the tall sky-scrapers and hotels that cañon cities on both our coasts, are tribute to this treasure. It made an American girl a Roman princess ; it founded a new financial dynasty ; it affected the monetary equilibrium of the nations ; it sent four men to the United States Senate ; it changed the destiny of political parties ; it cradled a new State, and it subsidized high society at Newport and in Fifth Avenue. Far more interesting than all this, it gave to the history of mining its most picturesque tradition — the story of the Big Bonanza.
Here, indeed, is an Iliad of the rock-ribbed hills, a romance of hardship and heroism, a giant play of master manipulation and shifting fortune, all blending into the most dazzling of our mining epics. Dawson, Tonopah, Goldfield, and Cripple Creek are episodes of to-day ; other camps may have their brief and golden hour ; but the silver strike of the Comstock is for all time, because it is part of the real history of the country.
The curious destiny that plays pranks with fortune-hunters hovered about the very beginnings of the Comstock. First of all, the Mormon legions and the hosts of gold-seekers who swept westward in the late forties and early fifties toward California's glittering goal literally walked over its fabulous riches. What is now the State of Nevada, and particularly that part of it which provided the stage for the Comstock drama, was then the western section of Utah Territory. It was a wild, barren region, buttressed in by granite hills, watered by the Carson and Truckee rivers, and skirted by the old emigrant trail that Kearney had blazed beyond the last frontier.
Here, in 1850, a band of Mormons set up their abode, and one of them washed out some gold in a tin milk-pan. Those sparkling bits were like dragon's teeth, for they sowed the seeds of an unrest that would later stir a whole people. The country was so sterile, however, that the Mormons became discouraged, folded their tents, and moved eastward to the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
Meanwhile the news of their discovery
NOTE — This is the first of two articles on the Comstock Lode. The second, to be published next month, will tell the story of the Big Bonanza and its fabulous riches, of the rise of the so-called Bonanza Kings, and of the results of their financial power.
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spread about, for in those days the mere word "gold" was a sort of wireless that flashed across ranges and reached the very souls of men, no matter where they were. A small settlement grew up around the old Mormon station in what came to be called Gold Cañon.
THE PIONEERS OF THE COMSTOCK
Here gathered that motley group of soldiers of mining who were to lay bare the world's greatest silver hoard. First came a bibulous teamster, a sort of Rip Van Winkle oracle of the placer camps, named James Finney, but more commonly known as "Old Virginia." Then arrived a loud-mouthed, shrewd, vain, gangling Canadian fur-trader, H. T. P. Comstock, who was dubbed "Old Pancake," mainly because he was never known to have turned out a successful cake. His mind was always soaring the summits in search of gold. Among the later corners were two Irishmen, Peter O'Reilly and Patrick McLaughlin. It was a group of ignorant, unkempt, roistering miners, who knew no law but the point of a pick.
These uncouth adventurers worked their way up toward Sun Peak, noticing, as they went, that the gold was getting thinner and lighter. A strange, black, hard substance crept into the soil. It never entered their heads to look for anything but gold, so they stumbled on.
Years before, two brothers named Grosch had studied the ledge formations, and had probably cut into the great lode, but both had perished, and the secret was lost with them. Fate now flung the key of the Comstock coffer into the path of the oncoming miners.
One day in January, 1859, Old Virginia, Comstock, and a few others were prospecting up the ridge on the side of the mountain. The old man shoved a pan into a gopher-hole and pulled out a mass of dirt full of yellow particles that sparkled in the sunlight. As he did so, he drew forth the first strands of the Comstock's silver fleece. It is a picture to be remembered, that day at the close of the fifties — a lone, desolate mountainside with its bleak granite peering through the yellow soil, with no living green to cheer the sterility, and with the group of ill-clad, booted miners who stood at that very moment on the roof of an Aladdin cave.
Finney and his crowd staked out claims and set to work. The news of their find caused some excitement down in Johntown, as the Gold Cañon colony had come to be called. Most of the miners, following the instinct of their kind, moved up to the new diggings, which were named Gold Hill. Great mines of the future — Crown Point, Belcher, Yellow Jacket, Imperial, Kentucky, and Empire — lay all about, with their silver hearts ready to be plucked.
