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Heady Times at the Comstock Silver Mines
Crime of 1873
This article is from the book, Silver Fever.
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Among the early arrivals on the Comstock,
making the passage in mid-1859 before the
mad rush, were a number of savvy California capitalists,
including the good judge from Grass Valley.
Having talked Comstock into selling, Judge
James Walsh momentarily laid claim to a part of
the lode before he too succumbed to the temptation
of quick money. His partner, Joseph Woodworth,
however, hung on and, with others, formed
the Ophir Silver Mining Company the following
year. Future Bank of California president William
C. Ralston would serve as its treasurer.
George Hearst was another who made the trek in
1859. A storekeeper-turned-quartz-mining speculator,
Hearst set aside work on a promising vein in the
Nevada City region to follow Walsh to the new strike.
Once there, he made a deal with Patrick McLaughlin
to acquire the Irishman’s one-sixth interest in the
Ophir for $3,000. Hearst then withdrew to California
in order to raise the necessary capital to complete the
transaction and, in the process, lay the framework for
his family’s future fortune.
In August 1859, the first ore, 3,151 pounds, was
transported to San Francisco by Walsh, Comstock
and Hearst, where it sold for $1.50 a pound.
Encouraged by the profits, the Ophir owners
rushed to beat the winter snows, shipping 38 tons
of the most promising ore to Joseph Mosheimer’s
San Francisco smelting works by fall. The yield
was an impressive $112,000, averaging just shy of
$3,000 a ton. Even with the high cost of transportation,
$140 per ton, and a $412-per-ton charge for
reduction, the owners enjoyed a profit in excess of
$90,000. When the freshly poured bars of silver—an usual sight in this city built on gold—were carried
through the streets of San Francisco, an
excited crowd gathered. A throng of miners and
the curious gawked for hours through the windows
of Alsop & Co. bankers, where the bars were
placed on prominent display. If there had been lingering
doubt of the richness of the Washoe strike,
it was quashed, and the excitement spread from
mouth to mouth, newspaper to newspaper, town to
town, and, rapidly, from west to east.
The Hale & Norcross works. To the left is the train trestle to the dumps. Stock prices soared in 1868 at this mine, jumping from $1,300 a foot to
$2,200 in just two days. The same mine later served as a fulcrum for the bonanza crowd to wrest control of the Comstock away from William C.
Ralston and the Bank of California. Courtesy of the Nevada State Museum Photograph Collection.
This 1870s photograph shows the inside of one of the Comstock’s processing mills (possibly the California Pan Mill in Six Mile Canyon). Courtesy
of Joe Curtis, Mark Twain’s Book Store, Virginia City, Nev.
Back on the Comstock, not much additional
work was done for the remainder of 1859, the winter
of 1859-1860 being one of the severest on
record. Like the Ophir, the neighboring Central
shipped ore to San Francisco that year—more than
20 tons, grossing $50,000. Both mines employed
a small number of men working what, at first,
were just large open pits.
Unlike California, where much of the gold could
be taken with relative ease near the surface, the
Comstock ore bodies were spread out in cavernous
pockets sometimes several thousand feet below the
earth. Encasing the gold and silver were large
masses of unstable barren rock, composed of
sheets of clay and partially decomposed porphyry.
As the Ophir pit deepened, the use of heavy
machinery became mandatory. Buckets and ropes
were out. Steam-powered hoists were needed to
haul the ore car and men up from the depths.
Pumps were required to remove the ever-increasing
amounts of water that threatened, hampered,
and soaked most Comstock operations.
By December 1860, the Ophir was about 180
feet deep, and the ore body had expanded to
approximately 45 feet in width. Normal methods
of working a mine, using a cap and post timbering
system to support the mine walls (consisting of
two vertical posts surmounted by another post laid
horizontally on top, much like a doorway), would
not suffice. The caverns became too tall for available lumber without splicing. Nor could the timbers
withstand the tremendous weight of such a
wide body of ore—one that by nature swelled
when exposed to air.
So, in November 1860, the Ophir’s owners sent
for Philipp Deidesheimer, a German-born-andtrained
mining engineer who had been managing an
El Dorado County, California, mine since 1851.
Arriving in November, Deidesheimer set to work
developing a new timbering system. Resembling a
honeycomb, thick, squared timbers of four to six
feet in length were mortised and tenoned at the
ends, so they could be fit together to create hollow
cubes that could be interlocked, side by side or on
top of each other, bracing the lode in several directions.
