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An Awful Calamity (Gold Hill Fire)

Crime of 1873

Silver Fever | Comstock Lode (Mine) & Carson City Mint
This article is from the book, Silver Fever.
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Fire! Fire in the Gold Hill mines! was likely the cry that rang out through the Comstock mining towns of Gold Hill and Virginia City during the morning of Wednesday, April 7, 1869. In the next few harrowing hours, as rescuers desperately fought dense smoke and overpowering gases, the full scope of the “greatest mining calamity that has ever occurred on the Pacific Coast or in any mines in the United States” became clear. Devoured were the Yellow Jacket, Crown Point and Kentuck mines. Trapped below were first-shift miners from all three mines. Desperately clinging to hope aboveground were distraught wives and weeping children gathered at the mine shafts to begin an agonizingly long vigil.

Never before had the Comstock witnessed such a calamity. In the decade since Henry T. P. Comstock and others had clambered up the sides of Mount Davidson in search of gold, a number of miners had lost their lives working on the Comstock through accidents common to all mines, but nothing up to this date could compare. The events of that Wednesday morning overshadowed all, bringing a pall over a community that in the past decade had become as accustomed as humanly possible to the costly toll mining exacted on its husbands, fathers, sons and uncles.

“By far the most terrible calamity that has ever occurred in our mines will be found recorded in our local columns of this morning,” the April 8, 1869, edition of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise began its terrifying coverage of the fire. “It is appalling almost beyond description, and the communities of Virginia and Gold Hill are shrouded in gloom at the ghastly occurrence. This time the story is not of a singular man precipitated down a shaft, or crushed by a falling mass of earth. It is a whole chapter of fire and suffocation—of mangled and blackened bodies—of two score of strong men desperately struggling for life, and finally perishing by fire, smoke and poisonous gases, hundreds of feet under ground.”

Though, by some reports, the fire may have been smoldering for several hours, it was not discovered until 7 a.m., by which time most of the first shift of all three mines had descended to their workstations, nearly 1,000 feet down. Within a few anxious moments of the first encounter with the fire, at the 800-foot level of the Yellow Jacket, the three mines—interconnected by drifts and chambers— were consumed by choking fumes, overcoming almost all in its path.

“A rush was made for the cages, and the hoisting signal given,” the Territorial Enterprise reported. “But few could be raised at one time, and therefore but few escaped to the surface with their lives.”3 At the Crown Point, a terrified miner pleaded to be allowed to board an already dangerously overloaded cage. “One man unable to find room to stand upright, crawled upon the cage, and thrusting his head between our informant’s legs, begged to be allowed to remain there and go up,” the Territorial Enterprise wrote. “He was allowed to remain and his life was saved.”4 As the cage ascended, those left behind were heard to throw themselves into the shaft while others slumped to the floor unconscious. Another miner told the Territorial Enterprise that as he rushed for a cage, it occurred to him that he might fall into the shaft. So he got down on his hands and knees to feel his way, but while crawling along, three or four others ran past and “pitched headlong into the shaft.”

Disasters usually bring out the best in men, and the fire at the Gold Hill mines was no exception. At one cage lowering, a rescuer, realizing that one of the miners he encountered below was ready to collapse, risked his life by giving up his place on the cage. Fate was on this hero’s side. The courageous miner rode safely to the surface on a subsequent cage lowering.

John James, second shift foreman at the Crown Point, was another of the fire’s list of notables. James took a cage down to the 600-foot level, where he begged 10 men he found there to climb on board with him. Only one did. There being little smoke in the drift at that time, the others regrettably chose to try an escape through the Kentuck, “but upon breaking down a partition which stood in their way, were met by the smoke, which rushed in upon them.”6 None survived.

Others later credited by the Territorial Enterprise with acts of heroism in battling the fire included Charley Merrow, who led the search for survivors; James Rosvere, “who almost equally risked his life;” James Reynolds; Riff Williams; Thomas Quirk; Jack Doble; Nick Andrews; William Gibson, chief of the Gold Hill Fire Department; William Lee; W.C. Joice; Frank Kellog; John Leonard; A.A. Stoddard; and John Percival Jones, superintendent of the Crown Point mine.

Upon arriving at the mine from Virginia City, Yellow Jacket superintendent John D. Winters sounded an alarm bringing fire companies from Gold Hill and Virginia City to the scene. However, the rescuers were hampered by the raising and lowering of the cages, which created a draft and helped fill the mines with smoke. It soon became too dangerous to send anyone down on the cages. Instead, empty cages continued to be lowered into the pitch black, but “no hand was laid upon them.”

