History has always fascinated me because how we are today is because how we were. Economic forces, which in large measure affected political measures, and add a pinch of personalities to the mix.
So how did the Comstock Lode affect us today?
Well, just for starters, let’s look at George Hearst.
He started as a prospector coming out early in the California Gold Rush, prospecting near the original gold discovery site at Coloma. He made a pretty good living as a prospector and store owner in the gold country.
When the silver boom started 10 years later in what became Virginia City, he moved there.
Largely self taught, he became a man whose reputation was such that he could “sniff out” gold and silver.
“In the summer of 1859, Hearst learned of promising silver assays of the “blue stuff” someone had picked up in Utah Territory (near what was to become the Comstock Lode), and had assayed in Nevada County, California. Hearst hurried to the Washoe district of western Utah Territory, where he arranged to buy a one-sixth interest in the Ophir Mine there, near present-day Virginia City. That winter, Hearst and his partners mined 38 tons of high-grade silver ore, packed it across the Sierra on muleback, had it smelted in San Francisco, and made $91,000 profit (or roughly $2,500,000 in 2016 dollars). People who saw the bars of Ophir silver in San Francisco rushed to Washoe.“
From the Ophir mine in Virginia City where he amassed a small fortune, it was on to the Black Hills, South Dakota and Mexico.
“With other mining investors, Hearst set up Hearst, Haggin, Tevis and Co., in which he was a partner. He had interests in the Comstock Lode and the Ophir mine in Nevada, the Ontario silver mine in Utah, the Pacific mine in Pinos Altos, New Mexico,the Homestake gold mine in South Dakota, and the Anaconda Copper Mine in Montana. The Homestake Mine was one of his biggest investments. Although the gold ore was lean, the massive deposit supported an active mine until 2001. Hearst later invested in the Cerro de Pasco Mine in Peru.) His company grew to be the largest private mining firm in the United States. Hearst acquired the reputation of being the most expert prospector and judge of mining property on the Pacific coast. He contributed to the development of the modern processes of quartz and other kinds of mining.”
From his amassed fortune in mining, he came to own the San Francisco Examiner, which his only child, William Randolph Hearst, leveraged to a nation wide empire of newspapers and radio stations.
The Hearst ranch and the Hearst corporation continue to this day. Someone told me that the Hearst Ranch at one point in time was almost 400,000 acres of prime Central California coastal land. These days, while considerably smaller in acreage, they do a big business in cattle and wine.
Much of the mining law today was established at Virginia City.
Perhaps this is because so many large companies had large mines whose underground tunnels could be in close vicinity. I am speculating.
Philipp Deidesheimer and Square Set Timbering
Because of mine collapses due to the local composition, a German engineer developed a means of shoring up the mines with far more safety.
“W. F. Babcock, a trustee of the Ophir Mine, asked Philipp Deidesheimer, a German born and trained engineer, to design a solution. By late 1860, he developed the famed square-set timber method, a modular approach that assembled prefabricated timbers into cubes. These were six to seven feet tall and four to six feet wide. With cubes stacked on cubes, they could support virtually any underground chasm. The system became stronger when filled with waste rock, which was more efficient than hauling debris to the surface.
Costs for lumber increased, but other mines quickly adopted the system. Deidesheimer’s square-set timbers became an international standard in mining for the next fifty years.”
Virginia City built San Francisco
Virginia City and San Francisco had a symbiotic relationship. Much of the capital for the mines was San Francisco money, and many now-wealthy mine owners had their main residence in San Francisco. Money from the silver mines helped both.
“Mine owners who made a killing in the Comstock mines spent most of their wealth in San Francisco.
A San Francisco stock market existed for the exploitation of Comstock mining. The Bank of California financed building the financial district of San Francisco with money from the Comstock mines. The influence of the Comstock lode rejuvenated what was the ragged little town of 1860 San Francisco. “Nearly all the profits of the Comstock were invested in San Francisco real estate and in the erection of fine buildings.” Thus, Virginia City built San Francisco.”
Virginia City was instrumental in helping the Union cause in the Civil War
“The riches helped finance the U.S. government during the Civil War, as attested by a museum named after General Ulysses Grant. In fact, silver from Virginia City may have helped save the Union. It also helped build empires around the world. Among the finest examples is San Francisco, a city built with Comstock silver.”
Nevada silver also was instrumental in stabilizing the Union currency.
The amount of silver coming from the Comstock Lode changed the world market.
“The Comstock Lode discovery and subsequent growth of Virginia City is unequaled in the history of the American West. More money was produced by the Comstock Lode than the entire California Gold Rush a decade before. By 1876 Nevada produced over half of all the precious metals in the United States; over 400 million in the coinage of the day coming from Virginia City’s mines. The wealth supported the Northern cause during the Civil War and flooded the world monetary markets compelling significant economic change.”
Growing up as a young boy in the 1950s, I can remember getting change occasionally with a silver dollar. People disliked them because they were big and bulky. Virtually all were from the Carson City mint, just 20 miles or so from Virginia City. And it wasn’t unusual to see dates from the 1870s-1880s on those coins.
“In 1866, Twain returned to Carson City and Virginia City for a series of lectures. He made his final visit to Nevada in April 1868 for another lecture at Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City. In 1872, Twain published “Roughing It,” a book about his Nevada experiences.
Wouldn’t you have loved to have been in that audience hearing his stories at Pipers?
More on Mark Twain in Nevada is here. I do recommend his book Roughing it, which is about his 7 years in the west, but mainly his Virginia City times.
I do remember a promise I made to you at the beginning about how the little town of Strawberry near the Sierra summit got its name. As it is getting late, I will have to do that tomorrow. And no, it has nothing to do with the fruit.
Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here