From the 1967 book, America’s Western Frontiers.
WHAT A CLOVER FIELD IS TO A STEER, THE SKY TO THE lark, a mudhole to a hog, such are newer diggings to a miner,” wrote the Daily Oregonian on July 12, 1862, and by that date this irresistible urge had taken California’s Argonauts—and many others who followed them more directly to fresh fields—all over the trans-Mississippi West and even up into Canada and Alaska. Nevada and Colorado had become mining territories almost as fabulous as the Golden State itself, and were, for a shorter time and on a smaller scale, experiencing a similar hothouse growth and efflorescence.
Miners were also finding the precious metals, though in much smaller quantities, in Oregon and the Washington Territory (resulting in a backwash of population from California, which had stolen so many of the Oregon Country’s early immigrants in as well as in Idaho, Montana, and Arizona. These territories were still largely in the hands of the Plains Indians, proud tribes who resented, and reacted to, every advance of the white man, and many a lone prospector or small under-guarded party bit the dust and lost their hair at the hands of Sioux, Blackfoot, or Apache war parties, instead of hitting pay dirt and striking it rich, before the inland mining empire became firmly established.
But established it was, and new discoveries in the Dakotas, in Utah, and in the center and extreme south of Arizona, as well as the discovery of fresh bonanzas in Nevada and Colorado—such as the revival of Virginia City’s Corn-stock boom in the 1870’s, and the Cripple Creek rush at the very end of the 1880’s—kept the mineral empire expanding, and the roving miners on the move, almost to the end of the century.
Even then some of these old-timers (who had often been boys in their teens in ’49 could still heft a pick or at least stake a claim and dream) were off to Dawson City, in the frozen North, and the fabulous Klondike. The Manuel brothers, Fred and Moses, offer a case in point. Starting off from their home in Minnesota, they reached Montana in 1866 and 1867 respectively, when Moses was only nineteen. Not striking it rich there, they next tried Utah, then thought of going to Arizona but changed their minds and tried their luck in Idaho. “Finding more Indians than gold,” they trekked down through the Nevada and eastern California deserts (prospecting all the way) into Arizona.
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Then, in 1874, Moses went by sea up to British Columbia and the Alaska border and found some gold, but even more cold, at Great Slave Lake. Retreating from the inhospitable climate, he thought he’d try South Africa next (where the Rand was beginning to boom) but was deflected at Portland, Oregon, to the Black Hills of South Dakota. He rejoined his brother in Helena, Montana, then beginning to grow up around the notorious Last Chance Gulch. Pursued by hostile Indians and nearly buried by snowstorms, they made it across Wyoming to the new promised land and started working three claims known as the Homestake, Old Abe (Fred was a Union Army veteran!) and Golden Terra.
These they made yield enough to be able to sell them in 1876 for $70,000, $45,000, and $35,000, respectively, to interests connected with the ubiquitous George Hearst (who in these days picked up and threw away mines with almost as much abandon as later his son did newspapers). Fred and Moses then “retired” back to Minnesota with their hard-gotten gains. But the itch was still upon Moses, now an “old-timer” of twenty-nine. He went back to Helena, Montana, and was eventually blown up in a mine explosion in 1905, on the move to the last.
Fred took a line of lesser resistance and joined the health seekers in Southern California. Like Wyatt Earp, he died peacefully in his bed at Los Angeles. There is no monument anywhere—except the mine itself, which continues to produce—to these discoverers of the Homestake Mine, one of the richest in all the West.
