December 19, 2005
Nevada's Online State News Journal
[From The History of Nevada, edited by Sam P. Davis, vol. I (1912)]
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THE SUTRO TUNNEL.
BY SAM P. DAVIS.
No enterprise is more closely interwoven into the history of the State, or which had so much to do with its general advancement or its politics as the building of the Sutro Tunnel.
The first shovelful of earth was turned in the enterprise on the 19th of October and on the 8th of July, 1878, the tunnel reached the Savage mine on the Comstock. The connection was made with the east drift of the 1640 Level of the Savage.
After the last blast was fired that completed the connection, the blast of hot and impure air came up with such a rush that it hurled gravel and small pieces of ore into the air and nauseated the miners of the Savage for several hours.
Sutro came up from the tunnel soon after the blast was fired and his face had the smile of a man who had finally triumphed after many long tedious years of opposition.
Great festivities marked the initiation of the work of the tunnel and they were repeated when the enterprise reached the Savage mine after eight years, eight months and nineteen days of work.
To write the full history of that enterprise would require more than the space allotted in this history. The entire story would fill a large volume in itself, and much of it would be merely dry statistics.
"The most singular thing the situation suggests, however, is that the mining interests of the Comstock should now be mainly dependent upon a piece of work which, though fostered by them in its incipiency, was finally constructed in face of their bitter opposition. I'm not going to review the history of the Sutro tunnel, but simply to recall some interesting facts that have been forgotten or were overlooked in several recent mentions of it. How foolish the rancor and strife engendered by the project appear, now that the conflicting interests are reconciled and all the combatants have passed away!
"The Sutro tunnel was not a novel scheme for tapping the Comstock lode at a deep level, nor was it on a much larger scale than other undertakings of the same character. When operations were first begun on the newly discovered silver
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mines comparatively little was known about hoisting or pumping works. For a year or more all the ore was brought out of the Ophir and Mexican claims in rawhide buckets supported on the back of the Mexican miners by a strap that passed across the forehead, and the only means of ascent and descent were logs with steps cut in them which were placed at an incline from floor to floor. The little pumping necessary was done by hand for a long while, and I recollect that it was considered a remarkable piece of enterprise when a donkey engine was set up to do it by steam power.
"But with depth the water became more troublesome and the task of bringing up the ore more laborious, and tunneling at once suggested itself as the best means of overcoming these difficulties. None of the mines, that I recollect, undertook the work themselves, but several independent companies were organized for that purpose.
"The first of these was the Latrobe Tunnel and Mining Company, which began work early in 1861. This tunnel was a double-track one, intended for the use of animals to haul cars, and was constructed under contract with the mining companies whose ground it should penetrate, they having agreed to segregate a portion of their claims adjacent to it in compensation for drainage and prospecting. The tunnel started from a point a little over half a mile east of Virginia City, and the estimate was that it would strike the Comstock at a distance of somewhere near 3,000 feet and at a depth of about 600 below the outcroppings.
"At that time it was believed there were many veins between the mouth of the tunnel and the Virginia ledge, its objective point ; but not a vein was cut until it reached the Comstock, and there—though it passed directly over and only about 500 feet above the big bonanza—the lode was so broken up and barren that the projectors became discouraged and the work was abandoned, I think, for I never heard any more about it.
"In 1862 the Cedar Hill Tunnel and Mining company undertook a similar work, but after tunneling about 2,000 feet into the mountain the project was given up, and the tunnel passed into the hands of the Sierra Nevada company.
"But a more important enterprise than either of these was inaugurated by the Gold Hill and Virginia Tunnel and Mining company in 1863. The plan was to begin at a point in Gold canyon, near Silver City, and run a tunnel the entire length of the lode to the Ophir mine, which it would cut at a depth of about 1,000 feet, and at a distance of 15,000. Work on this tunnel had been in progress nearly a year when the exhaustion of all the upper ore bodies on the lode and the failure to discover any new ones rendered the outlook for the mining industry on the Comstock so disheartening that capitalists refused to put more money into schemes dependent upon future developments; so work on the Gold Hill and Virginia tunnel was suspended, and never resumed.
"It was just at the close of this era of tunnels that Adolph Sutro came forward with his proposal to run one from a point near the Carson river, a distance of 20,000 feet, and cut the Comstock 1,600 feet below the surface. This was 600 feet deeper than the Gold Hill and Virginia tunnel, and therefore would offer better draining and ventilating facilities; but the chief superiority Sutro claimed for it was that it would afford a cheap means of transporting ore to the river for reduction by water power and of bringing in the immense amount of timber used in the mines—for neither of which purposes, by the way, has it ever been used.
"The mining companies had given encouragement to all the other tunnel projects, and they gave it the more readily to Sutro as he proposed to raise the money for the work abroad. So cordial was the feeling of the great corporation toward him that they signed contracts to pay a royalty of $2 per ton on all ore extracted from above the tunnel level and toll for all ore or supplies passing through it; and when after two years of trial he failed to secure the necessary capital and represented that he would be unable to do so unless confidence in the undertaking
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was shown by some home subscriptions, their disposition was still so kindly that they subscribed $600,000 and granted an extension of time on the contracts they had made with him.
