Strap on your metallurgy shoes, grab your mining lamp, and read up on froth flotation, jig concentrators, buddle pits, heap leaching, dump leaching, tank leaching, hydrocyclones, gold cyanidation, and most importantly, electrowinning: it’s time head into the trivia mines.
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1. In my mental rolodex, the Comstock Lode has always been filed away under “California gold rush.” The thing is, it wasn’t in California (Nevada), it wasn’t entirely gold (silver), and it wasn’t during the early gold rush era (mining didn’t begin until almost 1860). Somehow I was able to be this misguided while still being aware that Nevada’s nickname is The Silver State.
The original discovery of gold in the region was by members of the Mormon Battalion—an actual army battalion of Mormons—in 1850. Nothing came of it. Then, in 1857, brother mineralogists Ethan and Hosea Grosh discovered gold and silver ore, but died before they could get to California and round up the money/publicity to undertake a full mining operation. A slow-witted local gadabout named Henry Comstock, friends of the brothers, tried to find their claim, but couldn’t. When someone else did, Comstock—nicknamed “Old Pancake”—traded a blind horse and a bottle of whiskey for a share of the claim (I know that sounds made up, but it’s really not). He then sold out months later, never striking it rich even though the find bears his name. It was a few years later, sometime in 1859, when miners realized that all the blue clay they were digging through to get the cold was actually silver ore—almost like taking a metal detector to the beach and realizing the sand is as valuable as what you dig up.
Thus began a titanic legal, political, and economic struggle for control of the various claims, which were producing at prodigious rates. How prodigious? Within five years of discovering the deposits, Abraham Lincoln strong-armed Nevada’s path to statehood, despite their not meeting a constitutionally required population minimum. The entire process happened so fast that Nevada’s constitution was wired to Congress via telegraph, a process undertaken with such haste so that Nevada could lard the Union’s military coffers with nearly $50 million worth of gold and silver bullion: the Comstock lode fiscally saved the Union.
It also made San Francisco a metropolis. By 1865, the Bank of California had monopolized almost the entire mining operation, and all that ore-money was going straight to the bay. That lasted until 1873, when the bank’s monopoly was broken when an independent group—later called the “Bonanza Group”—unearthed still richer veins.
2. One of the miners in the Bonanza Group was John MacKay, an Irishman whose clearly mythologized story holds that upon hearing of the silver strike, he walked the 250 miles from San Francisco to Nevada, grabbed a pick, and started digging. After three years without success, he heard tell of a rich claim, one stakeholder in which was off fighting for the CSA. Supposedly, MacKay tracked down Johnny Reb and negotiated to buy out his stake in the midst of a Civil War battle. To hear it told by MacKay and/or his hagiographer, bullets were whizzing about while they chatted about proper recompense.
The Bonanza Group also included another Irish miner, James Fair, as well as two moneymen providing the bankroll. The entire group got fat on the profits, though it was MacKay and Fair that went on to notoriety—mostly as morality tales about the potentially corrupting influence of wealth. MacKay, in those tales, was the good guy who gave substantial amounts of money to charity even while being one of the ten richest people in the world. Fair was the asshole who would go into his mines, ask workers for tobacco, smoke with them, then fire them all for breaking no-smoking rules, which sounds like exactly the kind of thing Nixon did while leading the young republicans. And if you weren’t already convinced that Fair was a shithead, he also later served as a US Senator.
Scoundrel rabbit hole: Fair replaced William Sharon as a Senator. Sharon was a prime mover and shaker in the Bank of California. Remember how I said the bank monopolized control of the mines until the Bonanza group unravelled them? That was Sharon’s doing: he lent money at subprime rates to everyone in the area, keeping the property when people inevitably defaulted. When the bonanza group upset the monopoly, Sharon sold off most of his shares in the bank, which ended up causing a panic and a bank run. The then-head of the bank, William Ralston, had overextended while trying to commandeer the San Francisco water supply, and shortly thereafter drowned (accidentally?) while swimming in the bay. Whence Sharon said “Best thing he could have done” (for whom?), stepped in to manage the estate, and regained control of the bank while stiffing Ralston’s creditors. ICE COLD. All this perfidy was before his election as senator. His sins in congress derived mostly from apathy: he did not present any bills, spent no time in Nevada or DC, and voted in fewer than 1% of roll-call votes, which I’m assuming is actually a 0 + rounding error. Christ, what an asshole.