|Homestake Mine, Deadwood South Dakota.|
The California Argonauts dispersed to the four winds—wherever they smelled metal—in search of daughter lodes. They were tough and they died hard. Mark Twain has idealized them in a magnificently overwritten epitaph as: “erect, bright-eyed, quick-moving, strong-handed young giants—the strangest population, the finest population, the most gallant host that ever trooped down the startled solitudes of an un-peopled land. And where are they now ? Scattered to the ends of the earth—or prematurely aged and decrepit—or shot or stabbed in street affrays—or dead of disappointed hopes and broken hearts—all gone, or nearly all …
Mark Twain was to meet some of the Argonauts, not yet so decrepit as they were later to become, when he arrived in Carson City, the territorial capital of Nevada, as “Mr. Secretary’s secretary,” one eventful summer’s day in 1861. He describes in ‘Roughing It’ how: “in 1858 silver lodes were discovered in “Carson County” [then part of Utah] and then the aspect of things changed. Californians began to flock in . . . Congress passed a bill to organize ‘Nevada Territory.’ At this time the population of the territory was about twelve to fifteen thousand [about the same as California before the Gold Rush]. . . . By and by I was smitten with the silver fever. ‘Prospecting parties’ were leaving for the mountains every day, and discovering and taking possession of rich silver-bearing loads and ledges of quartz. Plainly this was the road to fortune.
“The great ‘Gould and Curry’ mine was held at three or four hundred dollars a foot when we arrived; but in two months it had sprung up to eight hundred. . . . The Gould and Curry claim comprised twelve hundred feet and it all belonged originally to the two men whose name it bears. Mr. Curry owned two-thirds of it—and he said that he sold it out for twenty-five hundred dollars in cash, and an old plug horse that ate up his market value in hay and barley in seventeen days by the watch. And he said that Gould sold out for a pair of second-hand government blankets and a bottle of whiskey that killed nine men in three hours, and that an unoffending stranger that smelled the cork was disabled for life. Four years afterwards the mine thus disposed of was worth in the San Francisco market $7,600,000 in gold coin.
|From Mark Twain’s book, Roughing It.|
Even more fabulous than the Gould and Curry mine was the Comstock. Indeed, Comstock was the name given not only to one famous mine but also to a whole mining area. It is ironic that the man after whom this immensely rich lode was named was himself just a claim-jumper on it, though others were to benefit from his claim far more than either he or the original discoverers. He was to die a failure and by suicide years later in Montana, once again in search of the crock of gold that had eluded him in Nevada. Henry Thomas Paige Comstock’s story has been superlatively told by ‘Dan de Quille’ (William Wright) in probably the best and certainly best-known contemporary account of the Nevada mining boom, The Big Bonanza:
“In the evening of the day on which the grand discovery was made by O’Riley and McLaughlin, H. T. P. Comstock made his appearance upon the scene.
“’Old Pancake,’ who was then looking after his Gold Hill mines, which were beginning to yield largely, had strolled northward up the mountain, toward evening, in search of a mustang pony that he had out prospecting for a living among the hills. He had found his pony, had mounted him, and, with his long legs dragging the tops of the sagebrush, came riding up just as the lucky miners were making the last clean-up of their rockers for the day.
“Comstock, who had a keen eye for all that was going on in the way of mining in any place he might visit, saw at a glance the unusual quantity of gold that was in sight.
“When the gold caught his eye, he was off the back of his pony in an instant. He was soon down in the thick of it all, ‘hefting’ and running his fingers through the gold, and picking into and probing the mass of strange-looking ‘stuff’ exposed.
|Comstock discovering silver, 1859. From Dan DeQuille: The Big Bonanza (Hartford, Conn., 1876).|
“Conceiving at once that a wonderful discovery of some kind had been made, ‘Old Pancake’ straightened himself up, as he arose from a critical examination of the black mass in the cut wherein he had observed the glittering spangles of gold, and coolly proceeded to inform the astonished miners that they were working on ground that belonged to him.
“He asserted that he had some time before taken up 160 acres of land at this point, for a ranch; also that he owned the water they were using in mining, it being from the Caldwell spring, in what was afterwards known as Spanish Ravine.
“Suspecting that they were working in a decomposed quartz vein, McLaughlin and O’Riley had written out and posted up a notice, calling for a claim of 300 feet for each and a third claim for the discovery, which extra claim they were entitled to under the mining laws.