Pretty soon these miners once more ran into that strange, hard, black-and-blue stuff which clogged their riffles, impeded their washing, and made itself generally obnoxious. The more they worked up the ledge, the harder it got, until they had to break it with a pick. Then, when they had greedily extracted the gold, they sent the "blue stuff" hurtling down the ravine, followed by their maledictions.
But a great moment was at hand. In June of that year O'Reilly and McLaughlin were working up the ledge, considerably beyond Gold Cañon, and high on the mountainside. The "blue stuff" still pursued them ; gold was scant, and they were depressed. They were bending every energy to secure a "grub stake," in order to get out of what seemed to be a played-out country. They began to dig a water-hole, and had got down four feet when they struck a dark, heavy, gleaming deposit, similar to the formation on Gold Hill. On washing it, they found it rich with gold, but at the same time crusted with the "blue stuff." They had tapped the great lode at last, and at that moment were standing on the top of the famous Ophir Mine.
All day they worked feverishly, and by sundown they had washed out three hundred dollars' worth of gold. As they were washing their last pan, they heard the rattle of a horse's hoofs, and Old Pancake rode up on a pony. His keen eye saw the glitter of gold in the pan ; he leaped excitedly to the ground, yelling
"You have struck it, boys!"
Then came another of the many freaks of fate that were to dot the Comstock story. Old Pancake calmly laid claim to the site on which the miners worked.
"I staked out here for a ranch last year," he said, "and I own the water rights above."
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Talk of a ranch was absurd, for even a mountain goat would have starved on that bleak rock ; but Comstock got away with his bluff. Rather than quarrel, the two simple Irishmen divided their claim with the impostor. Before the news of the strike had been noised about, Comstock rode down to Gold Hill, and bought whatever claim Old Virginia had in the section for a mustang and a bottle of whisky. Then he talked so much about the find that before long everybody was referring to it as his discovery ; and thus the most famous mining strike in the world came to be known to history by the name of a braggart who had little or nothing to do with its birth.
Following this latest discovery, the mining colony moved up the mountain a notch, and a new settlement was started. Shacks and cabins began to surround the ledge where the strands of the silver fleece peeped out. That first outpost of mining life, the saloon, was planted in the center.
The diggings had to have a name. Ophir was the first one suggested ; but it remained for Old Virginia to settle the question. One night he stumbled back to his cabin after a revel. Just in front of his door he fell on a rock, and broke the bottle of whisky that he carried in his hand. As he rose shakily, still clutching the neck of the bottle, he said:
"I baptize this ground Virginia."
And Virginia it became — first with the addition of "Town," and later, as "Town" was not metropolitan enough to suit the miners, with that of "City." Such was the chance christening of the most picturesque mining-camp in the West, a city set on a hill with a silver-mine under every front door.
THE DISCOVERY OF SILVER
But these miners were fooling with fortune. As they worked on, they still encountered the "blue stuff " which had blocked their washing so annoyingly. You must remember that they were placer miners, and knew little of quartz formation or quartz operations. The outside world regarded Nevada as a placer goldfield. Everything in the Comstock seemed to have happened by chance ; so with the revelation that set the cap on the great discovery.
A few months later in that same year — 1859 — a Truckee River farmer came up to Virginia City to see the camp. He picked up some pieces of the "blue stuff" that had called forth so much profanity, thinking that they would be nice souvenirs of a rather lively place. He went down to Placerville, and gave a piece to his friend, Judge Walsh. The blue streaks looked interesting, so the judge had the piece assayed. He nearly fell dead when the assay showed a value of three thousand dollars per ton in silver and less than one thousand dollars in gold. The apparently worthless stuff that the miners had been throwing away in disgust was the richest kind of silver sulfuret. Tons of it were lying loose in the ravines. Man's hand had found the mountain's silver heart at last
This news was worth a princely fortune, and Judge Walsh was swift to realize on it. He told his most intimate friend in confidence, and that intimate friend, in turn, told his bosom pal. By the next night the news was traveling like wildfire across the ranges, stirring the very souls of men to new desires. Meanwhile Judge Walsh galloped over to Virginia City as fast as he could, and bought Comstock's interest in the claim, which was larger than those of the other partners, for eleven thousand dollars—ten dollars in cash, the balance to be paid later.
