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Rush to Washoe

Crime of 1873

Silver Fever | Comstock Lode (Mine) & Carson City Mint
This article is from the book, Silver Fever.
Find more silver related books at

Nestled more than a mile above sea level within the expansive shadows of the Virginia Range’s highest peak, Mount Davidson, lies Virginia City, home to the fabled silver-rich Comstock Lode. Its main thoroughfare—C Street— looks today much as it did in the 1800s when it teemed with freight wagons, horses and mules and reverberated with the sounds of the nearby mines, as millions of dollars in gold and silver were extracted from the surrounding hills or from manmade caverns deep below the town itself. Gone, however, are most of the miners who once toiled thousands of feet below the city, most of its merchants who once hawked everything from flour to foodstuffs to frilly frocks, and most of its town folk who ran the gamut from respectable citizens to rowdies, ruffians and red light-district prostitutes. Still it is a grand and glorious old mining town, one that during its heyday was graciously clothed in all of the amenities of any refined Eastern city—opera houses, millionaires’ mansions and clubs, schools and churches, a railroad connection to Reno and points beyond, and, of course, saloons, plenty of saloons.

Today, with most of the gold and silver gone or flooded under, they mine tourists on the lode, by the millions. During the summer months, legions of sightseers flock to the city made famous in the 1960s by the television show Bonanza, filling its still plentiful saloons to capacity with those hankering for a taste of the gun-toting old west. Yet, what many of these tourists do not realize until they arrive, is that Virginia City was cut from a different bolt of cloth than other western towns. It was not a cowboy town as is often thought. It was a mining town. It was not flat, as on the TV western. It was tilted severely. In fact, if gold and silver had not been discovered there, it is hard to imagine that this town, or any town, clinging as it does to the mountain’s steep, rocky flanks and surrounded by hills on all horizons, could ever have been conceived, much less inhabited. And it may have remained that way if it had not been for a bit of happenstance that led to the lode’s discovery in 1859.

Thousands of the unsuspecting had passed this way in the years prior, among them explorers, fur trappers, and those who plodded by as part of the trail-weary wave of humanity heading west with the California Gold Rush—all of whom remained unaware that gold lay nearby. Having followed the old Emigrant Trail across expansive wastelands and sagebrush prairies through rugged mountains toward the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, most had only paused in the fertile valley of the Carson River. There they sought a welcome respite for themselves and their animals before attempting the slow, exhausting, and often dangerous passage through the majestic upheaval of the Sierra Nevada range, nature’s imposing snow-capped barrier to the promised riches of the Pacific coast.

Virginia City | Comstock Lode (Mine) & Carson City Mint
Virginia City’s famed C Street as it looks today. Virginia City’s grandest hotel, the International, which burned to the ground in 1914, stood next to the first building on the left.

Few found reason to dally longer than necessary in this valley. Not only was California an alluring temptress, but the mountain crossing, still some 25 miles to the west, had to be made with the utmost caution. Parties who waited too long risked a frozen death, trapped in the unforgiving fall snowstorms and blizzards that inevitably blanketed the mountains. Those who broke camp too soon, before the thaw, might find grass for livestock in short supply and their progress stalled by still impenetrable passes.

Mount Davidson | Silver Coin Collecting
Mount Davidson looms in the background
of this decrepit remnant of Virginia City’s past.

In May 1850, however, this all changed. The never-ending flow of passersby was interrupted when a wagon train of California-bound Mormons, following this same path, rested momentarily in the Carson River Valley. There, an ambitious one of their number, William Prouse, wiled away the time by panning in a snow-fed stream to the east of their camp, freeing a few flecks of gold before his party made a failed attempt at reaching California. Finding the Sierra passes still snow-covered, members of Prouse’s party returned to the region, spending the next few weeks scouring the various sandbars and gravel banks of the long shallow gulch they had nicknamed Gold Canyon, gathering what gold they could before their mountain avenue cleared and California again beckoned.