About 9 a.m., with nearly 40 miners still missing, the smoke began to clear at the Kentuck allowing Thomas Smith and another miner to descend to the 700-foot level, where they recovered the bodies of Anthony Toy and Patrick E. Quinn. At about the same time, two of three Bickle brothers employed in the Gold Hill mines, Richard and George, were attempting to escape the fire’s fury on one of the lowered cages at the Crown Point, when Richard was overcome by the gases and sank down in the cage. As the cage ascended, “his head was caught between the cage and the timbers and nearly torn off.”9 Richard died as a result. So did his brother, who, despite making it safely to the surface, collapsed from the gases and passed away a day later. The third brother, John, also lost his life in the blaze.

With rescue hopes still not entirely dimmed, at about 11 a.m., a cage was sent down to the 1,000- foot level of the Crown Point, where it was known that a number of men were huddled below the fire near a fresh air blower. On board was a lighted lantern, a small box of candles, and a dispatch from mine superintendent Jones reading:

We are fast subduing and doing the fire. It is death to attempt to come up from where you are. We will get to you soon. The gas in the shaft is terrible, and produces sure and speedy death. Write a word to us, and send it up on the cage, and let us know how you are.

No answer came back. Ventilators, which poured fresh air down to the miners, were kept open, but by noon, with 28 miners still missing and no one boarding the empty cages as they journeyed eerily up and down the shafts, there was little doubt as to the fate of these miners.

“No person who stood at the mouth of either of these shafts but experienced the choking effect of the smoke and gases issuing from below, or could for a moment entertain the slightest hope that any one of those in the mine could be alive, yet wives and relatives would still hope against everything, and in every direction almost superhuman exertions were made to extinguish the fire,” the Territorial Enterprise tragically recorded.

The fire could have been squelched by sealing the openings to the various shafts and forcing steam down into the mines, but to do so would have been to admit that all hope was lost. While the smoke and gases still bellowed from the other mines, at the Yellow Jacket, firemen were able to run a water hose down to the 800-foot level and make slow advances. In places where the timbers looked insecure, the water would be turned off, while miners moved forward to shore up the walls. The battle with the fire could then continue. In many places, even after the timbers had been extinguished, it was necessary to fall back. The rock walls being superheated, they had to first be cooled by a stream of water. In other places, boiling water covered the tunnel floors to two to three inches in depth.

John Percival Jones

John Percival Jones, a hero of the Gold Hill fire. Jones was later a Nevada State Senator. He is known to coin collectors for the proposal that led to the issuance of the U.S. 20-cent piece, minted from 1875- 1878.

Firemen battled the blaze late into the evening. At about 9 p.m., when the fire began to rise again, another water hose was lowered into the mine, to the 700-foot level. By midnight the firefighters had made enough headway that workmen were able to retrieve 11 bodies and locate nine others at the 800-foot level. The sickening task of recovering the dead continued through the early morning hours. Some were retrieved from the bottom of the Crown Point shaft where they had fallen. Others, likely those with whom Superintendent Jones had tried to communicate, were discovered at the 1,000-foot level, “lying in all sorts of despairing positions, just as they sunk down…under the effects of the foul smoke strongly charged with the pungent and deadly carbonic acid gas.”

By Thursday afternoon, the number of bodies recovered had risen to 23. Some of these miners worked in the Kentuck and Yellow Jacket, but had apparently sought exit through a drift connecting to the Crown Point, where they were caught near the shaft by an explosion “so great as to throw quite a body of chips, dirt and refuse in the shaft.”13 Another of the dead was found between the 800- and 900-foot levels of the Crown Point, still clinging tightly to the ladder on which he had desperately sought escape.

By late Friday morning, two full days after its discovery, the fire was still raging. Further recoveries being impossible, the decision was made to seal up the shafts of the Gold Hill mines involved. Planks, wet blankets, and moist earth were used to plug the entrances to the mines. An hour later, with the aid of heavy iron piping run from boilers, steam was sent down through the large pipe of the blower to the 800- and 900-foot levels where it would travel through other parts of the mines to help suffocate the fire. But the fire proved more stubborn than most thought, and the mines remained sealed for days to come. Many months later, it continued to smolder.