The judge sent some more of the silver sulfuret down to San Francisco, where it showed up better, when assayed, than the first batch. The bullion made from it was displayed in a shop-window, and the world gazed on Comstock treasure for the first time. Walsh founded the Ophir Mining Company, and with its operation the development of the great lode began.
It was late in the summer when the secret of the silver hoard was ferreted out, but soon the news of it was speeding across the Sierras wherever the miner washed a pan. The old guard of the Forty-niners swung their picks to their shoulders ; farmers left their crops to rot in the mellow autumn sun ; merchants closed up their shops. There began the famous "rush to Washoe."
A fierce winter put a temporary stop to the onslaught of the army that was coming to storm the Comstock. While it lasted, an impatient, silver-mad horde
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chafed beyond the granite mountains ; but when the snows melted in the passes, and long before the first green mantled the dark cañons, the fortune-hunters were streaming into Virginia City by the score, and there began the mad whirl of life that was to continue for many a day.
The mushroom was a century-plant in comparison to the new community that bristled with picks and boiled over with excitement. Every scrap of ground on the mountainside was staked out ; there began the feverish trading and gambling in claims that was the forerunner of frenzied days to come. A rude recordership was established in a book that was kept behind the bar of the principal saloon. Men changed the dips, spurs, angles, and general dimensions of their tracts as they swilled their whisky, and thus was laid the groundwork for the endless litigation that was to plunge the lode into a turmoil of fierce and costly conflict.
One by one the great mines of the future came into being. Ophir, which later yielded a raja's ransom, started with ten miners; Gould and Curry, Mexican and Burning Moscow — with scarcely more.
While the lode rang with the din of the workers, what of the men who had first stumbled on the treasure-trove? Theirs was the common fate of the fortune-finder. Comstock drifted from camp to camp, squandering the money he had received for his share in the lode, and finally perishing by his own hand, in a fit of insanity, at Bozeman, Montana. Old Virginia, after years of carousing interspersed with a little prospecting, fell from his horse while drunk, and broke his neck. O'Reilly, who got forty thousand dollars for his share of the original claim, soon lost it in speculation and went stark mad while working a lone claim in the foot-hills of the Sierras. McLaughlin ended his days as a cook in a California mining-camp. Their passing was like that of the fleecy clouds drifting over Sun Peak — which had meanwhile been named Mount Davidson in honor of a San Francisco ore-buyer.
The city on the mountainside was seething and surging with life, and teeming with a picturesque population that included the border ruffian, the gambler, and the tout — all the dregs and by-products that a great mining strike stirs up. The rude shacks made way for houses ; a theater offered its stage, on which Booth, Barrett, McCullough, and Modjeska were later to tread ; the tramp printer set up his case. Here came Mark Twain, to be a reporter on the Territorial Enterprise, the leading newspaper of the region ; and out of some of his experiences he wrote "Roughing It." Here gathered the journalists of the lode, the dean of them being Dan De Quille, who was to be the best historian of the mines. The whole place was a dramatized Bret Harte story. Dominating its roistering, its gaming, and its tumult was the master passion for silver.
In the host which had swept into the gulches on the high tide of the Washoe rush were five men destined to be the future lords of the Comstock. Unnoticed in the throng were two sturdy Irish lads, John W. Mackay and James G. Fair, who had worked with pick and pan in the California fields, had caught the Nevada fever, and were now merged into the restless horde that sacked the lode. There was also a tall, long-limbed, red-haired man, whose eagle eye searched keenly whatever he saw, and whose name was William M. Stewart. There was another impressive figure topped by a strong, bearded face which history was later to know as that of John P. Jones. Tucked away more obscurely in the crowd was a stocky German Jew, who was fairly galvanized by a restless energy, and who had marvelous power to sway the hearts of men. This was Adolph Sutro, whose name was to be heroically linked with the drama of the silver treasure.