"But that was the last of the friendly relations. For some reason that will never be definitely known—though it was asserted to be only that under changed conditions the royalty and tolls agreed upon were excessive—the mining interests became opposed to Sutro and withdrew their subscriptions. Thereafter there was nothing but bitterness and warfare.
"Sutro singled out Sharon as his arch enemy, and it was against him more particularly that he leveled his satire and invectives in a long series of pamphlet, platform and magic lantern campaigns. Sharon didn't reply publicly, but in private he was equally unsparing of abuse and epithets. Chance gave him one expression which seemed to fill his heart with delight. The Rev. Israel Diehl, who had just returned from the Holy Land and Arabia, told his hearers during a lecture in Virginia City that they had the most perfect type of an Assyrian he had ever seen in the person of their distinguished fellow-townsman, Mr. Adolph Sutro. Sharon drank in the words with avidity, and seldom afterward failed to refer to Sutro as 'that damned old Assyrian.'
"That Sutro succeeded in raising money to construct the tunnel in spite of the opposition of all the mining interests would seem incredible to anyone who didn't know his peculiar abilities. Of course, he had the charters and contracts, but his own personality was his chief asset. He was not great in the sense of having any extraordinary native talent or specially trained faculty, but he was intelligent and well educated, and had a prepossessing appearance and address. Patient, persistent and untiring he could not be dismissed."
Many stories are extant relative to what first gave him the idea. He owned a small patch of land on the Carson River now known as Sutro. Some say he thought of securing water for his vegetables by going into the hill and this idea enlarged as it was revolved in his busy brain. Another story is that he overheard some men who were speaking of the ground as a fine tunnel site. They conversed in German, a language with which he was familiar. In April 10th, 1860, he published a communication in the Alta California advocating the tunnel. Later he took up his residence on the Comstock and advocated the tunnel project but was only met with sneers or indifference. He talked tunnel so much that people referred to him as a man who had "bats in his belfry."
In 1864 he petitioned the legislature for a franchise. This was granted and while the act gave the tunnel the official sanction of the State, the amount of royalties to be paid by the mining companies after the completion of the work, was not provided for.
After eight months of hard work about nine-tenths of the companies agreed on a royalty of two dollars a ton to be paid the Sutro Tunnel Company on every ton extracted after the completion of the work. Some of them signed up to get rid of Sutro.
D. O. Mills, however, President of the Bank of California, encouraged
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the idea and gave Sutro a letter to the Oriental Bank Corporation, London, in which he cordially endorsed Sutro and his project. Later on, for reasons best known to itself, the Bank of California was fighting the tunnel by every means in its power.
In July, 1866, Congress passed an Act by which the U. S. Government entered into a direct compact with Sutro for the completion of the tunnel and empowered him to purchase 4375 acres of land at the mouth of the tunnel and own all mines encountered within 2000 feet on each side. He next went to New York and was told there that if he could raise a few thousand on the Pacific Coast they would get $3,000,000 for him in the east. Returning to California he submitted the matter to the mining companies and raised subscriptions amounting to $600,000. Many private contributions were placed at his disposal and he seemed in a fair way to raise a million when suddenly the Bank of California stepped in and opened a most determined fight to break up the enterprise and induce the Mining Companies to repudiate their contracts. Hon. William Stewart was then Senator from Nevada and he was petitioned to fight it in the U. S. Senate. The names signed to the petition to Stewart were William Sharon, Charles Bonner, B. F. Sherwood, John B. Winters, John P. Jones, J. W. Mackay, Thomas G. Taylor, F. A. Tritle, and Isaac L. Requa. Alpheus Bull, of the Savage Mining Company, alone stood for the tunnel and for Sutro and recommended it over his signature. The mining men of the Ledge attempted to prove that Sutro had not kept his agreements and they carried the fight into Congress. He met them there and worsted them in every encounter.
The real reason of the opposition to the tunnel soon became evident. His scheme contemplated the erection of extensive reduction works at the mouth of the tunnel which would materially cripple the V. & T. R. R., a Sharon interest which carried ore to the mills on the Carson River, at Empire. The newspapers took up the fight against the tunnel and pictured a total destruction of Virginia City with property values falling to the extent of $13,000,000 or $14,000,000.
Baffled at the threshold of success Sutro visited Europe but the war between Prussia and France interfered with his raising capital and he again turned his attention to Congress. The result of his active winter campaign was that a House report recommended a loan of $5,000,000 on the project. But Sutro's evil star was still ascendant and just as he
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was about to secure the loan the impeachment of Andrew Johnson interrupted and nullified all his hard work.
In the summer of 1869 the Ways and Means Committee of the House visited California and Sutro managed to get them to visit the Comstock mines. But the California Bank people succeeded in getting hold of the guests and William Sharon entertained them. This did not prevent Sutro getting them to visit him at the International Hotel and he took them down in the mines and showed them the lay of the country. They were nearly prostrated with the terrible heat of the mines and felt convinced that the tunnel was needed to work and ventilate them.
