The Comstock Lode

Having had the good fortune, by the kind invitation of old California friends, to visit on two previous days the principal mines and tunnels of the Comstock Lode; on emerging from the bowels of Mount Davidson, I felt irresistibly impelled to ascend to its summit, and thus contrast my subterranean exploration with the magnificent Panorama presented from an elevation of nearly 9000 feet. From the isolated position of Mount Davidson, towering in solemn grandeur over the whole Washoe Range, the view is truly splendid; affording a perfect Panorama, one sufficiently interesting in its characteristics to compensate any admirer of nature for the slight effort of ascending a couple of thousand feet from the town of Virginia.

Edward Vischer
[Virginia City, Nevada]
[The Combination Shaft, from the Water Flume]
Weighing the Load - Gould & Curry Mine, Virginia City.
Episcopal Church, Virginia City.
The Tunnel and Cars Loaded with ore, from the Gould & Curry Mine, Virginia City.

Silver was discovered for the first time in the United States in 1859 near Virginia City, Nevada, under Mount Davidson. According to Riley Moffat, the town's population exploded from 2,345 in 1860 to 7,048 in 1870 and 10,917 in 1880. By 1890, the silver rush was over and with it, the population of the city which dropped to 6,433. By 1900, it again contracted to 2,695. These numbers don't fully reflect the boom and bust economy that characterized mining towns across the west. Walter Nugent states that between 1872 and 1878 there may have been as many as 20,000 people in Virginia City and Gold Hill with over 15,000 still in both towns in the 1880 census, 24% of the population of the state.

According to the United States Geological Survey and noted in Wikipedia, "The total production of ore extracted and milled in the Comstock District, 1860 to June 30, 1880, was 6,971,641 tons, 640 pounds. Peak production from the Comstock occurred in 1877, with the mines producing over $14,000,000 of gold and $21,000,000 of silver that year (about $329,393,750 and $494,090,625 today)."

During its heyday, the area around Virginia City was mapped repeatedly and for different purposes. A selection of maps are highlighted below showing the diversity of ways one specific place may be mapped for different purposes. The map below of the Washoe Mining Region printed in 1860 is one of the earliest maps of the region showing its relationship to California. The discovery of silver in this region was in June 1859 and by the time this map was printed one sees the area teeming with mining claims, discovered veins, and towns such as Virginia City, Gold Hill, and Chinatown. Mount Davidson is not named but clearly delineated to the north of Carson and to the west of Gold Hill. This rush followed the news that the "ore samples sent to California to be assayed contained three-fourths pure silver and one-fourth gold and were worth $3,876 per ton." It was one of richest mines in history. (Bryant)

Maps of the Comstock Lode

Panorama from the Summit of Mount Davidson, Washoe Range (1861)

This unusual 360 degree panorama from 1861 by Edward Vischer shows the view from the summit of Mount Davidson. Virginia City sits at the base of the mountain to the north east with the Comstock vein noted. The Gold Hill District and Silver City are due south. The panorama is surrounded by vignettes and text. The pictures show Virginia City, Silver City, and numerous mines including two specifically of the Ophir Mine. The text on the left details the mining claims in the Comstock Lode from north to south as well as the tunneling companies working on the slopes of Mount Davidson and Cedar Hill. The text on the right lists the principal crushing mills of the region noting that the majority were located in Chinatown. They note that "altogether between 40 and 50 Reducing Works, mostly combined with amalgamation process" were in production. The back side of the sheet gives a detailed description of the area and the mining with information provided by J.J. Cooper.

Virginia City, Nevada Territory (1864)

Virginia City was booming by 1864. Keith Bryant states, "In the largely treeless and waterless Washoe, the boomtown of Virginia City emerged, and thousands flocked to the forlorn site...As the population of Virginia City rose to fifteen thousand, an infrastructure developed to support the mining operations. Freighting, lumbering, and the mercantile trade became almost as profitable as owning a small claim. Above C Street in Virginia City, the ornate homes of the merchants and bankers looked down on the gaudy, vulgar town, which had swelled to twenty thousand people by the mid-1870s." Above and below the bird's eye view of the town are depictions of residences of well-to-do townspeople, prominent buildings housing all manner of commerce, and St. Paul's church. Within 5 years of the initial strike all of the necessary components of the town were in place - the assay office, livery, dry goods store, bookstore (and circulating library), banks, tobacconists, furniture purveyors, jewelers, hardware, and clothing stores. Missing from the vignettes are the abundant saloons (numbering 100 by 1880) and houses of "ill repute" that no doubt were in abundance as well. The Daily & Weekly Territorial Enterprise is part of a large building that also included a grocery and liquor store and the Langton's Express. Samuel Clemens was a reporter for the Territorial Express from late fall 1862 until May 1864 using the pen name Mark Twain for the first time. This view was printed by Grafton Tyler Brown, an African-American artist and lithographer working out of San Francisco. He established his own company at the age of 26 publishing bank notes, labels, maps, stock certificates, and illustrations. He was also a talented landscape painter. He died in 1918 in Minnesota.

