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Heady Times at the Comstock Silver Mines

Crime of 1873

Silver Fever | Comstock Lode (Mine) & Carson City Mint
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
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.
Comstock Processing Mill (California Pan Mill in Six Mile Canyon)></td>
<td align= 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 patio process.

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 about one-third.

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 this tactic.

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.

Utah Silver Mine
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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