Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Comstock Lode II

In the early 1850s all the serious miners were in California.  A few followed up on the discovery of gold in the Carson River near present day Dayton, but it took years for them to follow the placer gold to its source up in the Carson Mountains.  In 1857 part of the ore vein was discovered by Ethan and Hosea Grosh.  They left a written account of the discovery and samples of ore in a cabin with a friend named Henry Comstock and headed off toward San Francisco to arrange for financial backers to help work on the vein.  Unfortunately, they got frostbite in the mountains and a combination of sepsis and a bungled frontier surgery finished them off without ever reporting their find.

When they failed to return, Henry Comstock claimed the cabin and the ore samples as his own, but he couldn't read, so the written material did him little good.  He apparently was not the sharpest knife in the drawer with or without literacy and eventually sold his share of the mines for about $16,000 which he used to open a dry goods store and promptly ran it out of business.  He died of a self inflicted gunshot wound while prospecting unsuccessfully in Montana in 1870.  But his name lives on as the moniker of the Nevada bonanza - the Comstock Lode.

The mining boom caused a town to spring up almost overnight.  One of the earliest miners was James Finney, known as "Old Virginny Finney" and it was apparently his nickname that led to the town being called Virginia City.  The population went from nothing in 1860 to 4000 in 1862 to 15,000 in 1864 and 25,000 at it's peak in 1875.  Pretty impressive for a town that covered less than one square mile.  If you used to watch Bonanza you saw Virginia City depicted as a bucolic prairie town, but t'weren't  so.  The town was built on the side of a mountain at about a 50° slope and it was all about mining.  Some of the mines sat right in the middle of town, they all ran two 10 hour shifts a day 6 days a week.  There were dozens of saloons and gaming halls and the streets were packed around the clock.  There were no Cartrights, nor cowboys for that matter.

The best miners in the world at the time came from the tin mines in Wales and England - mostly Welsh and Irishmen.  By the 1870s one third of Virginia City was Irish.  All of them were catholic and a few of them actually wanted to go to church.  The first Catholic church was built by Father Hugh Gallagher in 1860 who knew more about piety than carpentry.  The year after it opened it blew down in a wind storm.  Father Patrick Manogue built its successor, known as St. Mary in the Mountains Church, dedicated in 1864.   As the miners continued to pour into town they quickly outgrew this humble structure.  So a block away and 50 feet up the hill they built a new St Mary's out of brick, and this is the structure that looms over the town today, after some rebuilding due to fire in 1875.
St. Mary of the Mountains
We visited St. Mary's and snapped a few photos for you.  When we were leaving, a hawk of some sort flew up and settled itself on the cross atop the church spire.  Probably a good place to scan for rodents.  I took a couple of pics but there was no particularly good angle.

The ore of the Comstock Lode produced both gold and silver at a ratio of about 10 parts silver to one part gold.  At the time of the discovery silver was used to back US currency and the Nevada territory largely financed the Union side in the Civil War.  But over the next 20 years so much silver was pulled out of the Carson Mountains that the glut depressed the global price of silver, which is one of the reasons the United States ended up on the somewhat more stable gold standard until the Great Depression.  Most of the wealth generated by the Comstock ended up going back to San Francisco bankers and totaled about $320,000,000, which would be between 5 and 6 billion dollars today.  Probably an equal amount was lost due to the inefficient extraction methods in use at the time, washed away down the Carson River and out into the Nevada desert.

The 4th Ward school
After the bonanza years ended in the late 1870s, Virginia City faded as most boom towns tend to do.  There is still a little mining going on but the ore isn't very rich and most of the economy is based on tourism.  There are a lot of still extant 1860s and 1870s buildings left that house tourist shops and saloons and ice cream parlors and whatnot.  There are a few museums and historical exhibits as well and we probably should have spent more time there than we did. 