In cubes not located near workable ore, waste
rock was piled to the ceiling to provide additional
support. Deidesheimer’s revolutionary square-set
system would become standard throughout the lode,
and, though not foolproof, it opened the mines for
deeper and deeper exploration.
The next major hurdle mine owners faced was
finding an economical and efficient means of
locally reducing the ore to retrieve the precious metals.
In the Comstock’s early days, it was not uncommon
for mine owners to pack up what was deemed
to be the best yielding ore and ship it, via San Francisco,
to England for reduction. However, smelting
was expensive and transportation costs high. This
would only work with the ore that promised the
highest return per ton, and much of the Comstock
ore was not of that quality. It would await development
of local mills and new processes, before its silver
could be profitably extracted.
Methods of freeing the silver and gold from surrounding
less valuable minerals had been pioneered
more than a century before in Mexico and Peru, but
these time-consuming processes were of use only
on a small scale. What was needed was a faster,
mechanized system of reduction to fit the scope of
the tons of Comstock ore that awaited crushing.
One of those credited with modernizing amalgamation
of precious metals from pulverized rock was
California mill owner Almarin B. Paul. Paul, who
bought claims in the Washoe district and, in March
1860, formed the Washoe Gold and Silver Mining
Company No. 1, opened the first mill in the area,
beating another worthy for that honor by only a few
short hours. Soon the region would be over-bloated
with hundreds of mills, competing for the Comstock’s
often-scarce ore for survival.
Aided by the use of 24 deafening ore-pounding
stamps, Paul’s mill, located in Gold Canyon below
Devil’s Gate, became a standard that the others
would follow. An advancement on earlier methods,
the heavy metal stamps replaced horse-, mule- or
water-driven arrastras while large steam-heated
pans, which could amalgamate the silver in six
hours, replaced the four- to six-week Mexican
As part of Paul’s special process, into the steamheated
pans was introduced a recipe of quicksilver,
salt and copper sulphate. Heavy mullers mixed the
brew, inadvertently introducing a key ingredient in
the amalgamation process, iron filings added by
friction of the grinding process. From the pans, the
mix went to a system of settling basins to extract the
silver amalgam and quicksilver, following which
the quicksilver was evaporated off. By the end of
1862, Paul’s Washoe pan process had replaced a
variety of “secret brews,” ranging from one that
employed the locally prevalent sagebrush to one
using bark stripped from indigenous cedar trees.
Even with the new process, mill extractions
were not perfect. An average of 60 to 65 percent of
the assayed value could be recovered before any
special treatments. With time, another 20 percent
could be realized. But the additional profit did not
go back to the mines. Rather, it regularly padded
the pockets of the mill owners or those who had
worked out lucrative deals to provide the mills
with the ore to keep running.
Also relatively new to the Comstock was the
method of mine ownership. In the early 1850s, the
majority of California mines had been owned by
partnerships, but with the Comstock Lode, the
most popular method of setting up a mine or a mill
became the establishment of a corporation, which
diffused the risk by issuing large bodies of stock,
pooling the money received and leveling assessments
to cover costs. The First Directory of
Nevada Territory, published in 1862, showed the
aggregate capital of 1860 incorporations (which
ranged from the Ophir, with $5,040,000, to Coso
G. and S. Mining Co., with $30,000) to be in
excess of $30 million. By 1863, more than 4,000
such companies were incorporated for the purposes
of issuing stock. Investment in mining
stock also mushroomed with the growth of the
Comstock. Of the 17,000 claims “located” on the
Comstock, only a few ever paid dividends, yet
most sold “stock at astounding prices to a gullible
and speculative public,” Ira Cross wrote.
It was during this early period on the Comstock,
long before Virginia City blossomed into a refined
city, that a young Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
accepted an offer, in 1862, to work on the Virginia
City Territorial Enterprise. There he honed his
writing skills, while learning firsthand of the
Comstock’s seemingly endless riches. Years later,
in Roughing It, Twain wrote fancifully of the early
speculative stock fever surrounding the Comstock:
The great ‘Gould and Curry’ mine was held at
three or four hundred dollars a foot when we
arrived; but in two months it had sprung up to
eight hundred. The ‘Ophir’ had been worth only a
mere trifle, a year gone by, and now it was selling
at nearly four thousand dollars a foot! Not a mine
could be named that had not experienced an
astonishing advance in value within a short time.