Less-scoundrely rabbit hole: Joseph Goodman founded the first newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada, the nexus of the Comstock mining rush. While there, he hired a cub reporter named Samuel Clemens. Later, he borrowed money from Clemens to start mining, made a fortune, moved to San Francisco, became a stock broker, lost his fortune, then bought a vineyard. This is all boring and whatever except that Goodman’s lasting legacy is having deciphered the Mayan calendar. No joke!
Second-scoundrel rabbit hole: George Hearst also made the first of his several fortunes working the Nevada silver mines. This was prior to his moving to Deadwood, being played by Major Dad, and bestowing on the world one of the great yellow journalists of our time (check out the younger Hearst’s publicity hounding and one of the most bizarre murder cases in US history here).
Semi-scoundrel note: Another silver baron of the Comstock Lode was Alvinza Hayward, said to be California’s first millionaire. A spiritualist, in his later years Hayward used mediums to make business decisions, which worked about as well as you’d expect. Weird sidenote: He and his wife Charity had 8 kids, six of whom died as children from an unidentified respiratory ailment. It’s been speculated—wildly and without evidence, I should add—that Charity Hayward may have suffered from Munchausen’s-by-proxy and killed the children.
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3. Because there’s nothing like the prospect of piles of precious metals to spur innovation, the Comstock lode also led to advances in mining technology. One was square-set timbering. At that time, wooden supports for mines were just U-shaped timbers, but these could not support the immense size and weight of the Nevada mines. To solve this, the engineer Philip Deidesheimer developed modular, cube-shaped wooden frames that could be stacked together to fit any size opening. Even better, the open space inside the cube could be filled with waste rock. Problem solved.
Another big deal was the Sutro Tunnel (bay area readers: yes, that Sutro). The problem with the Comstock mines was that they needed to keep going deeper, where things were either intolerably hot, underwater, or both, which is to say full of scalding water. Even by mining standards, the Comstock mines were deathtraps and hellscapes: miners usually worked near cages, so that if they accidentally broke through a wall, they could jump in and be hoisted to safety before being scalded to death by the water that came rushing through. Whether this actually worked is unknown.
Pumps worked to keep the mines dry for awhile, but they couldn’t go deep enough. Adolph Sutro, a Prussian-born engineer, facial-hair hall of famer, and literaly mining hall of famer, thought to use a long tunnel to act as a drainage conduit, shunting the wastewater miles downstream and obviating the need for pumps. He raised more than $3 million for this novel endeavor, and according to one biography, set about leading the charge—shirtless, one supposes—on the boring, blasting, tunneling, and whatever-elseing the tunnel construction mandated.
Though Sutro raised the money in 1865, construction on the tunnel didn’t start until 1869. In April of that year, a fire in the Yellowjacket mine killed at least 35 workers. Sutro convinced the miners that his new tunnel could have prevented the disaster, and the support from laborers helped get tunnel construction started.
The tunnel took nine years to complete: it was finished in 1878 and it still drains today. Sutro made an absolute killing, charging upwards of $10,000 per day for “rent” on the now-mineable shafts. The economics of the entire industry were shifting: mining tycoons belatedly realized that Sutro’s tunnel was diluting their own control of the mines, water pump technology was improving, and mine output was slowing. Demonstrating the flair for selling high of a successful oligarch, Sutro sold his tunnel and high-tailed it to San Francisco. It was a canny business decision: by the late 1880s most of Nevada’s boom towns were already ghost towns.
Back in SF, Sutro had an unremarkable stint as mayor in the 1890s. He’s known for three lasting contributions to the city: a huge TV antenna that bears his name, a eucalyptus forest in the city, and the now-ruined Sutro Baths. The baths were a massive complex six indoor saltwater swimming pools, replenished by the tides, a freshwater pool, a museum, a theater, and an ice skating rink, all enclosed in glass buildings and overlooked by Sutro’s mansion Cliff House (now a restaurant). The facility is gone, but the ruined foundations are still there.
4. What of the actual miners? Of the nearly 3,000 miners working Nevada mines in 1870, almost ¾ were European-born immigrants. Even in this theoretical “melting pot,” the Chinese were so despised as to be almost completely ostracized. And women? There were none:
In 1870, for example, males outnumbered females in Nevada, 32,379 to 10,112…taking out children (4,394 males and 4,240 females) and the elderly (3,223 males and 579 females) leaves an overwhelmingly male society. Young people and older people were astonishingly underrepresented in the Nevada population. The majority of people were young, single, adult white males.
Young, single, white, and as most of them were living on the razor’s edge of “being alive,” add “angry” to the list.
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That quote and a lot of the information here, is taken from this wonderful site, which I strongly recommend digging around on.