We did go through the Fourth Ward School, one of the more impressive buildings in town left over from the boom years.  Inside there is a refurbished school room on the first floor, some mine exhibits upstairs and a timeline on the life of Mark Twain who, after he gave up river boat piloting, got his start as a writer in Virginia City at one of the local papers, the Territorial Enterprise.  He use that experience to write "Roughing It" which I have never read, but perhaps now I shall.

Refurbished classroom

Mining exhibits
A small bit of the Mark Twain wall

Monday, May 23, 2016

Comstock Lode I

Taking our leave of Ely, we headed west on the loneliest road in America, US Hwy 50.  We know it is the loneliest road because it says so in the guide books and they informed us with signs all along the route.  If we had relied on our own observations we would probably have gotten it wrong, since I'm pretty sure we've been on roads with fewer cars.  But a couple dozen highway signs can't be argued with.  Nor can Life Magazine, which coined the phrase back in the 1980s.

Beautiful downtown Austin, Nev.
We usually try to limit our motorhome drives these days to under 200 miles. so we were scheduled to make an overnight stop in Austin, Nev.  Here is a piece of useful advice to our fellow RVers.  Don't plan to stop overnight in Austin, Nev.  The "RV park" we stayed in was one of the worst we've ever seen.  Just a gravel lot with 6 electrical posts sticking up out of the ground and some grungy looking spigots.  There were sewer connections but we did not hook up to any.  There was no office, no bathroom, no
Best restaurant in town
trees or grass or concrete or asphalt.  Just a box you were supposed to leave an envelope in after you stuffed some money into it.  Truly the low end of the scale as RV parks go.  (We did once stay at a place in Dinosaur, CO that might have been worse.  We'll call it a draw.)  The next morning we went and got breakfast at one of the two diners in town.  Trip Advisor told us the other option was worse.  I had burnt toast and a green chili omelet that actually didn't taste too bad.  Then we drove the length of town back and forth to look at the decrepit old buildings, then we hooked the car back up and resumed our journey.

In Austin they can only afford to build half a barn
We slept the next night in Fallon, which was reasonably nice but unremarkable.  Going through our data cards I find not one photograph from Fallon.  We did find a pretty good Chinese restaurant to eat at and ordered enough so we could have left over chow mien for breakfast.

Oldest saloon in Nevada, est. 1853
The next day brought us to Dayton, Nev where we are scheduled to stay a week.  Not that Dayton is that spectacular, but it is a good central location from which you can explore Lake Tahoe and all the places associated with the Comstock Lode.  Dayton is the oldest permanent settlement in Nevada, unless you ask someone from Genoa, in which case THAT is the oldest settlement in Nevada.  It involves getting nit-picky about what, exactly, qualifies as a "settlement".  Both sides agree that the first gold in Nevada was discovered at Dayton, but it played out pretty quickly.  Genoa has the oldest drinking establishment and it is still in operation, which in my mind counts for quite a bit.
Oldest saloon interior
Reconstructed fort at Mormon Station
We visited Genoa one afternoon.  It's about 30 miles from Dayton and was originally known as Mormon Station.  A group of Mormon acolytes set up a trading post in 1851 to provide supplies and a resting place for hopefuls on their way to the California gold fields.  They probably came away with more riches than most of the miners.We went to the aforementioned drinking establishment and tried a local brew, Carson Amber Bock, which they had on tap.  It was actually quite nice and we sat around talking to a couple of bikers about RVing, waiting for our restaurant to open for dinner.  It's a nice little town with a reconstructed Mormon Station fort and an impressive 1860s era courthouse.  How the name got changed from Mormon Station to Genoa I have no idea.
Genoa courthouse
Dayton Historical Museum
Dayton was also first visited by Mormons.  A group was sent by Brigham Young to the California gold fields in 1850 but got started late and had to winter over along the Carson River before tackling the Sierra Nevadas.  This was a few months before their coreligionists arrived at Mormon Station, so they really were there first.  The leader of the group panned some gold out of the river, but when spring came they followed Brigham's directive and left it behind to proceed on to California.  Some non-Mormon gold diggers stuck around to sift gold dust out of the river in a small tent camp.  It was over a year before any buildings appeared and a permanent settlement started up, leading to the argument about settlement primacy.  The shiny stuff at Dayton was placer gold that had washed down out of the mountains- there was no ore vein near Dayton.  The gold panners followed the trail of the placer gold up river and eventually discovered the source of the Comstock Lode at what became Virginia City some 12 miles away.