Of all the money-mad cohorts that infested the lode, strange it is that this handful of men, and a few that came later, are the only ones who stand out in a dispassionate perspective of that brief and frenzied era.
THE CZARSHIP OF STEWART
It was Stewart's turn first, for he was a lawyer, and the decree of the Territorial court, rude as it was, had succeeded the point of the pick as the law of the lode. Few counselors have had to disentangle such a mass of litigation as he was called upon to straighten out. The whirlwind resulting from the careless claim-filing of the earlier days was at hand, and menaced the mines long before they were racked
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by fire and flood. In five years, more than ten millions of dollars, or one-fifth of their total output, was expended on litigation. Stewart was in the thick of it. Mark Twain described him thus :
He doth bestride this narrow range like a colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves six feet of unclaimed ground. Sure it is that he has as much brass in his composition as the famous old statue of Rhodes ever had.
There is no room here for the record of Stewart's legal battles. He was the lawyer militant, who took the law into his own hands. You must remember that these claimants were struggling for kingly prizes, and the battle was fierce.
Once Stewart was fighting a case before a Federal judge, who resigned. The attorney got an injunction from his successor, but meanwhile the first judge withdrew his resignation, and sought to return to his authority. In the interim, the two hostile forces went to war, one side entrenching itself in a fort, and the other starting with a posse to drive it out. A bloody battle was imminent.
Stewart was in bed when he heard of the former justice's return to the bench, and of his attempt to undo all that had been done. He galloped to the judge's house, haled him down to the telegraph-office by the scruff of his neck, made him dictate telegrams rescinding the mischievous writs, and then said:
When the terrified jurist had done so, Stewart tossed the messages over to the operator, saying:
"Send these, and then keep away from the instrument for a few hours."
The threatened bloodshed was averted, and Stewart won the case. It was he who tamed Sam Brown, the "original bad man from Badville," who intruded himself into a case that Stewart was trying in a saloon. Everybody shivered, in expectation of a tragedy ; but with a peremptory "Sit down, sir," and a cool eye, the lawyer awed the ruffian so effectually that at the end of the trial he asked Stewart to have a drink with him. For more than a decade Stewart was the legal lion, and ruled the range. His income from his practise averaged two hundred thousand dollars a year. Once the Belcher Mine gave him one hundred feet of a claim as a fee, and the next day he sold it for a thousand dollars a foot. In 1864 he was elected to the United States Senate from the new State of Nevada, and the first direct result of the Comstock's power went abroad in the land.
AN ERA OF GIGANTIC GAMBLING
All the while the structure of a gigantic gambling in mines and mining stock was being erected. Companies were organized right and left, and before the close of 1861 nearly one hundred had been formed, with a total capitalization of more than eighty million dollars. At first, interests in claims were sold by the foot — that is, a share in a mine like the Gould and Curry, for example, might bring three thousand dollars a foot. Everybody was speculation mad ; each holder of a share believed himself a nabob, and no one thought of to-morrow. It was well said that in these early days of the sixties, when the big mines were yielding up their millions, the stockholders walked the streets believing that they were pacing the roof of a fathomless treasure-house. Some semblance of organization was given to the wild trading by the organization, in 1862, of the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Other exchanges sprang up, for the mining madness was in every vein. There was always a crowd about the quotation-boards, and it seemed that almost everybody on the Pacific coast had some interest in the game.
As is the case to-day, and as will be the case so long as men play with the hazard of fortune, the speculators fed on rumors and hungered for tips. There began the practise of imprisoning miners in the drifts when important new work was going on. The superintendent usually knew what the lay of the ore was ; and while the miners were safe from being "pumped," a few insiders could buy up shares at a low price. Then, when the miners came out, and the reports of a strike were circulated, the stock would boom and the pool could sell out at a big profit.
Many ingenious methods were adopted to obtain this sort of advance information. A scout was once sent to a mine to get the inside news, because it was known
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that important exploration was under way. As usual, the newspaper reporters were on the job ; but for a long time silence hung about the mine entrance. Finally the reporters became discouraged, but the lone scout kept his vigil.
