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Dangers Below (Comstock Silver Mines)

Crime of 1873

Silver Fever | Comstock Mines
This article is from the book, Silver Fever.
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On the morning of July 5, 1882, Comstock miner William F. Grant was riding the cage up the hoisting shaft of the Chollar-Norcross-Savage mine when he became faint, lost his balance and fell. The startled miners riding with Grant signaled the hoist engineer to lower them to the bottom of the shaft. There they recovered Grant’s mutilated remains. When Grant fell, he became unmercifully pinned between the cage and the mine shaft’s wall plates, where his right hip was horribly crushed and mangled, nearly cutting his body in two before he plummeted to his death.

Slightly more than one month later, Thomas Veale, a car man at the 2,400-foot level of the same mine, fell from the cage 280 feet to his death into a pool of scalding water. Veale had climbed aboard the cage to go to the surface in order to pick up tools and parts with which to fix a malfunctioning hydraulic pump. The cage traveled only four feet before he signaled the engineer to stop it. A witness to the accident, who had been at work in a nearby drift, heard a noise and ran to the shaft only to find a newly emptied cage. Several miners then descended to the bottom of the shaft, where they spent a number of hours, working with grappling hooks, before they were able to drag Veale’s badly deformed body from the sump.

As gruesome as these deaths were, they were a fairly common occurrence in the Comstock mines. Between 1863 and 1880, according to Eliot Lord, nearly 300 miners were killed and another 600 injured in various mine-related accidents. The unstable nature of the lode, as well as the extreme temperatures encountered as the shafts plunged deeper and deeper into the earth’s core, combined to create, as historian T.H. Watkins described it, “a catalog of horrors to challenge Dante’s tour through the Inferno.”4 Besides falling down a mine shaft, miners could be torn to shreds by premature explosions of blasting materials, roasted in underground fires, hit by falling equipment, or crushed by a runaway ore car.

Chollar-Norcross-Savage joint shaft | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

The Chollar-Norcross-Savage joint shaft. Courtesy of the Nevada State Museum Photograph Collection.

Leading such horrors was the always prevalent danger of a cave-in, which could occur without much warning, entombing or crushing the unfortunates in its path. Unlike other mines, the ore bodies of the Comstock did not always run in veins, but were spread out, as Bonanza King John Mackay put it, “like plums in a charity pudding.”5 This formation included walls of worthless rock generally known among miners as “horse,” composed of crushed quartz, clay and bits of porphyry that were at best unstable and made mining the ore difficult and extremely dangerous. It was not until Philipp Deidesheimer developed his square-set system of timbering, in 1860, that successful deep mining of the Comstock became possible. But even so, it could not completely alleviate the problems of cave-ins, as the walls of the Comstock were often made of thick sheets of clay that swelled when exposed to air.

Interestingly, the constant threat of cave-ins is why a strange bond of friendship formed between the miners working the Comstock and the rats that infested it. New miners were sometimes tempted to kill the freeloading vermin, who were regular lunchtime companions, but were quickly informed by old-timers of the rodents’ uncanny ability to forecast impending doom. The rats, it seems, were able to sense the pressure of the settling ground, even before the cracking timbers could be heard, and would scurry about, giving miners fair warning.

Comstock rats were also revered as a sign that a new body of ore would soon be discovered. One such case occurred in November 1882, when a rat was sighted in a new crosscut at the 2,700-foot level of the Sierra Nevada mine. The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise reported:

There is much talk among the miners about the coming of this rat, and the men in the new crosscut are very proud of it, and have high hopes on account of its presence. Woe unto the man who shall intentionally kill that Sierra Nevada rat!

Philipp Deidesheimer’s square-set system of timbering | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

The introduction of Philipp Deidesheimer’s square-set system of timbering helped to alleviate cave-ins. Courtesy of the Nevada State MuseumPhotograph Collection.

A Comstock miner | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

A Comstock miner (circa 1867-1868) at work at a stope in the Savage mine. Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan, for the Department of the Army’s Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel (or King Survey), with the use of the glare of burning magnesium to provide light. Courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch, National Archives, College Park, Md.

With a few notable exceptions, such as the Consolidated Virginia and its neighbor, the California, most of the major ore bodies on the Comstock Lode were discovered a few hundred feet below the surface, and by the 1880s, those deposits had been mined out, forcing the miners to begin working on the nominal ore bodies 1,000 to 3,000 feet below the surface, where about all that was regularly encountered was extreme heat from underground hot water springs that, in some cases, raised temperatures to a life-threatening 140-160 degrees Fahrenheit.

The stifling heat encountered at the lower levels also required miners to consume tremendous quantities of water and ice. Three gallons of water and 95 pounds of ice were allotted every day for each miner. The Territorial Enterprise wrote that, “If there are to be found anywhere in the world a set of human salamanders we may claim credit of having them here on the Comstock.” It added, “no ice water is too cold to be swallowed with a relish.”