“Having soon ascertained all this from the men before him, Comstock would have ‘none of it.’ He boisterously declared that they should not work there at all unless they would agree to locate himself and his friend Manny (Emmanuel) Penrod in the claim. In case he and Penrod were given an interest, there should be no further trouble about the ground.
“After consulting together, the discoverers concluded that, rather than have a great row about the matter, they would put the names of Comstock and Penrod in their notice of location.
“This being arranged to his satisfaction, Comstock next demanded that one hundred feet of ground on the lead should be segregated and given to Penrod and himself for the right to the water they were using—he stoutly asserting that he owned not only the land, but also the water, and, as they had recognized his right to the land, they could not consistently ignore his claim to the water flowing upon it. In short, he talked so loudly and so much about his water-right that he at last got the hundred feet, segregated, as he demanded. This hundred feet afterwards became the Spanish or Mexican mine, and yielded millions of dollars.
De Quille’s account of Comstock’s later misfortunes is in the vintage style of the man who gave Mark Twain his basic training as a reporter:
“After Comstock’s wife ran away with the strolling miner he thought best to let her continue on her travels unmolested. He opened a store at Carson City with the money received for his mining interests in Virginia City and also had a branch store at Silver City, a town on Gold Canyon, about three miles below Gold Hill, which was laid out in the summer of 1859.
“He soon broke up in the mercantile line, losing everything. He trusted everybody—all went to his stores and purchased goods without money and without price, and at last his old friends the Piute Indians came in and carried away the remnants. Comstock made them all happy, male and female, by passing out to them armfuls of red blankets and calico of brilliant hues.
“His stock in the Carson store was as good as was seen in most trading establishments of the kind at that day, but his Silver City branch never amounted to much, the stock consisting principally, as the miners said, of blue cotton overalls, pick-handles, rusty bacon, ‘nigger’ shoes, and ‘dog-leg’ tobacco.
“After losing all of his property, Comstock left Nevada and went to Idaho and Montana, through which countries he wandered and prospected for some years, always hoping that some day he would come upon a second Comstock lode. He was always ready to join every expedition that was fitted out to explore new regions, as the “big thing” seemed to him to be ever just ahead.
“In 1870 he joined the Big Horn expedition in Montana, and this was his last undertaking. When near Bozeman City, on September 27, 1870, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with his revolver. The Montana papers said it was supposed that he committed the act while laboring under temporary aberration of mind, and this was doubtless the case, as his was by no means of sound or well-balanced brain.*
* The Big Bonanza, p. 48. The whole of Ch. IX (pp. 45-8) is hilariously devoted—apart from its unhappy ending—to “Comstock’s Matrimonial Venture.” Old Pancake literally bought his wife from a Mormon, who found her surplus to requirements, in return for “a horse, a revolver and sixty dollars,” and he demanded and received a regular bill of sale. She soon ran away from him with a “seductive youth of the town,” but Comstock offered $100 reward for her apprehension, which was won by a “dead-broke” Placerville miner. “By practicing eternal vigilance, Comstock managed to keep his wife that winter, but in the spring . . . she ran away with a long-legged miner . . . finally [she] came to anchor in a lager-beer cellar in Sacramento.”
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In his later years Comstock wrote a long and somewhat lugubrious autobiographical letter, which was published in part in the St. Louis Republican, giving a well-edited version of how he discovered and then lost the Comstock Lode. Here is the middle part of that letter, as reproduced in The Big Bonanza (pp. 50-1):
“Riley and McLaughlin were working for me at the time of the Ophir discovery. I carved the cut in and went after my party to take up the lead and form my company. Manny Penrod, Peter Riley, Patrick McLaughlin, ‘Kentuck,’ or Osborne, and myself formed a company. With my party I opened the lead, and called it Comstock lode; that is the way they came by their interests; I gave it to them.
“We started to rocking with my water; had only a small quantity to rock with. We made from five to ten and twelve pounds a day, and the dust was from $9 to $12 an ounce—went that at Brewster’s bank, Placerville, California, where I did my business.
