Martis Creek’s silver boom – and bust |

Martis Creek’s silver boom – and bust

The Truckee area is not known as mining country, yet there was a time when gold and silver prospectors were searching the area for the same bonanzas that were found in the Comstock Lode area of Virginia City.In 1863, the silver and gold mines of Virginia City in Nevada Territory were a busy place for miners and mine owners. The rest of the country was involved in the Civil War. Construction on the transcontinental railroad had begun in Sacramento, but it would be five more years before the rails would reach the Truckee Basin. The Central Pacific Railroad had crews building the Donner Lake and Dutch Flat Wagon Road to connect the railhead with Virginia City and to supply the railroad construction crews working in the mountains. Joseph Gray would establish his stage stop along the wagon road in what would become Truckee.Prospectors were always looking for new ground that would make them rich, and some thought they had found great treasure on what is now the middle fork of Martis Creek. These prospects were known as the Red, White and Blue Mining District. Prospectors who had visited the Virginia City region were searching for similar geology throughout the Truckee-Tahoe area. They were looking for quartz ledges laced with silver and gold.The discovery of the ledges were attributed to survey crew members of the California-Nevada boundary survey of 1863. This survey was jointly run by the California Surveyor General, General J.F. Houghton, and the Commissioner of the Nevada Territory, Butler Ives. In May of 1863, the survey party had started work at Lake Tahoe, then known as Lake Bigler, and was working north toward the Oregon border. Two unnamed survey members found the promising ledges, deserted the survey party and started mining operations. By July the boom was in full swing.When the survey team returned in July they reported that the previously undisturbed areas of the north shore of Lake Tahoe and Martis Creek were now the scene of approximately 700 silver-crazy men running around staking claims. All supplies had to come up the wagon road from Sacramento through Placerville to the south shore of Lake Tahoe. Sail and row boats were making regular trips from the south shore of Lake Tahoe to the newly named Agate Bay.The usual method of organizing a mining district was for claim holders to hold a camp meeting and agree on the rules and name. The majority of the men were Union sympathizers, so the patriotic name of Red, White and Blue Mining District was chosen. Another portion of this district included the boomtowns of Knoxville and Claraville near the entrance to Squaw Valley.Shafts and tunnels were being dug at a new town site called Modiosho, which was reported to be a Washoe word for quartz. The argentiferous galena quartz assayed out in Carson City at values from $6 to $98 a ton, certainly not a great find, but enough to keep the interest of prospectors and speculators. A later assay found some pockets of high value ore valued at $175 a ton. Another assayer from San Francisco was brought to the district, and he gave the values of $500 to $7,000 a ton. It was later shown that this assay was a fraud. Prospectors ranged all over the region looking for signs of treasure. A 364-foot-long tunnel was dug near the headwaters of Juniper Creek. It is also possible that a mine from that era, later known by Truckee locals such as Frank Titus as “The Lost Dutchman’s Mine,” was located on the north side of Mt. Pluto. Quartz mines were later located above Brockway Hot Springs as well.Silver frenzyBy late August, Modiosho, located near the summit, had become Centerville. It was on the trail that would become today’s state Route 267. At the time, the streets were staked off, claim notices posted, but only one hut with a brush roof was built. It never amounted to much more. The most promising scene of the frenzy was at a town site first named Neptune City. In July it already had several saloons, an eating house, a barber shop and a butcher shop that served the district. The village had a population of 50 people. At the beginning, there were makeshift shelters of small logs and canvas covered brush shelters. Neptune City was three miles down the trail from Modiosho or Centerville, near the entrance to today’s Northstar-at-Tahoe.By late August it was described as an actual village, containing two or three structures. Neptune City was using the name Elizabethtown. The name of the village was from a “hotel” run by the husband of Mrs. Elizabeth Gazley, who was one of the first to locate there. This was most likely no more than a small log cabin.One building was a store, a brush covered shanty that was 12 feet square. It sold a meager supply of bacon, salt, pepper, tobacco, flour and, most importantly, bad whisky. The men who dreamed of great riches lived in tents, brush huts, or most likely camped out in the open with little more that a few blankets. Plans for a quartz mill were being discussed, timber claims were filed, and water rights were being divided up. Plans were underway to create a mining rush rivaling Virginia City.The area had no roads, but plans were underway to build the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road through Martis Creek along the north shore of Tahoe and on to Virginia City. Instead, in 1864 the road was built through Stampede Valley and connected to the Henness Pass Road. No connection was made to the Red, White and Blue. In August, a single Conestoga wagon was brought in from the Placerville and Carson Road that passed along the south shore of Lake Tahoe. This wagon was rafted over Lake Tahoe, and is credited as being the first recorded freight towed on a barge on the lake. The likely sail powered boat that performed this first was the “Iron Duke.” After laboriously cutting a road over the hill, the wagon arrived at Elizabethtown. The wagon was used to haul supplies from Agate Bay to Elizabethtown.At the height of the excitement, vacant lots were being sold for $200. The district recorder was overrun with business, and pocketed thousands of dollars in a few weeks.They dug coyote holes and started shafts and tunnels. Shares of the mines were sold in “feet” of the claim, and while there were no actual stocks sold on any exchange, these “feet” were bought and sold locally in the district. One trained scientist, William H. Brewer, who passed through in late August, thought that the whole district was next to worthless.The fuss dissolvesThe end came quickly in September. The quartz ore was not proving to match the assay values. A rumor of a new, more valuable gold strike in the Reese River country of Nevada quickly spread among the prospectors of the Red, White and Blue District and the area emptied. Tools, dwellings, and mining claims were all abandoned, and the silver rush of Martis Creek was a memory. Presumably, the supply wagon was used to haul off as much of the supplies as possible.Truckee businessmen William Campbell and George Schaffer built the wagon road from Truckee to (Brockway) Hot Springs in the fall of 1869, local prospectors brought samples of quartz to Truckee and talked of reopening the claims. Nothing came of it. In July of 1872 the Truckee Republican published an article that described a number of abandoned log houses that once constituted the bustling and flourishing “city” of Centerville and Elizabethtown. Again in January of 1873 there was talk of reopening the mines, but talk is all that was produced. For a decade the abandoned mining camps were a minor tourist attraction, until they were mostly forgotten.The amount of silver in the quartz is small, but it’s still there. Most of the gold was iron pyrite – fool’s gold. Every so often through the decades, someone would prospect the claims and talk about reopening the mines, but nothing ever came of it. No remnants are visible of the boom and bust of 1863 in Martis Creek.A plaque dedicated to the Red, White and Blue Mining District is located at the entrance to Northstar. This plaque is one of many that was erected by the Chief Truckee Clampers of the E Clampus Vitus, more commonly known as the Clampers. They are very involved in preserving and commemorating history in the Truckee area. Much of the research in this article was provided by Truckee resident and Clamper Leon Schegg.Gordon Richards is the new research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Leave a message at 582-0893.

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