Word of their find would spread, and soon other, better-equipped prospectors tramped by. By 1851 the ragtag community numbered around 100. Establishing a shantytown, dubbed Johntown, bedecking a plateau about four miles north of the Carson River, the loosely organized community of miners continued to sift and dig their way up the canyon with limited success—a lack of water restricting their work to periods in which mother nature doled out sufficient rain or melting snow with which to sift away the worthless sand and rock, revealing the specks of free gold. It was not until the winter and spring months of 1852 and 1853, when their numbers swelled at times to more than 200, that the area had a permanent population— most of whom continued to claw what gold they could from the earth’s surface, unaware of the region’s rich, native silver deposits.

For two of these early residents, however, the story was a bit different. Allen and Hosea Grosh (or Grosch), had been drawn west as part of the great gold rush. In the early 1850s they crossed the Sierra Nevada and began prospecting in Gold Canyon. 3 Unlike the others working the gulch and its branches, the Grosh brothers had experience recognizing silver in its native state. By March 1856, they had become convinced of the existence of a large body of silver around what would become Silver City. In letters to their father, they detailed the discovery of four veins, one of which they described as “a perfect monster.”

Bonanza & Virginia City | Silver Coin Collecting
With most of the gold and silver gone (or flooded under), it took a television western, Bonanza, to bring Virginia City back into the spotlight. Memories of Ben, Little Joe, Adam and Hoss Cartwright attract droves of tourists to Virginia City and the distant ranch, where much of the filming was done.

“The show of metallic silver produced by exploding it in damp gunpowder is very promising,” they wrote home, “…the rock is iron, and its colors are violet-blue, indigo-blue, blue-black, and greenish-black.”

By August 1857 the Grosh brothers had obtained assays of the silver from their workings in the American Ravine that suggested one of their veins would yield $3,500 to the ton, “by hurried assay,” and another vein, $200 per ton, by a more careful assay. They wrote to their father that they were “very sanguine of ultimate success,” but, for the Grosh brothers, fate was against them, as both would soon meet with tragic ends. On August 19th, Hosea accidentally struck his foot with a pick ax. Gangrene set in, and he died. Allen continued to tend their claim, delaying his return to California in order to settle his brother’s affairs. It was November before he and a traveling companion set out, too late for a safe ascent of the mountains.

Silver Mining Equipment (Chollar Mine) | Silver Coin Collecting Silver Mining Equipment (Chollar Mine) | Silver Coin Collecting
Today not much remains of the original mining equipment, except at museums. These relics—an old ore car and shaft—stand outside of the Chollar mine, which continues to give tours.

Caught in a fierce blizzard, Allen died in the mining camp Last Chance, shortly after being rescued. The Grosh brothers’ secret went with them to their graves, partly because, as Dan De Quille wrote in The Big Bonanza, silver was so little on the minds of early miners, they “were all working in blissful ignorance of silver existing anywhere in the country.”7 Most also cared little about what lay very far below the surface. When the gold that could be caught by washing in their pans or trapped in the riffles of their rockers and sluices was exhausted, they packed up their few belongings and followed the scent of the next strike to the next hopeful camp. It was a scenario that had played out since the days of the forty-niners and would be repeated from rush to rush.

Within a few years of the Grosh brothers’ demise, the traces of pay dirt that had once supported a small community of prospectors were largely depleted. Average returns dropped from $4 to $5 per day to just $2. Only the most stubborn hung on. The winter months of 1858-1859, however, brought heartening news to those who had toughed it out. James Finney (known as “Old Virginny”) and Henry T. P. Comstock (nicknamed “Old Pancake”), along with a mishmash of other experienced Johntown prospectors, began working the canyon’s head on Mount Davidson’s southern slope, where Finney, an old hand at spotting good ground, stumbled on a small rise of yellowish quartz that proved to be especially rich in gold. Unwittingly, Finney had also fallen upon the southern outcropping of the Comstock. Hundreds of feet below its gold-specked surface, lay the yet undisturbed ore bodies of some of the lode’s most valuable mines—the Belcher, Crown Point, Yellow Jacket, Imperial, Empire, Kentuck and others. Aptly christened Gold Hill, Finney’s find quickly became a beehive of activity, as miners from neighboring regions abandoned their claims and moved to Gold Hill.

For some time, on the northern slope, other prospectors had been working up a similar ravine, known as Six Mile Canyon. Joining them were Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, who had ambled over from crowded Gold Hill. Working at the canyon’s head, they chanced upon the lode’s northern outcropping, at a point where Gold Canyon and Six Mile Canyon close to within a little more than a mile of each other.