“I continued owning the claim, locating 1,400 feet out for myself, for the use of my water to the company. I also located the Savage claim; showed the ground to old man Savage. I located the Gould & Curry—went into the valley and got old Daddy Curry to come down, and put him in possession of it.
“I also owned the Hale & Norcross, and kept Norcross for a year to work in that ground. I also owned the principal part in Gold Hill and leased it out to Walsh and Woodruff—leased to them 950 for 760—don’t now remember which. Now I will tell you how I sold it; it has never been told as it ought to be told throughout the United States for my benefit, and it shall be.
“Sandy Bowers, I gave him his claim of 20 feet in Gold Hill. Bill Knight, I gave him his claim; Joe Plato, I gave him his. Joe is dead now, and his widow is awful rich.
“I was working this claim, the Ophir, and taking out a good deal of ore; I did not know what the ore was worth, being in the wilderness then, with no road to get out or into from California. It was an awful wilderness! I took several tons of the ore and transported it by ox-teams, to best advantage, through the mountains of California, and Judge Walsh was my agent and helped me.
“Now during this time I was taking out large gold and silver specimens, and took one specimen, weighing 12 pounds, and boxed it up and ordered it sent to Washington City. I instructed John Musser, a lawyer at Washoe, to send it; I don’t know whether it ever reached there or not. I wanted Congress to see it, and the President, for it was the first gold and silver ore, mixed, ever found in the United States.
“I went on working, and Judge Walsh and Woodruff were there for two months, trying every day to buy me out. My health being bad, I sold the claim to them on these terms: I was to get $10,000, and did get it at last; and I was to receive one-eleventh of all that ever came out of the claim during my natural life, and at my death was to will it to whoever I pleased; also, to receive $100 per month.
“That was the contract; and two men, Elder Bennett and Manny Penrod, witnessed it; but my health was bad, and before I had the contract of sale recorded, Woodruff and Walsh sold it out. Having taken no lien on the property, I never got a dollar, from that day to this, except what was at first received.
“I am a regular born mountaineer, and did not know the intrigues of civilized rascality. I am not ashamed to acknowledge that. Well, I had a store in Carson City and was lying in the back room sick and helpless. I told Ed Belcher to take all my papers, and the contract between Judge Walsh and Woodruff and myself, and put them under my pillow. I could speak, but couldn’t help myself a bit.
“They all said I would die, and said: ‘Boys, let’s pitch in and help ourselves!’ And they did pitch in; and I never saw the papers afterwards. And the Gold Hill I leased to Walsh and Woodruff; and then Frink and Kincaid got it, and I never got anything for it; and the 160 acres of ground on which Virginia City is built is my old recorded ranche. I used to raise all my potatoes and vegetables on it, and had the Indians do the work for me.
“Virginia City was first called Silver City. I named it at the time I gave the Ophir claim its name. Old Virginia and the other boys got on a drunk one night there, and Old Virginia fell down and broke his bottle, and when he got up he said he baptized that ground Virginia—hence Virginia City.
So much for H. T. P. Comstock and his lode of mischief! “Old Virginia” was an equally colorful character and came to an equally violent end. Says De Quille (pp. 52-3):
“James Fennimore, better known as James Finney and familiarly called ‘Old Virginia’ by all the old settlers of Washoe, he being a native of the state of Virginia, came to the mines on Gold Canyon in 1851. He came from the Kern River country, California, where he had a ‘difficulty’ with a man and, believing he had killed him, took a little walk across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, dropping the name of Fennimore and calling himself James Finney.
“Although fond of the bottle, Old Virginia was by no means a loafer. He had his sprees, but these were generally followed by seasons of great activity.
“He was very fond of hunting, and when not engaged in mining or prospecting he was ranging the mountains and valleys in search of deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. He was interested in nearly all the enterprises of the early Johntown and Gold Hill mines, but missed being in the Ophir at the time of the discovery of silver, having sold his interest in the Six-mile Canyon diggings the previous season.
