December 19, 2005
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[From The History of Nevada, edited by Sam P. Davis, vol. I (1912)]
408 THE HISTORY OF NEVADA
SQUARE SETS OF TIMBERING AND V-FLUME.
BY SAM P. DAVIS.
If one is to hunt the records of Nevada mining and find which particular individual did more than all the rest to make mining pay dividends in the Sagebrush State, the person in quest of the man who might well head the list would pause at the name of Philip Deidesheimer. He came to California from Germany, in 1851, and drifted onto the Comstock sometime in the sixties. He was the man who invented the plan of square-timbering. He never patented his great invention and never reaped the slightest pecuniary benefit from a device that netted millions to others.
When Judge Walsh, of Nevada City, bought the Ophir mine from old Comstock and his co-owners in the fall of 1859, he began operations on the ledge through a shaft operated by means of windlass and buckets. This was superseded, later, by a horse and whim. Finally, as the mine attained depth and water was encountered, a fifteen-horsepower steam engine was set up, which not only pumped out the water through a four-inch pipe, but was used to hoist ore and lower into or raise out of the shaft the miners. It was a great occasion when this engine was installed, and the Ophir hoist was one of the seven wonders of the camp. It was felt when this engine was set up and found to handle the water satisfactorily that the last Comstock mining problem had been solved. But there were far bigger breakers ahead.
As the miners went down on the big ore-body, followed from the surface, it widened and grew softer. The only method of timbering then known to mining science had been applied from the start on the Ophir, and with no stinting hand ; for the Comstock has never been niggardly in dealing with any mining problem. From the very mouth of the shaft, and on to the bottom, round timbers of pine had been used to sheathe the sides of the incline and the branching drifts and crosscuts. Two upright pillars on each side of a drill, with a third resting across from top to top, had been
SQUARE SETS OF TIMBERING AND V-FLUME 409
found sufficient to sustain the overhanging masses of rock in other mines.
But the Ophir ore-body, although far inferior in every dimension to the bonanza afterwards found in the Con Virginia, was of too great a width, and the ore-body of a density that varied too greatly for this primitive method to hold back its crushing force. Caves began to recur with ever-increasing frequency, and miners' lives were being sacrificed constantly. Finally, when the shaft had attained a depth of 215 feet and the ore-body was fully sixty-five feet wide, work in the Ophir had to be suspended altogether. To continue was impossible. Miners refused to go to the certain death that awaited under the menace of that ever-sinking mass of unwieldy quartz and the heavy wall that overlaid it.
A director of the Ophir company, living in San Francisco, gave much thought to the problem, which threatened an end to the productive power of the great property in which he was so vitally interested. By some fortunate inspiration he thought of Deidesheimer and laid the matter before him, asking what could be done. Deidsheimer had never heard of so big a deposit of ore before, and replied that he did not know what to do until he had seen the vein. Without delay, he was sent to the Comstock, and spent a month making experiments. At the end of that time he had evolved the square set.
It is hard to explain, without the use of a diagram, just what the square set is like, but, briefly stated, it is made up of timbers from four to six feet long, interlocked at the ends by means of mortises and tenons so that they may be constructed into a series of cribs, added indefinitely side by side, or built one on top of the other, so as to fill in any ore-chamber as fast as the ore is taken out. The unit in itself lies within the scope of a man's arms, but, built up in a series, it filled the vacant spaces left by the removal of the Con Virginia bonanza, hundreds of feet in height, in width, and in length.
The square-set idea became famous throughout the mining universe, and miners from all over Europe visited the Comstock for the purpose of making a personal inspection. Deidesheimer did not even reap the reward of having his name attached to the invention ; perhaps, because his name is a somewhat unwieldy affair as judged by any but Teutonic lingual standards. He was retained as superintendent of the Ophir, and later was employed by Mackay and Fair as manager of the Hale and Norcross. He left the Comstock in the early '80s. His report on the Con Virginia
410 THE HISTORY OF NEVADA
and California bonanza is said to have caused the demoralization of silver in Germany.