Everybody was talking about these marvels. Go
where you would, you heard nothing else, from
morning till far into the night. Tom So-and-So
had sold out of the ‘Amanda Smith’ for
$40,000—hadn’t a cent when he ‘took up’ the
ledge six months ago. John Jones had sold half his
interest in the ‘Bald Eagle and Mary Ann’ for
$65,000, gold coin, and gone to the States for his
family. The widow Brewster had ‘struck it rich’ in
the ‘Golden Fleece’ and sold ten feet for
$18,000—hadn’t money enough to buy a crape
bonnet when Sing-Sing Tommy killed her husband
at Baldy Johnson’s wake last spring.
Well-versed in the realm of mining speculations,
many a prominent California citizen became a
director of a mining or milling company on the
Comstock and “every community was contributing
a sum, monthly to pay the assessments.”13 Each
day, California and Nevada newspapers dutifully
reported the stock prices and the latest intelligence
gleaned from the day’s activities at each important
mine throughout the region. By late 1862, the first
of several stock exchanges operating during the
Comstock’s heyday, the San Francisco Stock and
Exchange Board, opened for business in San Francisco.
Mining stocks were attractive to all, and the lode
yielded its share of success stories among those
astute enough, or lucky enough, to buy into the
proper mine during times of borrasca (barren
ground) and sell during periods of bonanza. As
Joseph L. King observed in his history of the
board: If a speculator had purchased 100 shares of
the Consolidated Virginia at $8 per share in 1871,
by 1875 (with subsequent capital stock issues and
mine acquisitions) he would have controlled 1,600
shares of stock—1,000 in the Consolidated Virginia
and 600 of the California. With both stocks
selling at $800 per share in early 1875, his initial
$800 investment would have grown to a staggering
$1.28 million. Yet that first $800 was no small
sum of money in 1871, and for the most part those
in the best position to profit were not those who
dabbled in the market but investors with the ready
capital and the insider knowledge to manipulate it.
This fell often to the mine owners, who, when not
actively involved in attempts to artificially bull or
bear the market, were also the first to know when
their mine encountered a promising body of ore
and, therefore, able to best benefit from the news.
The $40,000 Shave
The number of seats on the San Francisco Stock and
Exchange Board, where brokers could quickly make or
lose fortunes, rose as did their value in the years following
the exchange’s formation. According to Joseph L.
King, who served as a board chairman and detailed its
history in 1910, when seats were first offered, in 1862,
they could be had for $100. In the board’s biggest year,
1875, the often profitable and in-demand seats were
going for $43,000.
King delighted in relating anecdotes about the board
during the Comstock’s boom period. For instance,
according to King, broker Wayman C. Budd partook of a
break one day to sit down for what he would thereafter
refer to as his $40,000 shave. The year was 1873, and
Budd, a longtime board member, having learned that a
discovery of ore had been made at the Ophir, amassed
2,500 shares of the mine between the price of $16 and
$82. As the market advanced, he disposed of 1,500
shares, leaving him with 1,000 shares now valued at $82
a share. During the recess in the day’s trading, Budd settled
in for a shave at a local barber shop and drifted off to
sleep. By the time he awoke and dashed back to the
exchange, the Ophir had been called and the market had
broken, its shares were now worth only $40 each.
In dull trading periods, King relates, William C. Ralston’s
business associate, William Sharon, would give his
broker, B.F. Sherwood, a large sell order termed a “settler.”
Such a sale of 2,000 shares of six or seven principal
stocks would break prices across the board and bring
buyers into the market. A break of $3 to $10 on such
mines as Ophir, Chollar, Belcher, Crown Point, Yellow
Jacket, Savage and Overman, King said, “would turn the
whole street into buyers…” Prices would thereby rise
again and all shares could then be sold at a profit.
It did not always matter, however, whether the
strike ever materialized. Timing, though, was critical.
Dan De Quille likened Comstock market booms and busts to a bricklayer piling bricks one
atop the other, until the entire column tumbles to the
ground. The trick was to sell your stock before
that unmortered paper wall came crashing down
around you. Yet this was no easy task, as stock
prices could be very erratic, rising or falling not
only through good or bad fortune but also through
market manipulation. Eighteen-sixty-three, for
example, was a boom year on the market, as hundreds
of new companies opened and began trading
their stock, forcing prices, at least temporarily, to
dizzying heights. The Ophir sold for $6,300 a foot,
the Savage for $4,000, and the Hale & Norcross at
$2,100. By year’s end, the fever had subsided and
stock values dropped. In November 1870, the
Crown Point mine at Gold Hill struck promising ore
at the 1,100-foot level. In seven months, its stock
soared from $3 to an amazing $6,000 per share,
only to fall to $1,825 by May 1872.
