Nevada History by John C. Evanoff is excited to present this series of articles by noted author and poet, John C. Evanoff. John will tell us about Nevada history and cover some of the more remote and unusual things to see and do in Northern Nevada.

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The Comstock Lode

The Miners Leave Virginia City
June, 2008
By John Evanoff

Without a doubt, the great ledge of quartz of the Comstock Lode and the mounds of bluish mud containing high grade silver coming from the many mines and mills in and around Virginia City was slowly dwindling to a mere few thousand dollars a day by 1890. Some say the dream of a metropolitan center began to melt away in 1880 when other strikes occurred around the west. Maybe it was the way the rich got richer and moved to Carson City and San Francisco and the way stocks were sold among the many who tried their hand at speculating. Perhaps, it was the big companies taking over and the miners working day and night to bring the ore up from half a mile down. Slowly though, Virginia City was changing. In May of 1881, the city gave up its influential owned government to the county commissioners and only a few mining companies which had bought up the majority of smaller claims had stuck around looking through the immense ore-body in hopes of finding another great bonanza. The miners union, although strong, was starting to lose men to claims in other parts of Nevada and to Alaska as well as in other countries. The companies and stock holders of Virginia City paid good wages to the miners for that period of time; at least to those with experience. But when supervisors sometimes left for other companies and claims, they would take a dozen or more good men with them and mining companies had a hard time replacing them. Still the noise went on and the city was busy night and day.

From the time in 1859 that James Fennimore, named “Old Virginia” by his drinking buddies, first drunkenly broke his bottle of liquor by accidentally stumbling over a rock and christening the fumble as “Virginia”, the town grew so fast that history books still advance the premise it was greed to its highest adventure. By 1875, more than 20,000 people lived on the slopes of Mount Davidson and almost all the way down Six Mile Canyon. The many characters whose prospecting led to the Comstock Lode being one of the most sought after bonanzas in the world eventually left for other fields or became rich beyond means and became barons of other industry. Many of these larger-than-life folks concocted other get-rich-quick schemes and eventually went broke.

In the region, more than fifty mills stamped and reduced thousands of tons of rock to garner from them millions of dollars in precious metals. Even the great fire of October, 1875 which destroyed more than two thousand structures in a half mile wide swath of the town was of no great importance to the work to be done to release the wealth from the ground. Within three months of the great fire of Virginia City, all the homes and most of the businesses and structures were rebuilt and the Virginia & Truckee Railroad ran more than forty trains a day to furnish enough wood and supplies so the entire town could be whole again. So that it never happened again, firefighters were hired full time and a set of huge water tanks was built along the hillsides above Virginia City with a maze of hydrants throughout the streets prepared to handle any fire. The high pressure hoses were rolled on large spools near each hydrant insuring that the fire would be out before it ever got our of hand.

Some of the deepest gold mines exceeding more than 3,000 feet were hit with bad luck in 1888 when an underground creek was struck open and filled a number of the mines to a level that became financially impossible to completely dry out through pumping. By this time, many of the surface miners had already left for strikes in Austin, Eureka and points south and east. To the dismay of many of the stockholders, the strikes seemed to be losing their potency. The superior mining techniques of the great Consolidated California & Virginia, Yellow Jacket, Gould & Curry, Ophir, Savage, Confidence, Best & Belcher, Crown Point, Overman, Alta, Baltimore, Hale & Norcross, Potosi and the Challenge milled more than a million dollars in bullion each quarter, but the stockholders wanted more. With prices of stock much higher than gold itself, some economists believed the end was very near anyway. The constant haggling and speculator promises of new bonanzas finally cracked the money pot until only a few mines were left to dig for treasure.
If you take the time to climb to the top of Mount Davidson and look down on Virginia City, you may hear the ghost’s whispers of new finds just below the streets in the winds that come up the canyon to meet your face in the morning hours. I believe, with the way gold is aiming ever higher and maybe even over a thousand dollars an ounce and silver soon going above what an ounce of gold sold for in 1888, we may see the bonanza strikes again. But until that time, we are left with a little sleepy tourist town that attempts to take you back to when times were better and only reinvents itself as a shadow of that period. As you look north into the Truckee Meadows, you see the growing municipalities of Reno and Sparks below Peavine Peak and are reminded of how in their meager days, they once tried to reinvent themselves on many occasions as the capital of divorce and gambling.

Looking south to Eagle Valley and Carson City, you can almost imagine the time when the Virginia & Truckee rail yards teemed with an industry of servants the likes no one in the west had ever seen before. More wealth and technology came through that area in those illustrious three decades than in all of America. In fact, it was Virginia City that won the Civil War for the Union with its big bonanza and eventually led to Nevada being declared a state.

The view to the Sierra Nevada, Mt. Rose and Slide Mountain is still today a most remarkable and memorable spectacle. If you look across Washoe Lake to Bowers Mansion and Old Washoe City, squint a bit and remember that a dozen mills and more than ten thousand people moved lumber, supplies and hundreds of miners a day up the steep dirt road of the Jumbo Grade to the mines, it’s easy to imagine Washoe City almost became the capital of the state.

Without a doubt the view to the east with Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City still gives me goose bumps. This area was by far one of the busiest places on and in the earth for quite awhile. Wonder upon wonder happened at this spot and all from the treasures of the Comstock Lode. I can visualize walking down Main Street with Mark Twain listening to another one of his crazy stories and knowing he would dream up more to keep the conversation going. I can hear the whistle of the Virginia & Truckee still today, because of the wild imaginings of a few proud Nevadans and the Northern Nevada Railway Foundation. If you get a chance, take the ride and listen to the stories. Walk through Boot Hill and visit the museums and bars along the main streets of these three feisty towns. The charismatic prospectors who pursued the big bonanza and the many that made fortunes grubstaking them in these isolated rugged canyons were all great story tellers, acquainted with many bottles of booze and lived adventurous and hard working lives. Their exploits have produced novels, short stories, movies and marvelous contraptions we still use today. In the shadow of Mount Davidson, it’s easy to acknowledge the famous Virginia City as the true and one-and-only legend of the west.

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