“He was killed in the town of Dayton, in July 1861, by being thrown from a ‘bucking’ mustang that he was trying to ride while a good deal under the influence of liquor. He was pitched head-first upon the ground, suffered a fracture of the skull, and died in a few hours. At the time of his death he was possessed of about $3,000 in coin and had been talking of returning soon to his native state.
An old Piute brave who had known both Comstock and Fennimore pronounced a joint epitaph on them to De Quille (p. 53):
“Hoss kill um Ole Biriginey, Comstock he kill heself. Comstock owe me fifty-five dollar; old Birginey owe me forty-five dollar! Me think . . . maybe both too much whisky.”
Though the first discoverers failed to make great fortunes out of them, the western Nevada mines proved to be enormously rich. Between 1859 and 1869 about a hundred million dollars’ worth of gold and silver—the latter constituting two thirds of this—was extracted from them, but by the late sixties their productivity was beginning to decrease. The Comstock Lode produced 16 ½ million dollars worth of precious metals in 1867 alone, but only 8 million dollars worth in 1869, while, it was estimated, the Ophir mine “has taken out thirteen millions of dollars, but used it nearly all up in expenditures, and probably not returned to the stockholders so much as they have paid in.”
But it was George Hearst’s one-sixth share in the Ophir mine, acquired in 1859, that brought him his first fortune, and people like Judge Walsh and Almarin B. Paul also did very well out of coming to Washoe in ‘59 and buying out Comstock and Company.
The first ten years of production, however, and the fortunes made therein, constituted only a small bonanza beside the Big Bonanza of 1873 and the following years, when the Comstock Lode, recapitalized, exploited by new and more scientific methods, and benefiting from the completion of the transcontinental and feeder railroads, became “the richest spot in the world,” making men like John Mackay, William Ralston, William Sharon, James Fair, James Flood, Samuel Curtis, William O’Brien, and J. P. Jones as rich, every one of them, as Croesus.*
* “Although Mr. Mackay is now  worth fifty or sixty million dollars, yet like Mr. Fair [worth $30 or $40 million], he spends much of his time, when at Virginia City, in the lower levels. Almost every morning at six o’clock he descends into one or another of his mines,” says De Quille (p. 398), who makes Mackay the hero of his book, even dedicating it to this “Prince of Miners and ‘Boss’ of the Big Bonanza.” Unlike so many of the mineral nabobs, Mackay remained unspoiled and unassuming. It remained for his ambitious wife and extravagant children to discover the primrose path. His granddaughter, Ellen Mackay, married the famous song writer Irving Berlin. Mackay himself lived until 1902, and after his death his business manager told the press: “I don’t suppose he knew within twenty millions what he was worth.”
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The four Bonanza Kings, comparable to the Big Four of California, were Mackay, Fair, Flood, and O’Brien. They all came via California and were of Irish extraction. Mackay was born in Dublin, and had been a ship’s carpenter, while Fair was born in Ulster, but they always worked very closely together. “The pair generally hold a grand council on all matters of moment. When this council is in session at the private office of the works [of the Consolidated Virginia and California mining companies] the miners, in passing back and forth, hold up their fingers to one another as a sign that no noise is to be made . . .”
The ‘silences’ of John Mackay and of James G. Fair were worth about $50,000 a day at the height of the Big Bonanza. A dividend of $10 per share, or over a million dollars, was being paid every month after all mining expenses had been met. “Out of the first bonanza, into the top of which O’Riley and McLaughlin luckily struck their picks, was taken about $20,000,000 before the deposit was exhausted; out of the consolidated Virginia Mine alone has already been taken $15,500,000 and as yet  they have hardly begun working in real earnest.” Peter and Pat’s celebrated water hole of 1859 was only about four feet deep; the Big Bonanza of 1873 had to be worked 1,500 feet below the surface, and Fair estimated the cost of mining and milling as high as $17 per ton of ore. But it was worth between $100 and $200 a ton, so why worry!