In such intense heat, miners could work only 15 minutes before they needed a half-hour rest break. However, the visit to the cooling-off station could be an irritation of its own. According to the Territorial Enterprise:

In a place where the temperature is ninety the man will feel so cold as to shiver. Often at the cooling off station, where the temperature is 100 degrees, the perspiration will cease and the man will begin to feel very uncomfortable. On leaving and going back to where the temperature is from 115 to 120, as the perspiration begins to start, there is for a minute or two an intolerable itching over the whole body.

Pierce Powell, a tour guide at the Chollar mine | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

Pierce Powell, a tour guide at the Chollar mine, explains the mine’s workings while crouched in a section of the mine supported by the cap and post system of timbering. The Chollar was opened in 1861.

If the miner survived the perils of the heat at the Comstock’s lower levels, he still had to worry about his ascent to the surface. The rapid temperature change a miner experienced while riding a fast moving cage could cause him to feel nauseated and dizzy, lose his balance, and plummet to his death. But even if he kept his wits, he still had to worry whether or not the cage would stop at the collar of the shaft or shoot right on by, throwing its passengers violently from it. The cage’s movements were controlled by a hoist engineer who, by watching a large dial, could determine its exact position at any time. Using a system based on the number of times a bell sounded, the miner could tell the engineer when and where he wanted the cage to start and stop. Because a moment’s indecision could be disastrous, the hoist engineer’s job was generally given to a competent person. Still, tragic misunderstandings could and did occur.

Ore cars coming out of the Curtis Shaft in the Savage mine | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

Ore cars coming out of the Curtis Shaft in the Savage mine. Movement of the cages was controlled by an engineer, using a system of bell signals (posted to the right of center). Photograph circa 1867-1868 by Timothy O’Sullivan as part of the King Survey. Courtesy of the Still Pictures Branch, National Archives, College Park, Md.

In February 1882, Dennis Callahan was riding the cage up the hoist shaft of the Alta mine when he was forced to leap off the cage, saving himself by grabbing onto the boards of the gallows frame just before an inattentive engineer rocketed the cage through the top of the frame. The next day saw a new engineer on the job. Workers in the Union mine shaft, in December 1879, faced a similar situation. Their engineer pulled the wrong lever, smashing their cage through the frame. The cage’s 17 passengers were strewn over the hoist house floor. Two of the miners were killed and seven others seriously injured.

In January 1874, four miners were setting charges at the 1,700-foot level of the Ophir mine when disaster struck. Having drilled four holes and set charges in each, they gave the signal to the hoist engineer—five bells. Five bells called for the cage to be lowered, which it was. The miners then lit their fuses, climbed aboard the cage, and pulled on the bell rope one time—the signal to raise the cage. But nothing happened. With no way of stopping the explosion, three of the miners escaped injury by climbing up the surrounding timbers and securing themselves against the walls of the shaft. However, the fourth miner, paralyzed by fear, remained near the cage and was killed by a rock let loose by the explosion. Later, it was determined that engineer was not at fault, the 1,700-foot long rope, which should have signaled the hoist operator to lift the cage, had fouled on a timber.

Dennis Callahan, who survived the extra ride given him by the careless hoist engineer in February 1882, died four months later in one of the Comstock’s most terrifying accidents. On May 31, 1882, the main water pump column in the Alta mine broke. Fearing that a recently constructed bulkhead might give way, shift foreman Richard Bennett set out to warn the miners of the danger, but before he could reach them, the bulkhead burst, sending a torrent of water through the mine’s lower levels, trapping Bennett and six others. The main water pump was immediately repaired, and rescuers began pumping out the flooded mine. Meanwhile the air compressor used to supply air to the hydraulic drills and to ventilate the mine was kept running in case the trapped miners had discovered a pocket of air and were able to tap into one of its pipes.

At first little hope was entertained that the miners were still alive, and the Territorial Enterprise’s headline for June 1, 1882, read: “Seven Miners Drowned and Cooked on the 2150 level of the Alta Mine.” By the following day it had become apparent that someone was making use of the compressor’s air supply, and work was begun on constructing a boat small enough to navigate the narrow opening at the top of the drift.

Callahan and William Bennett volunteered for the dangerous mission, but were advised to wait until the mine could be ventilated. The next day, however, the two would-be rescuers became impatient and set out on their journey. Overcome by gases, which pervaded the drift, they died before reaching their destination. Their bodies were discovered by Arthur Van Dusen, who was also able to reach the seven missing miners by wearing a homemade gas mask. All of the men were found to be alive and well. They had been trapped for 65 hours and stayed alive by taking refuge in a cooling- off station located at the west end of the drift.