Despite initial reports that third-shift miners had smelled smoke as early as 3 a.m. on the morning of the fire, others came to believe that the deadly blaze did not start until an hour before the first shift came on duty, at the time when only car men remained in the mine. These miners theorized that the fire originated on the 800-foot level of the Yellow Jacket mine, at a point 300 feet to the south of the main shaft, where a winze shaft connected to the 900-foot level. A lit candle in a nearby wooden candle box was thought to be the most likely culprit. Slightly more than one month earlier, on March 6, 1869, the candle box at the same location caught on fire. The fire quickly spread, but was discovered in time and successfully suffocated with nearby old coats and clothes.

On April 7, 1869, the same winze had last been used by a car man about an hour before the fire’s discovery. The miners believed that the fire started when the lit candle tumbled in the box. The fire then spread, burning the timbers in the winze shaft to such an extent that they caved-in, filling the shaft with debris. Trapped gases within the shaft then caused an explosion, spreading the fire.

The Yellow Jacket, source of the original fire, was reopened with “great volumes of gaseous smoke” pouring out on April 17. Three more bodies having been raised to the surface during a prior opening of the mines, the number of dead stood at 33, with likely five more bodies to be recovered. The cage being lowered, it was found, however, that the timbers had swollen so badly that they had to be carefully trimmed before it could pass. Despite optimistic reports from the mine owners that the mines would resume operations soon, shoring up the caved walls and trimming away burnt timbers proved dangerous and time consuming. Another workman lost his life in the process. It would be weeks, not days, before the mines were ready to be worked.

The effect of the devastating fire was lost on California stock speculators, some of whom, by virtue of distance and a starkly coldhearted nature, cared more about how their Comstock shares were doing than the fate of the miners. In San Francisco, a malicious rumor was spread that the fire had been purposely set to bear the stock market, so those who started the blaze could benefit from the lowered stock prices. Less than a week after the fire, the Territorial Enterprise reprinted a piece from the Gold Hill News, relating these charges:

H.C. Bennett, a gentleman connected publicly and privately with the press in San Francisco, has sent us a letter stating that there were rumors on the streets of that city regarding the origin of the fire in our mines last Wednesday, to the effect that the conflagration was intentionally started by persons interested in the mines, expecting to “bear” the stock of the mines. Such rumors sound so infernally and so damnably malicious—and bearing upon their face the stamp and conception of some incendiary scoundrels—that it hardly seems necessary to notice them. But lest that silence on our part—as we live near, and were among the earliest at the mines when the fire was discovered, and know what we state—and as we have been advised of the street reports in San Francisco— might be misconstrued, we take the liberty [to] state that there is not the least ground for supposing that the fire was anything but accidental, or culpable carelessness on the part of one of the workmen, who himself narrowly escaped from a horrid death. To attribute sinister motives to General Winters, the Superintendent of the Yellow Jacket, to Governor Jones, of the Crown Point and Kentuck, or to any of the hard-working and honest foremen under them, or even to any of the miners, is doing an act of such gross injustice, that the parties originating and circulating such reports had better not come to Gold Hill and repeat them. Our brawny-armed miners who escaped from the dread calamity would not rest easy under such imputations—and woe to the foul-mouthed villains who had the temerity to whisper such reports in this community. Mr. Bennett states that the reports have it that cans of benzine, shavings, and other inflammable materials were used to start the conflagration. Horrible and villainous thought!

On July 19, 1869, the annual meeting of stockholders of the Yellow Jacket Silver Mining Company was held at the company’s office in Gold Hill for the election of officers. Named trustees were J.D. Winters, William Sharon, D. Driscoll, T.G. Taylor and T.B. Storer. The trustees in turn elected Winters president and superintendent, Taylor vice president, F.E. Osbiston secretary, and the Bank of California treasurer. The retiring board levied a $10-per-share assessment against stockholders, payable to the secretary at Gold Hill or to William C. Ralston at the Bank of California.

“But for the great fire in the mines it would not have been necessary to levy this assessment. It will probably be the last that stockholders will be called upon to pay in some time,” the Territorial Enterprise’s reporter assured. Nevertheless, the town was shaken. Something needed to be done to make the mines safe. Adolph Sutro, who had been tirelessly searching for support for his plan to ram a tunnel through Mount Davidson, draining and venting the Comstock, found the disaster the perfect opportunity to turn public sentiment toward his ambitious, costly and controversial plan.

Gold Hill | Comstock Silver Mines

Gold Hill shortly before the devastating fire. King Survey photograph (circa 1867-1868). Courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch, National Archives, College Park, Md.

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