Eventually the Comstock Lode was to produce over 300 million dollars worth of ore (between 1859 and 1880), and the Virginia City and Gold Hill area became “an industrial suburb of California and particularly of San Francisco.” The boom city that Dana had beheld with eyes of wonder in 1859 boomed again, after California’s own gold rush had petered out, under this shower of Comstock gold and silver. Had he returned again, in 1883, after another twenty-four years, the author of Two Years before the Mast would once more not have recognized San Francisco. The mansions of the rich, no longer festooned around George Gordon’s elegant South Park,* were climbing to the crest of “Nob Hill” (on California Street) in ever-increasing grandeur. There the Fair and Flood mansions were beginning to look even the ornate palaces of “Boss” Crocker and Leland Stanford in the eye.
* Conceived by George Gordon, an English forty-niner, who brought George H. Goddard, the architect of the Holland Park Estate in London, out to design and develop South Park. South Park’s houses no longer exist, but Mount Goddard in the High Sierras, which was named after him, constitutes a more enduring monument to their architect. Dr. Albert Shumate, past president of the California Historical Society, is engaged on a study of Gordon’s South Park, the buildings of which strikingly resembled those of the Holland Park Estate. Unlike Holland House itself, the estate survived the bombs of the London blitz almost intact.
|San Francisco Stock Exchange.|
Among lesser men, great wealth was no longer rare in this true “City of Gold.” Joseph L. King, chairman of the San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board for many years, once remarked in all seriousness: “Prior to the Civil War, extremely wealthy men in California were not so numerous . . . and one could name our millionaires on his finger ends. Men possessing $100,000 were considered well off, while a $50,000 citizen was always addressed with the prefix of ‘Mister.’” To be called Mister after the wealth of the Big Bonanza hit town, one presumably had to be worth at least a million!
The whole of Nevada (mushroomed into a State of the Union in 1864) has had a smaller population at all times—in 1859, in 1883, and also in 1959—than the city of San Francisco at the same dates. Every advance of the Western mining frontier increased the fortunes of San Francisco’s already rich “Misters,” lent prestige to the city’s mint and its stock exchange, and expanded its port facilities. San Francisco was not only the principal outlet for all this wealth (though after 1869 some of it was transferred East via the new transcontinental railroad), but also the main source of the capital increasingly needed to keep the mines working productively and to develop new ones.
In the sixties and seventies everybody tried to visit Virginia City and many people wrote books about it, whether they were local chroniclers (Twain, De Quille, John Hittell), Easterners (Horace Greeley, Samuel Bowles, Henry Villard), or Europeans (Sir Richard Burton, Charles Dilke). Duke, fresh down from Cambridge and on a world tour that was to produce his influential book Greater Britain (1869), to help spearhead his country’s revived interest in empire, wrote:
“To see Virginia City and Carson since I first heard their fame in New York had been with me a passion. . . . Virginia City has passed through its second period—that of ‘vigilance committees’ and ‘historic trees’—and is entering the third, the stage of churches and ‘city officers’ or police.
“The population is still a shifting one. A by-law of the municipality tells us that the ‘permanent population’ consists of those who reside more than a month within the city. At this moment [autumn 1867] the miners are pouring into Washoe from Montana, from Arizona and from Utah, coming from the gayeties of the largest mining city, to spend their money during the short fierce winter.
|Teaming in Washoe, From Dan De Quille: The Big Bonanza 1876.|
“From Montana, from Arizona and from Utah . . .“ The mining frontiers of the Far West were already extended far beyond the Mother Lode and the Comstock by the middle sixties. Halfway across Nevada, in the middle of nowhere, Samuel Bowles, journeying by stagecoach in the party of Schuyler Carfax, later Vice-President of the United States, in the summer of 1865, found:
“the most representative mining town we had yet seen. . . . Beginning in 1863, Austin had in a year’s time a population of six to eight thousand, fell away in 1865 to four thousand, and now probably has no more than three thousand. Its houses are built anywhere, everywhere, and then the streets get to them as best they can; one side of a house will be four stories, the other one or two,—such is the lay of the land; not a tree, not a flower, not a blade of green grass anywhere in town; but the boot-blacks and baths and barbers are of European standards.
