Sierra history: Big risk, big money came with Comstock mining | SierraSun.com

Sierra history: Big risk, big money came with Comstock mining

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Bonanza
Cornish miners in front of elevator shaft, circa 1873.
Courtesy Nevada Historical Society |

Editor’s note

This is the first in a two-part series. Look for Part Two to be published in May.

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — If you haven’t been to Virginia City, Nev., recently you’re in for a surprise, but probably not a pleasant one.

For several years now, Comstock Mining Incorporated has run a massive open pit excavation operation on the old Comstock Lode in the Virginia Range.

The resumption of large-scale mining adjacent to the Virginia City Historic District has upset residents and businesses alike. The federal government has designated the integrity of the nationally recognized landmark as “threatened.”

Nevada has had a close relationship with mining since its first days as a territory in the early 1860s and it is a major component of its economy.

Although the primary ore in the 19th century Comstock bonanza was silver, today the state produces about 80 percent of all the gold in the United States.

And just like back in the days of the Wild West, mining companies pay no royalties to the federal government on any precious metals extracted from public lands under provisions included in the 1872 General Mining Act.

Unlike in the past when gold or silver strikes attracted thousands of people to mine, work and build the Silver State’s first communities, most of today’s operations are in remote rural areas where modern machines and technologies require only a fraction of those numbers for its workforce.

Many, if not most, Virginia City residents feel that Comstock Mining Inc. is hurting their community rather than helping it.

WILDLY PRODUCTIVE MINES

Mining is environmentally disruptive, physically dangerous work. Like the California Gold Rush that preceded it by a decade, the 1859 discovery of precious metals in what was then western Utah Territory lured tens of thousands of adventurous, sometimes desperate souls to that region.

The mining excitement grew rapidly in the new Nevada Territory (1861), and the Comstock Lode near Virginia City quickly become one of the world’s greatest producers of silver and gold, with all the peripheral business opportunities commensurate with a 19th century Gold Rush.

But unlike California’s nearly pure placer gold dust and nuggets that miners picked and scratched from diverted stream and river beds, or eroded out of whole mountainsides with powerful hydraulic water cannons, the high-yield silver and gold ore located in the Virginia Range was buried in rock hundreds and sometimes thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface.

California’s mining camps were scattered north and south more than 200 miles along the gold-bearing “Mother Lode” on the Sierra Nevada west slope, but Nevada’s rich deposits were concentrated in a relatively small location only about six miles wide.

These wildly productive mines gave birth to a densely populated, industrialized city of about 25,000 people, but the life of a typical hard-rock miner in Virginia City was not all oysters and champagne. In fact, most of the men who rode the shaft elevator down into the hot, stifling tunnels, considered it a “daily descent into Hell.”

SKILL, BRAINS AND BRAWN

Within the bowels of Mount Davidson, the relentless digging had led to a stubborn stalemate.

As the miners burrowed deeper into the earth, they inhaled filthy, foul-smelling air, and breathing became nearly impossible.

Candlewicks burned with a faint blue-green flame, and at the deeper levels, the rocks heated to temperatures exceeding 130 degrees.

Stripped to the waist, the exhausted miners were doused with cold water melted from ice harvested in the Truckee River canyon.

Harvested in December or January, the blocks of “hard water” were stocked in massive, insulated storage rooms. Each miner was allocated 95 pounds of ice per day. It barely kept them alive during their eight-hour shift.

It took skill, brains and brawn to work a Nevada mine day after day and survive. Many of the men who did were Cornish miners from Cornwall, England, who had fled a severe economic depression at home for a well paying job on the Comstock.

Many Cornish families had struggled for years in impoverished tin and copper mining towns and they had created such a tight-knit community and camaraderie that you almost had to be Cornish to work in many Nevada mines.

Other miners called them “Cousin Jacks” from an oft-told story that whenever an opening for a new miner occurred, a Cornishman would quickly step up and say in Celtic English, “Ah, now, I know who can fill it. Me cousin Jack, ‘e’s a good man. I’ll bring ‘im along.”

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.