Next comes the name of Senator James Haines, of Genoa, who invented the V flume and, like Deidesheimer, his invention was a tremendous assistance to the mining industry. It took an enormous amount of timber to supply the demand furnished by the introduction of square sets. The consumption of the Comstock often exceeded 80,000,000 feet per annum. The mines became insatiable feeders on timber. One mine swallowed 6,000,000 feet in a year. The people of the Comstock walk daily over a forest of underground timbers of enormous dimensions. A great part of this is being slowly jammed to a wonderful thinness by the constant, unrelenting pressure of the moving earth. Pieces of such timbers taken from old workings in the Con Virginia, while originally fourteen inches thick, had been squeezed by this pressure to a thickness of two or three inches. Such timber is about as easy to cut as if it were so much iron. The natives refer to it as petrified wood, but while it does contain a little earthy matter from infiltration, it is chiefly the great pressure that gives it its intense hardness.
Of course, this tremendous supply of timber soon denuded the lower and middle slopes of the east side of the Sierras over Washoe Valley. Roads were built to the very top of this ridge, a height of 9,000 feet above sea level, but this was very expensive, seeing that each recurring winter, bringing washouts, rendered necessary new construction in the spring. In places where the grade was very steep, chutes of trees were formed, and the big logs slid down them. But in all but a few places this plan was impracticable. Then square flumes were used, waters being dammed up in the high mountains, and the trees washed down by the flume. Still this method was expensive and unsatisfactory.
Finally, in 1867, Jim Haines, afterwards State Senator from Douglas County, invented the V-shaped flume, each section of which consisted of two boards, each two feet wide, one and one-half inches thick and sixteen feet long, joined at right angles. Each section underlapped the one above it. The entire structure was upheld by props resting on the ground. Crossing ravines, trestles were used. One of these flumes was fifteen miles long and took 2,000,000 feet of lumber in the building. It had a capacity of 500,000 feet of lumber a day. In 1880 there were ten such flumes in the State, making an aggregate
SQUARE SETS OF TIMBERING AND V-FLUME 411
length of 80 miles. The cost of timbers and cordwood was greatly reduced by this invention, and still every man that supplied timbers and wood to the Comstock mines made a great fortune out of his business. Some of them even kept their money and died wealthy. Haines, himself, left a rather robust estate at the time of his demise, about the middle '90s.
As the inventions of Comstock miners were adopted by other mining operators throughout the world, so was this invention of a lumberman to supply timber to the Comstock mines copied others. Today the California lumbermen on the western slope of the Sierras employ an improved version of the Haines plan to flume their lumber from the higher slopes down to the valleys below, where a commercial demand exists.
But even with the reduction in price afforded by this method, Comstock mine operators, in many instances, fought shy of using timber as much as possible, and, owing to this commercial trait, many accidents occurred. Mexican, which in the early days of the lode was always noted as a recklessly managed mine, was a heavy sufferer from this cause. As early as 1863, one-half of the surface of the mine fell, with an attendant roar that alarmed the entire camp, and an acre of the surface was opened to a depth of more than 200 feet. The superintendent and twenty miners were underground at the time, but fortunately were not far from the bottom of the shaft, and so escaped being caught and crushed or smothered in a drift, or imprisoned to die of hunger and thirst.
Again, about eleven o'clock one night in the month of October, 1861, the surface of the Chollar mine, at a point about opposite the present site of the Virginia City High School, fell in with a great noise, engulfing a two-story building that stood there. The lower story was occupied by a grocery store, and the bookkeeper slept in the upper story. A little dog owned by the bookkeeper was wont to occupy a corner of this room at night, and on the night referred to kept up such a continuous scratching and whining that his master was unable to sleep. Arising from his bed, he dressed himself and went for a walk, accompanied by the restless canine, who bounded outside with great eagerness the moment the door was opened. It was during this walk that the building fell into the bowels of the earth.