After watching for several days, he saw the superintendent come out and change his clothes in a dressing-room. When the official was gone, he rushed to the room and scraped the mud off the man's working clothes and boots. He found a few scraps of ore in the pockets. With all this he made a ball, which he took at night to an assayer. It showed a high yield of silver, and meant that there had been a rich strike. The scout telegraphed the result to his employers in San Francisco, who at once got into the market and bought all the shares they could lay hands on. When the news of the strike was announced, and the price bounded, they made a haul.
What chance had the cooks, the housemaids, the hackmen, the clerks of San Francisco when they recklessly threw their savings into the maw of this speculative vortex ? Men went from millions to mendicancy in a single day.
Then it was that the fateful words "bonanza" and "borrasca" crept into the speech of the lode. They were old Mexican mining terms. When a shaft was in rich ore, it was "in bonanza" ; when the vein was sterile or dormant, it was "in borrasca."
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For a time, most of the big mines were in bonanza, and prodigality went hand in hand with waste. Early in the big mining operations it was seen that large mills and swift processes were necessary to snatch the treasure from mountains ; and soon the gulches were lined with mills. The utmost extravagance marked their construction. Some were Spanish haciendas; others, feudal castles. There were more than the camp needed. The Gould and Curry spent a million dollars on a mill, and then had to tear out the machinery and spend another half-million to renovate it. There was no thought of economy anywhere, and the mining men spent money like drunken sailors. A superintendent at Overman filled his water-tank with champagne at a wedding; another put solid silver door-handles all through his house ; a third had mahogany doors on his stables.
The experience of Sandy Bowers is typical. He was once a placer miner, but owned ten feet on the main ledge and pulled out a fortune. Before his prosperous days he had married a washerwoman. He didn't know what to do with his money, so he started to build a five-hundred-thousand-dollar house. While waiting for its completion, he decided to go to Europe ; and he hired the International Hotel for a farewell banquet to the town. He made a speech, saying:
"I have money to throw to the birds!"
He may not have originated this phrase, which slipped so easily into the vocabulary of the spendthrift ; but he certainly made his fortune fly, and in a few years he was stone broke. His wife, not deigning to return to the tubs, became the "Seeress of Washoe," and the most popular fortune-teller in the camp.
Waste and improper methods caused heavy assessments to be laid on the stockholders of some of the mines, but they had their heads in the clouds even as they had their hands in their purses. Millions were paid in assessments on mines that never returned a dividend. The stockholders of Alpha, for example, put in two million dollars, and never got out a cent.
This does not mean that ore was not forthcoming, but the terrific expenses ate up everything. Take Ophir, for example. It took out fifteen million dollars in bullion, but paid less than fifteen hundred thousand in dividends. Gould and Curry paid three millions in dividends, but its expenses were twice as much. What some of these wasters did not realize was that many of the early bonanzas were merely surface deposits ; when these petered out, they thought the mine had failed. They were blind to the fact that deep down in the very bowels of the lode a far greater treasure than they had ever tapped lay ready for the spoiler.
It might be well to point out here that by this time there were two well-defined sections of mines near Virginia City — the Gold Hill group, which included Bullion, Yellow Jacket, Kentucky, Crown Point, and Alpha, at the south end of the lode; and the Virginia City group, which embraced Ophir, California, Gould and Curry, Savage, Hale and Norcross, and Chollar-Potosi, at the north end. Somewhere between them lay a greater find than any Comstocker had ever dreamed of.
The first great stock depression came in 1865, and cast a sinister shadow over the Comstock. It was due to a thinning out of the veins, and to a reaction after a period of reckless manipulation. Gould and Curry, which sold at six thousand dollars a foot in 1863, dropped to nine hundred ; Ophir collapsed from fifteen hundred and eighty to three hundred ; Savage broke from twenty-six hundred to seven hundred and fifty. The slump brought great distress to San Francisco, and at Virginia City its effect was manifest in curtailed operations and wide-spread gloom.
THE NEW LEADERSHIP
All the while the old order of things was passing on the Comstock. The flush times were disappearing ; the disorganized tumult of the early days was subsiding. Monopoly was setting its heavy foot upon the silver heart of the lode.
