This article is copyrighted by and all rights reside with the author Elizabeth Gibson
Gold and silver strikes made millionaires and paupers, settled new cities, and civilized many parts of the West. But no other strike had more influence than the Comstock Lode discovered on Mount Davidson in western Nevada. The Comstock Lode was not a single mine but a huge geological formation of ore which many shafts sunk into it.
Though others may have known about the silver, it wasn't until Peter O'Riley and Pat McLaughlin discovered the lode about June 1, 1859, that the silver lode became public knowledge. They were working a claim along Six Mile Canyon and were just about to give up. They were digging a hole to store water when they struck a rich deposit. They knew they had something but they weren't quite sure what it was. Just then, H.T.P. "Old Pancake" Comstock rode up. He immediately recognized the value of the strike but did not let the two men in on the secret. He tried to claim they were digging on land that belonged to him. O'Riley and McLaughlin insisted they had a prior claim. Comstock relented, stating that as long as they added Comstock and his friend Emmanuel Penrod to the claim then he would be satisfied. After that, Comstock named himself superintendent and did all the talking. Soon his name became associated with the Lode.
Unlike the easy placer mining in California, the silver at Mount Davidson was deep underground. Deep shafts and tunnels had to be blasted through solid rock. Cave-ins were common. In 1860, the owners hired mining expert Phillip Deidesheimer to design a safer mine. Deidesheimer had puzzled over the problem for several days when he was inspired by watching a bee. He thought he could build a structure similar to a honeycomb that could be used to shore up the tunnels. His cubes became known as the "square set." Soon the square set was in standard use and it was immediately copied by German and Austrian coal miners.
The incredible heat below the surface caused another problem. The temperature could reach 130 degrees, and sometimes there was steaming hot water to go with it. At times, shifts lasted only one half hour because that was all the men could endure. In between shifts, the men chewed ice. Each man received a daily allotment of 95 pounds of ice! They got a little relief when the owners drilled ventilating shafts, but it wasn't enough. It wasn't until the late 1860s, that two huge air pumps were installed to blow forced compressed air through pipes to cool down the shafts.
Soon the amount of silver coming out of the mine reached the attention of President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln needed the riches of the Comstock Lode to finance the Union's efforts in the Civil War. He also needed the votes of another state to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. To meet legal requirements, the Nevada Constitution had to be delivered to Washington D.C. in person. So Nevada officials telegraphed the entire constitution to Chicago, where it would be written out in longhand and delivered to Washington. It was the longest telegraph in history. It took Frank Bell over 12 hours to tap it out and it cost over $4,000 to send! The requirements were fulfilled, and Nevada became a state on October 31, 1864.
There was also the problem of transporting the ore off the mountain. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad was the solution. The new railroad was built from Virginia City to Reno along the Truckee River. Construction began on February 19, 1869. The first 21 miles between Virginia City and Carson City were completed in eight months. The route traveled through six zinc-lined tunnels. The zinc protected the timber shoring up the tunnels from the fountain of sparks that spewed out of the train's smoke stack. Once completed the train was hauling 500 to 800 tons of ore off the mountain every day. In return, the train took much needed supplies and timber back up the mountain.
Fifty or sixty miles of the eastern slopes of the Sierras were stripped of trees to supply the mine and the nearby towns of Virginia City and Gold Hill. All the closest trees were harvested right away, so lumbermen were forced to venture farther up the slopes. The Pacific Wood, Lumber, & Flume Company built a wooden trestle that floated logs from the shores of Lake Tahoe to the mining site. The loss of the trees changed the climate in the area; warm weather came sooner and often melted the snow all at once, causing floods that swept through Virginia City.
Many men made their fortune here. John MacKay was one of the first. His good fortune started when he invested some money that he had earned working for wages and bought shares in the Kentuck mine. Within six months, the shares were worth $22,000 a share! Soon MacKay and his partner James Fair held a controlling interest in the Hale & Norcross Mine. They made so much money that they were able to buy even more properties. With their partners O'Brien and Flood of San Francisco, MacKay and Fair also acquired controlling interest in the Virginia City and Gold Hill Water-Works; several quartz mills; the Pacific Wood, Lumber & Flume Company; and several other businesses.
Many houses on Nob Hill in San Francisco were financed by the mining millionaires. The Palace and Fairmont Hotels, many banks, and office buildings were financed by Comstock money too. The foundries and machine shops of San Francisco and other West Coast towns worked day and night to fill orders for engines, boilers, pumps, and all kinds of machinery to be shipped to the mines. Ranchers and fruit growers in California shipped fresh produce and livestock to the boom towns.
The mines started petering out in the 1880s. The impacts of the fortunes of the Comstock Lode would long be felt. Innovations like the square set changed the shape of mining. San Francisco became a force on the West Coast. Many individuals became millionaires. And a new state, the state of Nevada was born!
Previously published at Suite101.com by Creative Marketeam Canada Ltd.