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

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