Museum interior - random 19th century artifacts
Dayton sits across Hwy 50 from the Carson River.  Our RV park is on the very edge of the "Old Town" area next to a second rate casino.  It is a nice enough RV park except the spaces are a little too close together for comfort.  With our humongous rig, there is no room for our car so we have to park it in a separate area about 100 feet away.  That was OK until we had to unload groceries.  The first few days there were a couple of empty camping slots that allowed us to take a straight line path to the car, but eventually those filled in and now we have to walk a minor labyrinth to avoid stomping through someone else's camp site.

We visited the Dayton Historical Museum, which is located in an old school house.  It was a nice collection of mid-19th century artifacts but with no organizing theme or story.  The lady docent however, was very helpful.  She filled us in on some things and gave us some advise on other places to visit, turning it into a worthwhile stop.  The modern town of Dayton has little else to see, so we'll need to be branching out soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


So there you are stuck in the mid-nineteenth century, wandering aimlessly around the Nevada Territory and you stumble onto an ore deposit.  Maybe gold, maybe silver... something that should make your fortune.  But there are no trains in the area yet and transporting ore is impossibly difficult and expensive by horse drawn wagon.  The thing to do is get the precious metal out of the rock and just transport that, leaving all those tons of dross behind.  So you build yourself a smelter.  But now you have a new problem.  To get your smelter to work you've got to get it hot.  Really hot.  There is no coal in these parts and wood doesn't burn hot enough to get the job done. But wait... wood can be turned into charcoal by partially burning it with limited oxygen to get rid of  water and impurities and turn it into nearly pure carbon.  This will get your smelter to 2300 °F, which will do the trick.

When we visited Plimouth Plantation a couple of years ago we watched them making charcoal by piling up wood and covering it with dirt to limit the air supply (you can read about that here).  That would make enough charcoal to melt some iron and run your blacksmith shop, but it's not very efficient.  A cord of wood will only get you 25 bushels of charcoal by this method.  And to smelt gold you need 50 bushels of charcoal for every ton of ore, so you need a somewhat bigger operation.  Build yourself one of these...
One of the Ward charcoal ovens 10 mi east of Ely, Nev
Six little charcoal ovens all in a row
About 10 miles east of Ely, Nevada are a set of charcoal ovens built in the 1870s.  These stone beehives are 27 feet across and 30 feet high and would hold 35 cords of wood per load and with very carefully controlled air flow would produce 50 bushels of good charcoal per cord, twice what those New Englanders got.  So the six ovens combined could produce about 10,500 bushels of charcoal per 12 day burn cycle.  They were used for gold mining operations in the town of Ward (which is no more, except for the foundation of the stamp mill) for about 3 years until the gold ran out.  This was a good thing because by then they had burnt every tree in a 35 mile radius.  For every oven load they stripped 5-6 acres bare of timber.
View of an oven from the inside
The Nevada Northern Railroad Museum
No significant gold was ever found  where we stayed in Ely itself but copper was abundant and became valuable enough to be worth mining by about 1906.  By this time there were plenty of railroads in the area and they built a spur line down to Ely to bring in coal for smelting and heavy equipment for mining.  Trains brought the ore from the mines to the smelter up the road a ways in the town of Ruth and then carried the crude metal back east where it was further refined for use in the big manufacturing cities. 