The slightest mention of a strike was, at times,
all that was needed to spark an all-out market
frenzy. In 1872, shares in the Savage, selling for
$30 in January, were driven up to $725 by April on
a rumor of a strike, apparently started to bull the
market. Other stocks followed suit. The hectic
market broke in May 1872, cutting stock values by
The California, a bonanza mine organized in
December 1873, is another good example. In
November 1874, its stock could be had for $90 a
share. By January of the following year, the same
stock was worth $790. One month later, it fell to
$55. During the same period, prices at the neighboring
Consolidated Virginia, which tapped into
the Comstock’s biggest bonanza in mid-1873,
jumped from $160 to $790, only to slump dismally
to $40 by the end of February 1875.
Because making a profit in the market most often
depended on quick response and inside knowledge,
a popular method employed by Comstock mine
owners to maintain secrecy was to entomb miners
who were following the course of a promising vein.
The practice began early in the lode’s history and by
1868 had become commonplace. When a strike
was anticipated (and sometimes when stimulating
the market was the sole goal), a group of miners
were made to eat, sleep and live at their subterranean
work stations for days, or even weeks, leaving
those on the surface to wonder what, if anything,
their explorations had uncovered.
It could be quite an effective tactic or a useless
ploy. In January 1868, miners on the 930-foot level
of the Hale & Norcross became willing prisoners
in return for triple pay of $12 per day. Upon their
release, on Jan. 10, the discovery of rich ore was
reported, and Hale & Norcross stock, which had
been trading at $1,300 a foot two days prior, shot
to $2,200 in heavy buying.
In its “Mining Intelligence” column, the Tuesday,
Feb. 16, 1869, issue of the Virginia City Territorial
Enterprise reported that workers cutting the ledge in
the Imperial-Empire, having just “passed through
the east clay wall,” generally considered a good
place to find ore, had been “shut up in the bowels of
the earth” since the prior Friday. Two days later,
beds were furnished to the overnighting miners.
“Nothing is known of the nature of the developments
being made below by outsiders upon the surface,”
the Territorial Enterprise tendered, though
we “venture to guess that the Imperial drift, on the
1,000-foot level, is about 10 feet in the vein, and
that very good looking quartz has been found.”
After seven days of captivity, the miners were
released. The Feb. 20, 1869, Territorial Enterprise
reported: “No startling developments have been
made. The 1,000-foot station drift has penetrated
the ledge about 15 feet, encountering a body of
barren white quartz carrying no streaks of ore at
all.” Still, the newspaper related, those associated
with the mine remained confident that good ore
would be found within a few weeks. Stockbrokers
and buyers were not impressed. In fact, Imperial-
Empire shares sagged by nearly one-third during
the period in which the miners were entombed.
In 1872, this practice came into utter disrepute.
A rumor that the Ophir was forcing four miners to
remain in the mine led to threats of law suits, causing
Ophir values to drop, and other mines to abandon
Despite the various market manipulations and
best efforts of those who kept a keen eye on mining
news, in the end only a few mines paid dividends
(the money having been absorbed by
operating costs and often in time-consuming,
expensive claim litigation). Likewise, only a few
investors ever made a fortune in the market. Figures
show that from 1859 to 1882 some mines—
like the Bullion, Utah, Best & Belcher, Knickerbocker,
Rock Island, Baltimore and a handful of
others—yielded no paying ore.
Still these were heady times. The West was free
and open for those with nerve, know-how, capital
and the vision to exploit it. Men here who amassed
great fortunes and dreamed big dreams were
looked upon as visionaries and empire builders.
William C. Ralston, cashier and real leader of the
Bank of California, was one such man. Early in the
lode’s history, against the advice of others, he
invested his own and the bank’s money freely in
the Comstock, stuck with it through its periods of
bust, and amassed a fortune in the process.
Yet, on the Comstock, making money was a game
anyone could play, not just wealthy California bankers
like Ralston. Its allure knew no social, religious
or economic boundaries. Even if you could not own
a mine, you could own a piece of it. For the miners
who daily descended into the Comstock’s harsh,
pitch-black environs—as some of the more grizzly
tales in the following chapters evince—it was a high
stakes gamble on which they risked not just money
but their very lives. Making money on the Comstock
was not for the faint of heart. It required a
kind of fortitude, and bravery, that reached to the
very soul of every Comstock miner.
Some mines never produced any paying ore. One of these was the Utah. Courtesy of the Nevada State Museum Photograph Collection.
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