Down in San Francisco was the Bank of California, the great institution founded by the late D. O. Mills, who lived to be the last of the Forty-niners. It had many connections, but no tentacle was so important as that which now reached out and laid hold of the Comstock's treasure. The bank opened a branch at Virginia City, and William Sharon came to take charge of it. Mark well his appearance, for you will see much of him in subsequent history.
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Sharon was a small man, compactly formed, of quiet demeanor and unobtrusive ways. He was a man of affairs and a strategist. He presented a striking contrast with Stewart, for he represented the dawn of business organization, while the lawyer incarnated the old idea of masterful individual authority. Sharon had lost a good deal of money in early Comstock operations; he had studied the game, and he wanted to get even. He lost no time in setting about his task.
When he came to Virginia City, the local banks were leading money at from three to five per cent a month. He cut down the rate to two per cent, and got the business. So long as the mines were producing ore, the mills could pay their obligations ; but when they had to struggle with borrasca, they were in trouble. There was only one result — the bank took possession of the mills. Thus the monopoly entrenched and fortified itself, because the mines had to send their ore to the mills.
The Bank of California acquired so many mills in this way that it had to form the Union Milling and Mining Company to take them over. The charter members of the new concern included Sharon, Mills, Alvinza Hayward, and W. C. Ralston. Ralston was cashier of the hank, a reckless speculator who later became its president, and who had a tragic end.
At this time the fortunes of the mines were checkered, but Sharon believed in the future of the Comstock. He built a railway from Virginia City to the Carson River, to connect with the Central Pacific. Vainly the old bull-skinners tried to compete with the iron horse. They had to give up the hopeless struggle, and the creaking caravans of ore passed out of the Comstock picture.
SUTRO AND HIS TUNNEL
While this money power was entrenching itself, another drama was shaping. Nature seldom gives up her precious hoards ungrudgingly, and nowhere did she offer a sterner resistance than down in the Comstock Lode. Fires swept the mines ; cave-ins entombed the miners ; floods raged in the drifts.
You may recall that among those early fortune-hunters was Adolph Sutro, who combined with the big vision of his race a boundless energy. It was said of him that his personality would have vivified the catacombs. He had first owned a small store ; then he had built a quartz-mill. Always his mind wrestled with the problems about him.
He saw the wasteful methods of pumping in the Comstock mines, and there came to him the idea that a tunnel four miles long, extending from the floor of the Carson Valley into Mount Davidson, and striking the mines fifteen or sixteen hundred feet below the surface, would drain off the water by gravity. It would also
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afford an easier way of taking out the ore, would provide ventilation, and would give a means of escape. It was a great idea, and it made Sutro the center of a dramatic and thrilling struggle for years.
The Sutro Tunnel Company was organized in 1865, with Senator Stewart as president. The only condition imposed by the franchise was that the promoters should raise three million dollars within three years. Sharon and the Bank of California people fell in heartily with the project, and Sutro secured special rights and privileges by an act of Congress. But no sooner did he have the precious subscription-list within his grasp than the Bank of California, fearing in him a new financial rival, suddenly stood from under ; Stewart resigned from the presidency, and the most powerful interests of the lode put their ban on the great scheme.
A month before, Sutro had stood erect on the rosy heights of hope, the admiration of every eye ; now he found himself plunged to the depths of an abyss, with all hands raised against him. But his enemies did not reckon with the resourcefulness and fighting power within his little frame. Turning from his own countrymen, Sutro scoured Europe. He had the necessary money pledged him when the Franco-Prussian War swept all his plans away. He struggled on and on, only to find some new obstacle to hurl him back.
Then he tried a new tack. He went to the Comstock miners, and pleaded his cause and his wrongs with such fervid and impassioned oratory that he won them over. The spectacle of this lone man battling the combined hosts of money and nature stirred those rude delvers of the deeps, and they subscribed fifty thousand dollars, with which he actually began work.
Later, he succeeded in raising two million dollars in the East. How he punctured the vast mountainsides, and combated fire, flood, heat, and every disaster that underground building is heir to ; how, covered with sweat and dirt, he himself led the way through the last hole that joined the two sections on July 8, 1878 — all this is a heroic tale of overwhelming achievement. You shall hear and see more of this man later on.