Office facing the rail yard.
They built a largish train yard for the railroad which still stands, though the rail service was stopped when the copper mine closed in the 1960s.  The rail yard now houses the Nevada Northern Railway Museum which we visited while there.  It is somewhat bigger than the one we visited in Boulder City.  They have half a dozen early 1900s steam engines and run excursions on what is left of the tracks on weekends (which we missed).  They've also preserved the train station/platform including the business offices which we toured, looking at lots of old photos and antique office equipment.  An elderly docent opened the safe and showed us books full of employee payment records going back to the 1920s. 

The engine house
At the far end of the yard is an engine house and workshop where they are apparently constantly working on refurbishing these old locomotives.  They have a bunch of metal lathes and cutters so they can make parts that have long gone out of commercial production.  We were there mid-week but three guys were in there toiling away.  Pretty dedicated for a volunteer work crew.


Copper prices crashed in the 1960s and the whole operation shut down but copper values rebounded  at the turn of the century and they re-opened the copper mine in 2004.  The smelter is long gone as are the rail lines so the ore is now transported by truck to Seattle where it is loaded on ships and taken all the way to refineries in Japan.  Hard to believe that's the cheapest way to get copper but who am I to question the modern day robber barons?

Cave Lake
We got to Ely by taking US Hwy 50, "The Lonliest Road in America".  About 8 miles east of town we saw a turn off to something called Cave Lake so we took an opportunity to go back and check it out later during our stay.  Seven miles up the road was the lake which was nice but to drive in and look around would have cost us another $7 and it wasn't clear there was anything there we couldn't see from the entrance.  Having been fooled before by the Nevada State Parks system, we decided not to go in.  The pavement ended at the lake but the road continued up into the mountains for 33 miles as something called "The Success Loop" , so we decided to explore that instead. 

Along the Success Loop
An ominous sign informed us that the road could be treacherous when wet or icy.  It seemed pretty dry where we were so off we went.  The dirt road was steep and very tortuous but the scenery was lovely to look at.  We tumbled along for about 10 or 12 miles , until we reached the retreating snow level.  Up there, the melt runoff made the road wet and the resulting mud was slick as snot.  There were another 20 miles of loop and we might have made it in our all-wheel-drive Subaru, but we decided discretion was the better part and all that and turned around to go back the way we had come.

Spotted while we were getting the car turned around
After 4 days in Ely we prepared to move on.  I decided to check our tire pressure, which we are supposed to do every travel day but which I actually get to only once every two or three weeks.  We
The view from our camping spot in Ely
had replaced our tires over the winter so I wasn't expecting any problems.  I started with the right front and the pressure was fine but when I removed the tire gauge - PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS...  the valve was stuck.  I fiddled with it for a little bit without making any difference, then I struggled to get the valve cap back on to control the air loss.  We got hold of a tire place in Ely and they said they would send someone out.  While we waited I went ahead and checked the other tires.  The rears were OK, all six of  'em.  Then I checked the left front and - PSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS...   same damn thing. 

The tire guy showed up and promptly took the valves out of the stems and replaced them and that stopped the PSSSSSSSSSSing.  He showed me the old valves which were all gunked up.  Apparently they had replaced the tires but not the valve stems, which is pretty automatic on a car.  He then re-aired the tires and we were good to go.  I decided a tire valve removal tool and an handful of spare valves would be a useful addition to my travel tool kit.

Bonus Pics

We  found an old fashioned drug store with an old fashioned soda fountain

Ancient fuse box at the old rail station

Early 20th century word processor

Old payroll records, just in case they get audited

More trains
Getting a haircut in a barbershop older than me

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Caliente, NV

Lake Powell - 2011
In 2008 our son went off to college and Vicki and I went on our first vacation by ourselves in many years.  We toured around the southwest and stopped, among other places, at Lake Powell where we took an afternoon boat cruise up the lake.  We thought that was a beautiful and relaxing trip, a couple of hours up to Rainbow Arch and back.  The landscape was dominated by gigantic red rock boulders jutting up out of the water and the water and sky were deep blue and serene.  One of our fellow travelers snapped the photo that graces the top of this blog with the two of us standing on the rear deck.  Now that we are camping within a stone's throw of Lake Mead (if you've got a really good arm), we thought we'd try and repeat that experience.