The tombstone of one of the heroes of the Alta mining disaster | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

The tombstone of one of the heroes of the Alta mining disaster. William Bennett (shown here as Bennetts) and Dennis Callahan died trying to save seven trapped miners.

The San Francisco Stock and Exchange Board presented Van Dusen with a gold medal inscribed “Greater Love Hath No Man Than This, That A Man Lay Down His Life For His Friends.” They also filled a tin box with gold and silver coins to be given to Callahan’s niece.

Bulkheads, such as the one that gave way in the Alta mine, were constructed anytime exploratory drilling with a diamond drill revealed a hidden body of water. The diamond drill was employed as a safety precaution against the accidental blasting of a wall, in a drift, that held back tons of water. The June 2, 1882, Territorial Enterprise reported:

The great use of the diamond drill is now acknowledged to be not in hunting for ore, but in guarding against water. When the drill has been run ahead and the ground to be passed probed for a distance of 150 to 250 feet, the miners feel perfectly safe in banging right along on a drift.

Tragically, it also gained the sobriquet “widow maker” because the fine spray of silica dust that it produced would lodge in the miner’s throat and, over time, led to death from tuberculosis.

With the mines reaching such a great depth, it became extremely dangerous pushing into unexplored ground. “Bodies of water are liable to be reached that stand under such pressure that the whole face of the drift may be forced in and a torrent of scalding water poured out,” the Territorial Enterprise wrote. “In the event of such an accident occurring the men could only run for their lives to the nearest shaft or winze. In not a few situations loss of life would be almost inevitable.”

In 1877, a hot water spring was uncorked in the Savage mine that shot out scalding 160 degree water. According to Lord, the men who worked in that drift were “forced to breathe this suffocating vapor till they often staggered forth from the station half blinded and bent over by agonizing cramps.”

By the 1880s most of the Comstock mines were experiencing trouble with flooding—so much flooding that it became unprofitable to continue mining the ore at the lower levels. The high cost of pumping, the frequent shut-downs and the constant refilling of the mine shafts by new underground springs—combined with the realization that no major ore bodies were discovered below the 2,000- foot level—showcased the futility of trying to make additional money deep mining the Comstock.

Between 1859 and 1882 the Comstock mines yielded $320 million from ore and tailings, and the mines paid out $147 million in dividends, but when the assessments and expenditures (most of which were incurred during deep mining) are subtracted, the total profit for 20 years of hard labor was a mere $55 million. From its peak at $300 million in 1875, the value of the Comstock mining stocks sunk to a dismal $7 million by 1881, and thus, the bonanza period of the Comstock Lode was over. Yet no one wanted to admit it.

An Oct. 3, 1879, receipt for 29 days of work in September by miner H.J. Hughes at the Ophir | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers An Oct. 3, 1879, receipt for 29 days of work in September by miner H.J. Hughes at the Ophir | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

In general, miners earned $4 a day.
Left: An Oct. 3, 1879, receipt for 29 days of work in September by miner H.J. Hughes at the Ophir.
Right: On May 3, 1871, the Gould & Curry Mining Company paid Paul Duncan $135 for his work as a miner. Author’s collection.

The miners regularly descended into the mines, not just because of the high wages, often $4 a day, but, like those who invaded the California gold fields in search of a new El Dorado, they dreamed of striking it rich. The major difference being, California placer miners hoped to find ore of their own, whereas, the Comstock miners searched for ore they did not own in order to drive up the value of mining stocks they did own. With few exceptions, Comstock miners sank all of their savings into the stock market hoping to get rich quickly. They then eagerly swarmed around the new day’s posting of the stock quotations, which were always tacked up at the heads of the mine shafts. As Grant Smith observed, “Not infrequently a miner noting a big rise in his stocks would throw his lunch bucket in the air, exulting ‘To hell with work!’ But it would not be long before he was back asking for a job."

They did not want to admit that the source of their dreams was at an end. Rather, they kept praying that just a few more feet would bring neverending wealth. It is easy to understand, therefore, why miners in the Sierra Nevada mine put so much faith in their good luck rat—they had staked their lives, hopes and dreams on it.

For those trapped in one of the Comstock’s worst mining disasters, however, all such hope was lost one early morning in April 1869 when fire broke out in the Gold Hill mines on the Comstock. Their deaths would serve to draw additional attention to the dangers of working the Comstock and give force to the ideas of one of the Comstock’s biggest schemers—Adolph Sutro.

Miners at a cooling-off station at the Hale & Norcross | Comstock Silver Mine Dangers

Miners at a cooling-off station at the Hale & Norcross. Courtesy of the Nevada State Museum Photograph Collection.

Next Article > An Awful Calamity (Gold Hill Fire)

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