Sutro's next move was to induce the miners to stand in and he made some speeches at the opera house in which he showed the inside of the conspiracy to break up the tunnel project. He showed a good deal of oratorical ability and worked the miners up to a pitch of excitement by showing them how much their lives were endangered if there was no tunnel in case of fire in the mines. He showed a picture from a magic lantern flashed on a screen reproducing the scenes of the terrible Yellow Jacket fire, with hundreds of miners falling headlong down the burning shaft while their wives and children were wringing their hands in despair, at the mouth of the shaft. Another picture represented miners emerging from the tunnel and being embraced by their families. At the end of his lecture the Miners' Union cheered Sutro and subscribed $50,000. This was really the first real money to help start the work and soon the first shovel of earth was turned, in October, 1869.
It was planned to make a sort of gala day of this but none of the prominent men of the Comstock attended. The officers of the labor unions were there and some of the miners. At the end of the year 460 feet had been accomplished when Sutro was startled with the news that Tom Fitch had introduced a bill to repeal the third section of the law that gave him his royalty.
Sutro was fortunate in the fact that some of the members of the Ways and Means Committee had visited Virginia City on a previous occasion. They all favored him and the committee made an unanimous report against the repeal, except Sargent, of California. An attempt was made to show that there was no necessity of draining the Comstock, that the mines were dry. Hardy, the Superintendent of Ophir, testified before the committee that the Ophir shaft had always been dry. That night Sutro
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wired to San Francisco to secure hundreds of letters Hardy had written to Sharon begging for more pumping machinery to keep the water down in Ophir.
Some of them read : "Must have more pumping machinery. Water two hundred feet in shaft and gaining" and so on ad infinitum.
Sutro, for a whole day, had the Ophir Superintendent on the rack reading those letters. The bill to deprive Sutro of his royalties was beaten 124 to 42.
He had been promised 15,000,000 francs from Paris but the Franco-Prussian war blocked the way.
He returned to Nevada and kept the work going in a small way, paying the miners $3.00 a day in cash and a dollar in stock.
With almost the entire Pacific Coast representatives fighting him in Congress Sutro's chances looked worse than ever. The tunnel was denounced as a humbug and the paid newspapers of the California Bank ring were pouring hot shot into the project. They said it would ruin the Comstock and depopulate Virginia City. The only paper that stood by the project in Nevada was the Carson Appeal.
Sutro asked Congress to send a commission to Nevada and make a report on the tunnel. On the 4th of April, 1871, President Grant signed a bill appointing such a commission and Maj. Gen. H. G. Wright, Maj. Gen. John G. Foster and Prof. Wesley Newcomb visited Nevada, and returning, made a report that the work was perfectly feasible and estimated the cost at $4,500,000. This enabled Sutro to raise money in Europe and after receiving advices from London that his friends had negotiated a loan he sailed on the 30th of August and in a few days received $650,000 in gold and not long after raised $800,000 more, nearly a million and a half in all.
The dirt began to fly in earnest after that and Sutro went to Washington and desired further investigation. He claimed that the committee were in error regarding many points connected with the project having been swayed by information furnished by his enemies. The committee was cited to appear and the evidence taken threw much new light on the case and completely vindicated Sutro. The report occupied 810 pages of printed matter. It recommended a government loan of $2,000,000. A bill had been introduced providing for the sale of mineral lands to secure $5,000,000 for the tunnel. The $2,000,000 bill was offered as a substitute and its
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passage recommended. The government was to be secured by one-half the royalty and everything seemed favorable to Sutro, but the bill was hung up in committee and never came to a vote.
From that time on Sutro decided to rely upon his own individual effort to complete the work. He encountered a thousand and one engineering difficulties one after another, but was able to surmount every obstacle. He raised considerable money in England and Germany, the McCalmut Bros. of Edinburgh, Scotland, contributing the most.
On the 8th of July, 1878, the tunnel reached the 1600 foot level of the Savage and the world knew that Sutro had accomplished his great work in the face of the most determined opposition and this opposition came curiously enough from the men who were in the end the most benefited by the work.
The tunnel saves 1600 feet of pumping which had been carried on at an expense of about $3,000,000 per annum.
Lateral drifts were run connecting the tunnel with Yellow Jacket, Consolidated Imperial, Union Consolidated, Hale and Norcross, Ophir, California and Consolidated Virginia, aggregating a distance of nearly 10,000 feet along the Ledge.
In 1879, Sutro retired from his position as superintendent of the company and removed to San Francisco, where he lived in ease and opulence until his death. Thinking that the State of Nevada might be willing to give him some official recognition for his great services he crossed swords with Col. James G. Fair in a contest for the U. S. Senate. But his candidacy met with no favor and he failed to receive a single vote in the legislature. San Francisco, however, recognized his worth and elected him as mayor of the city by an overwhelming majority, the largest ever accorded a candidate for the office. He was opposed by every paper in the city, except the Weekly Star.