Lake Mead
Lake Mead was the largest of the lakes formed by damming the Colorado River.  Currently, due to increased water usage and persistent drought, it has become very slightly smaller than Lake Powell.  But it looks quite  a bit smaller because the Hoover Dam backed the water up into several large basins so you can only see a relatively small portion of the lake from any single vantage point.  Our tour boat only went from Boulder Harbor Marina to the dam and back, so we really only saw a small portion of Boulder Basin.  The landscape here is blackish and looks more like huge mud piles than majestic boulders.  And around the entire perimeter of the lake there is currently an approximately 100 foot high white "bathtub ring" caused by the precipitation of calcium salts left behind as the water level has dropped.

Faux Paddlewheeler - the Desert Queen
The boat we rode on was a faux paddle wheeler that was actually powered by a diesel engine - the paddle wheel acting as a drag rather than a source of propulsion.  There was a snack bar and a drinks bar on board.  We had already eaten, but Vicki did try out one of their margaritas.  She seemed to enjoy it, but I must say the fluorescent aqua color rather put me off.  Once we got under way they had a recorded spiel that gave some history of the area, the lake and the Hoover Dam.  It was OK but you can't ask questions of a recording.  The entire trip was less than an hour long but I was ready to get off when it was done.  All and all I was rather disappointed with the whole thing.  It certainly did not compare with our Lake Powell experience.  Ah well...

Vicki wanted a drink to match her dress

Hoover Dam from the boat.  Note bathtub ring on the cliffs.
Duck paddles by the dock
Entry to the Lake Mead Cruise

Old Caliente train station
From Boulder City we headed north up Hwy 93, ending up in Caliente, NV.  We were scheduled to be there for 2 nights and then move on and spend three nights in Great Basin
Nat. Park.  But the weather report was for rain most of that time. We had seen Great Basin under better conditions in 2011 and it was a fair distance out of our way, so we decided to skip Great Basin and spend 5 nights in Caliente to get back on schedule. 

Rainbow Canyon - really?
This is a tiny town that was a base of operations for building the Union Pacific Railroad line in this area.  There is an old train station, a small grocery store, two restaurants, a Family Dollar store and not much else.   Just outside of town is Rainbow Canyon with a Nevada State Park called Kershaw-Ryan.  I have no idea who Kershaw or Ryan were.  The "rainbow" is for the colored canyon walls.  Sure.  Technically I guess tan is a color.  Never seen it in a rainbow though.  The park was tiny.  It had a nice looking camping area but with no hookups.  It had one hiking trail we did not explore.  The road further up the canyon was closed to auto traffic.
One of the town's 2 restaurants
This was the casino area - all of it.

Cathedral Gorge
North of Caliente about 20 miles is Cathedral Gorge State Park, which is somewhat bigger and quite a bit nicer than Kershaw-Ryan.  The campsites (which we did not stay in) have water and electric and the scenery is a little more impressive.  We wandered around for a while enjoying the views and taking pictures.  There are some caves you can hike to and there were actually a few other beleaguered tourists wandering around, but they don't get much business here in April (or any other time so far as I know).  We drove a little further north and explored Pioche, which is an old mining town.  It has a derelict aerial tram they used in the old days to transport ore from the mine to the smelting plant down on the valley floor.  Been to a lot of old mining towns, never saw anything quite like it.  Pioche is not a ghost town, but it's pretty close.  Not much entertainment.

We drove back to Caliente and sat in the intermittent rain until our sentence was up.  We clipped and bathed the schnoodles to kill time and I read and played games.  The precipitation turned our RV park into a veritable ocean of mud, so we only exited the rig when absolutely necessary.  We're thinking maybe next year we'll stay at Jojoba until Mid-May.