Topographical map showing the locations of the Sutro Tunnel and the Comstock Lode (1866)

The center map shows an early depiction of the yet to be built Sutro Tunnel. Adolph Sutro proposed the tunnel in 1860 as a way to drain the excess water inside the mines. Wikipedia notes that, "Floods in the mines were sudden and miners narrowly escaped being drowned by vast underground reservoirs that were unexpectedly tapped. Intrusion of scalding-hot water into the mines was a large problem, and the expense of water removal increased as the depths increased." The map shows the 1,280 acres of land granted to the Sutro project by an Act of Congress. The proposed tunnels are shown in bright red detailing the main tunnel and branch underneath the Comstock Lode. Numerous lodes are shown in blue including the Comstock (running right underneath Virginia City), the Monte Christo, and the Great Flowery. To the right of the map is a geologic cross section starting at the intersection of the Comstock Lode and the Sutro Tunnel running to the mouth of the tunnel with shafts noted along the way. At the top is a "Longitudinal Section...showing the workings and their relative depths" to the tunnel. It is noted that by April 1870, they expected the "yield of bullion" to total $120,250,000. Construction began on the tunnel in 1869 (three years after this map) with the main tunnel complete in 1878.

Map of the Comstock Lode and the Washoe Mining Claims (1873)

This stunning map of the mining claims was published in 1873, the same year the Consolidated Virginia combine "excavated a hole 1,167 feet into the earth and found the 'Big Bonanza,' a vein fifty-four feet wide filled with gold and silver." (Bryant) The Bonanza vein is shown at the top of the map in the cross section at the far right with Con Virginia shown below the strike. The Consolidated Virginia claim is shown on the map in the center of Virginia City flanked by the Best & Belcher claim to the left and the California and Ophir claims to the right. The Ophir mine was funded by George Hearst who borrowed money and sold all of his California holdings. It was a wise investment making him a very wealthy man. During this period of time, Virginia City swelled to over twenty thousand people with miners from Ireland, Wales, Germany, Mexico and China worked the veins. The mining claims, outlined in color, are so numerous that it is nearly impossible to see the street grid of Virginia City underneath. Looking closely one sees numerous shaft entrances, mills, a few residences, a hospital, and a graveyard outside of town.

W. Rose's Revised Chart of the Comstock Mines and Sutro Tunnel (1878)

This map from October 1878 shows the claims now spread out from the area around Virginia City all the way to the mouth of the Sutro Tunnel. A vignette at the bottom shows the the area with a pond in the foreground full of water. At the top of the map is a bird's eye view of the entrances to the mines and the mills. The "Bonanza Pocket" is prominently displayed below the Consolidated Virginia entrance. Just below the view is a cutaway of the Sutro Tunnel showing its connections to the different lodes. At the far right a wagon is pulled by horses removing the riches from the veins. Smith and Tingley note that the "bonanza period" of the Comstock mines was at its end by 1880. 1877 was the peak year for production from these mines extracting $14,000,000 of gold and $21,000,000 of silver.

Geology of the Comstock Lode (1882)

On March 6, 1880 George Becker received instructions from Clarence King, Director of the U.S. Geological Survey to "report upon the Geology, Mineralogy, Chemistry, and Physics of the Comstock Lode." The report was submitted in 1882. Fieldwork began promptly in April 1880 and concluded in March 1881. Numerous scientists, surveyors, mine officers, and miners helped provide their expertise to provide the necessary information to fully document the workings at the Lode. Mr. R.H. Stretch assisted Becker in mapping the underground geology. He was especially suited to this as he was one of the official surveyors of the Comstock with strong knowledge of the "old and inaccessible workings." The page shown here is from the accompanying atlas. The atlas contains a topographic map of the region showing the claims (see the front page of this exhibit), geological maps with vertical cross-sections, and numerous mine maps including this one, number 3, showing the Consolidated Virginia lode. The mine maps typically lacked legends explaining their symbols although the colors of the tunnels represent their depth allowing one to conceptualize the drawing in three dimensions. There was no set scale for mining maps at this time although some states were starting to legislated in mine safety laws. (Nystrom) The first map of this set states the following: "A separate color is used to indicate each separate hundred feet of depth, measured from the datum point, down to the 1500-foot level. Between the 1500 foot level and the 3000-foot level the color scale is repeated." The squares on the map were 100 feet and the scale was 160 feet to the inch.

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