Friday, March 6, 2009

A Brief History of the Comstock Lode

Being that we are just downhill a few miles from the famous Comstock Mining District, it was an obvious choice where we would be conducting our next ghost hunting foray. I have always been fascinated by its colorful history.

(Pictures courtesy of the Nevada Historical Society).


While the quest for gold may have been the siren song that brought many men out West, it was silver that made men's fortunes in Nevada. The Comstock Lode is one of the most important mining discoveries in American history, yielding both silver and gold. It was the first major silver discovery in United States history: of the total ore taken out from the area, approximately 57 percent was silver, and 42 percent was gold. It is the most dramatic event in Nevada's nineteenth century history, with men making and losing fortunes within a short span of years. In just under 20 years, between 1859-1878, about $400 million in silver and gold was taken out of the Comstock.

Gold was discovered in Nevada in the spring of 1850. It was discovered in Gold Canyon, by a company of Mormon emigrants en route to California. Unable to cross the snow covered Sierras, they camped on the Carson river in the vicinity of Dayton to wait for the mountain snow to melt. They soon found gold along the gravel river banks by panning, but left when the mountains were passable, as they anticipated finding more gold upon reaching California. Other emigrants did some mining in the canyon, but headed into California when the seasonal water supply dried up in late summer. Based on the stories from these emigrants, prospectors from the Placerville area began working the area. Between 1852-1853 there were an estimated 200 men working the canyon in search of gold.

The gold from Gold Canyon came from quartz veins, the head of this vein laid undiscovered somewhere in the vicinity of where Silver City and Gold Hill are now located. As the miners worked their way up the stream, they founded the town of Johntown, just south of Silver City. In 1857, the Johntown miners found gold in Six-Mile Canyon, which is about five miles north of Gold Canyon. Both of these canyons are part of what is now known as the Comstock Lode. These early miners never thought of going up to the head of the ravines to prospect the quartz veins, spending their time on the "free" gold found in the lower elevation deposits of earth and gravel.

Credit for the discovery of the Comstock Lode is disputed. Although it has been credited to its namesake, Henry Thomas Paige Comstock, Comstock had little to do with its discovery. It is said to have been discovered in 1857, by the Grosh brothers: Ethan and Hosea, trained mineralogists who had worked the goldfields of California. Bad luck beset the brothers in Nevada: Hosea injured his foot and died of septicemia in 1857. In an effort to raise funds, Ethan, accompanied by an associate, Richard Bucke, set out for California with samples and maps of his claim. He left Henry T.P. Comstock in charge of his cabin and a chest containing silver and gold ore samples and documents of the discovery. Grosh and Bucke never made it to California, getting lost and suffering severe frostbite while crossing the Sierras. Following amputation of the frostbitten limbs, Ethan Grosh died on December 19, 1857. Bucke lived, but returned to his home in Canada following his recovery.

When Henry T. P. Comstock learned of Ethan’s death, he claimed the cabin and the land as his own. He didn’t give much thought to the documents within the trunk left by the brothers because Comstock was not an educated man. He knew that the Grosh brothers find was still unclaimed, so he continued to seek out diggings of local miners working in the area. When he learned of a strike on Gold Hill which uncovered some silver ore, Comstock immediately filed for an unclaimed area directly adjacent to this area.

The four miners that discovered the silver ore near Gold Hill were James "Old Virginny" Finney, John "Big French John" Bishop, Aleck Henderson and Jack Yount. Their discovery was actually part of the Comstock Lode, but not a main vein. The four men are credited with the rediscovery of the mine previously found by the Grosh brothers.

Then, in the spring of 1859, two miners, Peter O'Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, finding all the producing ground already claimed went to the head of the canyon and began prospecting with a rocker on the slope of the mountain near a small stream. They had poor results in the top dirt, were about to abandon their claim when they made the discovery. They sunk a small, deep pit in which to collect water to use in their rockers. In the bottom of this hole there was material of a different appearance. When rocked out, they knew they had "struck" as the bottom was covered with a layer of gold. Along with the gold was a large quantity of blue-black mud that clogged the rockers and interfered with the work of extracting the gold. O’Riley and McLaughlin, being uneducated men did not realize that the blackish material was almost pure silver.

About that same time, Henry T. P. Comstock learned of the two men working on the land. Unhappy with his own unsuccessful efforts on Gold Hill, Comstock made loud threats, claiming he had already filed a claim on the land, and managed to work himself and his partner, Immanuel Penrod, into a deal that granted them interest on the claim.

The news of the discovery spread and soon "The Rush To Washoe" was underway. Virginny Town (christened thus by James "Old Virginny" Finney) became Virginia City, the most important city between Denver and San Francisco. Overnight millionaires built mansions and businesses, imported furnishings and fashions from Europe and financed the Civil War. During its heyday the combined population of Virginia City and Gold Hill was somewhere around 40,000. The 24 hour atmosphere boasted an opera house, visiting celebrities and dignitaries, opium dens, a red light district, gambling halls, saloons, hotels, newspapers, fire and police departments, and the first Miners Union in the U.S. Names like George Hearst, John Mackay, Leland Stanford, and William Flood, all made their fortunes in Comstock mining.

And what became of the original "discoverers" of the Comstock Lode? H.T.P. Comstock sold his interest for $10,000. He opened a store in Carson City, but not having any education, or business knowledge, he soon went broke. He ended up in Montana where he committed suicide. Patrick McLaughlin sold his interest for $3,500 which he soon lost and ended up spending his days wandering from place to place working as a cook. Peter O'Riley sold his interest for $50,000 partly in dividends. He bought a hotel in Virginia City. He began dealing in mining stocks and soon lost everything and went insane. Emanuel Penrod sold his interest for $8,500.