“It has a first-class French restaurant and a daily newspaper; the handsomest woman, physically, I ever saw presided, with almost comic queenliness, over one of its lager beer saloons; gambling went on openly, amid music, in the area of every ‘saloon’—miners risking to this chance at night the proceeds of the scarcely less doubtful chance of the day; while the generally cultivated and classical tone of the town may be inferred from this advertisement in the daily paper:—
“Mammoth Lager Beer Saloon, in the basement, corner Main and Virginia streets, Austin, Nevada. Choice liquors, wines, lager beer and cigars, served by pretty girls, who understand their business and attend to it. Votaries of Bacchus, Gambrinus, Venus or Cupid can spend an evening agreeably at the Mammoth Saloon.”
|View of Virginia City Nevada from a hillside.|
Reaching Virginia City a little earlier than Dilke, Bowles also discerned signs that this once wild mining camp—”the ‘cussedest’ town in the States, its citizens expecting ‘a dead man for breakfast’ every day,” as Dilke had put it—was beginning to settle down:
“We found in Virginia, the original ‘Washoe’ of mining history, many contrasts to and improvements upon Austin. It is three or four years older; it puts its gambling behind an extra door; it is beginning to recognize the Sabbath, has many churches open, and closes part of its stores on that day; is exceedingly well built, in large proportion with solid brick stores and warehouses; and though the fast and fascinating times of 1862-63 are over, when it held from fifteen to twenty thousand people, and Broadway and Wall street were not more crowded than its streets, and there are tokens that its great mines are nearly dug out, it still has the air of permanence and of profit, and contains a population of seven or eight thousand, besides the adjoining town or extension of Gold Hill, which has about three thousand more.
“The situation of Virginia is very picturesque; above the canyon or ravine, it is spread along the mountain side, like the roof of a house, about half way to the top. Directly above rises a noble peak, fifteen hundred feet higher than the town, itself about six thousand feet high; below stretches the foot-hill, bisected by the ravine; around on all sides, sister hills rise in varying hights, rich in roundness and other forms of beauty, but brown in barrenness, as if shorn for prize fight, and fading out into distant plain, with a sweet green spot to mark the rare presence of water and vendure.
For a whole decade, from 1865 to 1874, the Comstock Lode was, as the miners put it, in “borrasca,” or clouded over. But the clear sky of the biggest bonanza of all was just around the corner. The shares of the Consolidated Virginia Mine, organized by Washoe’s new Big Four out of several earlier workings that were now considered to be worthless by other mining experts, stood at $1 each in 1870 but had skyrocketed to $700 by 1875. That was when the mine was bringing in $50,000 a day. Dividends of nearly $75 million were paid by the company between 1875 and 1881.
Then the skies clouded over again for Virginia City, this time for good. The 38-million-dollar production of the Comstock Lode in 1875 fell to less than a million and a half dollars in 1881. As early as 1878, unemployment among the Washoe miners had become a serious problem and they began to drift away like Comstock capital. The Comstock skills and mining know-how were to be exported all over the United States—indeed, all over the world. But in 1880 the population of Virginia City was still over 15,000 (a figure it had first reached as early as 1863), compared with a peak figure of 20,000 in 1875. It never did quite become a ghost town, and by the time of its centennial in 1959, it had been rescued from oblivion by tourism, perhaps for an even more unpleasant fate.*
* As a not-so-venerable fossil, presided and tinseled over until recently by a pair of bizarre entrepreneurs of by-gone glamour, Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, two somewhat incandescent refugees from the bright lights of Broadway, and co-authors of Virginia and Truckee (Stanford, Calif., 1950) and Legends of the Comstock Lode (Oxford, 1957). These are works to enliven an idle hour rather than to pore over seriously, for while there is no harm, neither is there much good in them, or for that matter in the other enterprises of this Ersatz Twain. Beebe’s very readable last work was The Big Spenders (New York, 1966).
|Virginia City, Nevada. From Harper’s Magazine.|