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Virginia City & The Mines Of The Comstock

It was in 1859 that the first silver discovery was made public in an area of what is known today as Virginia City Nevada. This discovery that started the largest land and silver rush in America was Named after American miner, Henry Comstock. This massive discovery became known around the world as the Comstock Lode. Thousands of men flocked to this area for a piece of the action and a chance to get rich. While the comstock mines made many people fortunes, as you will hear, there were others who lost it all. Including their lives.

Initially this area was overlooked because there was little gold and most prospectors back then where more interested in gold. Many prospectors had been through this area on their way to California as the goldrush was a still a going concern there. Two bothers who were prospectors, Ethan and Hosea Grosh staked a claim in the area this area and did a little prospecting while on their way to California. While prospecting, Hosea injured his foot and got blood poisoning and died a short time later. His brother then left for California with another man and let Henry Comstock stay in the cabin and take care of the claim while they were away. However Ethan and his partner would never return. While treking to California the two were caught in a snow storm and got frost bite so bad that they lost limbs by amputation. Ethan died and his partner returned home. After hearing about these deaths, Henry claimed the cabin and the land as his own.

Up until this time there was just small groups of miners that hand mined some of the creeks with rockers and small sluices but that all changed with the discovery of a big silver strike. Within five years there was six major silver discoveries. The first of these was the Ophir bonanza found in 1859. Two miners needing water for their rocker decided to dig a pit for getting water and ended up hitting a layer of rich black sand concentrates. Henry Comstock heard about this discovery and said that he had staked the property for grazing purposes and after a few threat, managed to get himself into a deal with the ones who found the black sand. This became known as the famous Ophir discovery where the ore was assayed at 3/4 silver and 1/4 gold.

There was also the Gould & Curry bonanza which included 500 feet of the El Dorado outcrop and dipped into the Savage Bonanza. However in 1866 the ore ran out. There was also the Savage bonanza which included this ore body along with a second deposit that was shared with Hale & Norcross. Then there was the Chollar-Potosi deposit but in 1875 is was merged with the Combination Shaft. Other famous deposits were the Gold Hill bonanza and Crown Point-Belcher bonanza which was discovered in 1870. The ore from this deposit had precious metal value of which was 54 percent from gold and 46 percent from silver but the ore only lasted only four years before it ran out.

In mining, there is always two things that are a hinderance. One is not enough water and the second is too much water. The Comstock area had both. On the surface they had little water for things like running the town and the mines. Everything back then was steam powered and if you are going to make steam, you are going to need a lot of water. Creeks and wells couldn't keep up so in 1872 a 12 inch water line was run for seven miles into the mountains to the Washoe Valley. This pipeline could bring in 2.2 million gallons of water per day into the town and mines.

Having too much water was also a problem because as the mines went deeper the tunnels were getting more and more water seeping in. There was water coming in from everywhere and in some levels the water seeping in was from hot springs in the mountian. The water was so hot it would boil and egg and scald man so eventually a long drain tunnel had to be built as pumps could not keep up with the inflow of water. After four years and digging through solid rock for almost four miles, the Sutro Tunnel was built. This drain tunnel could drain up to 4,000,000 gallons daily.

Until 1870 everything that came into the town arrived on mule train and it is said that at times the mule trains would be 3 miles long bring supplies into town. About 80 million board feet of lumber was used each year for everything from buildings to underground timbers. Then in 1870 the railroad arrived and there was rail traffic to Carson City.

Of course none of these old mines or town stories is complete without a fire of some kind and on April 7, 1869 a fire broke out on the 800 foot level of the Yellow Jacket Mine. As the fire burned, the wood timbers collapsed and poisonous gases escaped throughout the mine. Thirty five miners died that day. It is said that some of the mine sections that were sealed off remained hot for several years.

Peak production from the Comstock occurred in 1877 where the mines produced over $14,000,000 of gold and $21,000,000 of silver that year. At one point there were over 400 companies mining in and around this area. Mining started to decline in 1880, however some deep mining continued for several decades until the last pump was shut down in 1918. Mining picked up again in the 1930s after the federal government raised the price of gold from $20.67 to $35 per ounce in 1934.

Now you are probably wondering what became of Henry Comstock after all this time. Well Henry sold his Ophir holdings for $11,000 and his half of the Spanish mine for $5,500. He then opened a dry good store in Carson City but havig no business skills he ended up loosing all his money. He then went north to Idaho and Montana to prospect where it is said he died in Montana from possible suicide.

Today you can go to Virginia City and see the old town and tour the mines. This place is on my bucket list as places to visit.