THE CROWN POINT BONANZA
Scarcely had Sutro's electric drills begun to pound into the Comstock granite than a season of dire despair fell upon the lode. There had been eleven bonanzas up to 1869, and all of these now appeared to be played out. The bullion product of
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the lode had been sixteen million dollars in 1865 ; in 1869 it dwindled to seven and one-half millions. It seemed, to use an old phrase of John W. Mackay, that all the bonanza raisins had been pulled out of the great Comstock plum-pudding. Even old Ophir was without pay ore, and Gould and Curry was producing only one-fourth of her former yield. The Bank of California had loaned three million dollars — three-fifths of its capital — on lode properties, and was becoming alarmed. A fierce labor war and devastating fires deepened the dejection. On all sides it was believed that the glory of the Comstock had departed.
But the singular fate that hovered about the lode was only crouching, as it were, for a new move. Down in an apparently unproductive part of the Crown Point Mine was a five-hundred-and-forty-foot section which, for several years, had been absorbing money and producing no profitable ore. Only one man had not lost faith in its possibilities. He was the superintendent, John P. Jones, who, a few years before, had shown his mettle in a fatal fire that had ravaged the lode. At the head of his men he had fought the flames for five days and nights. It was necessary for some one to dash into a small gallery and close up a pipe so as to divert the flow of steam. With one helper, Jones himself leaped to the task. In the choking smoke, and by the feeble flicker of a candle, he assaulted the steel. When the last blow was delivered, the candle went out, and the helper fainted from fear. Jones dragged him to the shaft, supported him while he found the cage, and brought him safely to the top.
This was the type of man who now led the forlorn hope at the Crown Point. The stock had declined to two dollars a share, and the total valuation of the mine was only twenty-four thousand dollars ; but Jones kept the faith, and doggedly delved on. He finally found some pockets that promised well, and on the strength of this a few speculators, including Alvinza Hayward, began to pick up the stock at prices ranging from two to five dollars a share.
Then Jones struck the outposts of a bonanza, and the stock began to soar. In a day it went to one hundred and twenty dollars, and in a week it was above three hundred. Meanwhile Hayward steadily acquired stock until he well-nigh held control. Only one man opposed him. This was Sharon, who had forty-one hundred shares. A significant moment had come, because, for the first time, the prestige of the milling monopoly was menaced. Hayward had been within its fold;
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now he fought his old colleagues from the outside.
Sharon was both wise and cool-headed. He saw the futility of conflict, so he sold his Crown Point holdings to Hayward for fourteen hundred thousand dollars—which was the biggest mining deal recorded up to that time. Hayward and Jones now controlled the Crown Point, and out of this ownership grew the Nevada Milling and Mining Company, which put in a new bid for power on the Comstock. The grip of the Bank of California was breaking.
The Crown Point bonanza stirred the lode to new energy ; mines sprang into action; money poured into depleted treasuries. The usual mad speculative orgy followed, and all values were enormously inflated. Crown Point leaped to eighteen hundred dollars a share ; the stock of its next door neighbor, the Belcher, soared from a dollar and fifty cents to fifteen hundred dollars.
But these silver bubbles of the Comstock never lasted long. Whether it was a visitation wreaked on the gambler and the despoiler or not, at the very height of the Crown Point excitement there fell a blight as bad as borrasca. The rumor got abroad that the Crown Point fire in 1869 had been started by an incendiary, in order to bear the market, and that there might be other conflagrations of the same sort. The report was as silly as it was unfounded, but in times of speculative frenzy no one stops to think or reason. Panic was let loose ; values crumbled ; paper fortunes melted away. Crown Point collapsed from eighteen hundred dollars a share to one hundred. Once more an ominous lull brooded over the lode. Such was the situation at the close of 1872. The Comstock, as these events showed, was still the plaything of destiny, the tool of greed and manipulation. It had enriched a few, impoverished many. Man had apparently sacked its treasure, and now it lay prostrate. But its silver heart was still rich. The time was at hand when the greatest of all bonanzas would quicken it into a thrilling and fateful life, and focus a world's desire upon this Nevada granite ledge.