Like the find at Gold Hill, the discovery at the northern end of Six Mile Canyon was largely a matter of chance. Finding water for prospecting scarce, McLaughlin and O’Riley had set about digging a reservoir a few feet up from where they were working in order to pool a trickle of water from the mountainside. About four feet down, they struck a strange looking layer of blue-black sand, which, when washed, revealed an abundance of pale yellow gold and, unbeknownst to them, the northern end of the Comstock Lode. All that was left was for a lanky, some say lazy, and certainly loudmouthed, prospector to lay claim to the site and secure his indelible spot in history.

Henry Comstock | Silver Coin Collecting
Henry T.P. Comstock. After selling off his interests
in the lode, Comstock spent much of the remainder
of his days in pursuit of a new strike.
Most accounts say he took his own life in 1870.

Like most placer miners who scurried from camp to camp in search of gold, Henry T. P. Comstock had tried his luck first in California. Gravitating to Nevada in 1856, he bounded aimlessly from claim to claim. Riding into McLaughlin and O’Riley’s camp on the evening of their discovery, Comstock spied the gold and with a quick wittedness that belies his rumored diminished mental capacity, preposterously announced to the Irishmen tending their claim that he had already posted the surrounding 160 acres of miserably steep, rocky hillside for a ranch. With perhaps a bit more substance than bluff, he also argued that, besides being guilty of working his claim, McLaughlin and O’Riley had been using water rightfully belonging to him and his partner, Emanuel Penrod. Penrod, it seems, had previously purchased rights to the spring from which the trickle of water originated. 10 Deciding not to contest Comstock’s claims, McLaughlin and O’Riley agreed to take the pair on as equal partners. Staking out the area as a quartz claim, each of the four miners received 300 feet and Comstock and Penrod an additional 100 feet as the original locators.

The area was indeed rich in gold, and news of their discovery echoed loudly through neighboring mining communities. Where during the prior season most Washoe miners had barely eked out an existence, Comstock and his partners were now pulling hundreds of dollars of the precious metal—in pounds, not ounces—from the oddcolored sand. Elated by their good fortune, they were, at first, only slightly bothered by the unusual bluish, black sand that clogged their rockers—the gold yield was high and waste material easily cast aside. But as they dug deeper, this decomposed top layer gave way to an only partially decomposed substratum and, ultimately, to a solid vein of stubborn rock that could not be worked in their cradles until it had been reduced by repeated blows of sledgehammers and picks. With the help of two arrastras (rock-crushing devices that could slowly reduce the quartz to pulp), obtained from Joseph A. Osborn and John D. Winters in exchange for a portion of their claim, more gold could be amalgamated and the partners’ profits grew.

Henry Comstock | Silver Coin Collecting
After its rough and tumble beginnings,
Virginia City blossomed into a refined city,
boasting several opera houses and
mansions. The International Hotel
stood before Piper’s Opera House.
It was destroyed by fire on Dec. 12, 1914.
Courtesy of the Nevada State Museum
Photograph Collection.

It was not, however, until an enterprising rancher transported samples of the growing pile of cast-aside rock to the well-established quartz mining regions of Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, in late June 1859, that reputable assays confirmed that the Comstock ore was rich not just in gold but in silver as well and worth in excess of $3,000 per ton. By the next morning’s light the rush to Washoe was on. Leading the way was Grass Valley judge and mining speculator James Walsh, who had been privy to the assay results of the prior evening. He arose early and before daybreak was riding pell-mell toward the western slopes of the Sierras with others to take up claims in Washoe. By the time they arrived, however, the Comstock ledge was already dotted with stakes and notices for miles to the north and south, forcing the judge, his partner Joseph Woodworth, and others to enter into negotiations with the original locators to secure good ground ahead of the thousands of California prospectors who would surely be following close on their heels.

A severe winter slowed the assault on the Comstock, but by the first wisp of spring of 1860, a humbug driven sea of hopefuls choked the main passage through the Sierras, south of Lake Tahoe, emerging from a tapestry of colorfully named California mining towns—Old Dry Diggins, Mad Mule Gulch, Ophir, Rough and Ready, Whiskytown and others—to take up a precarious residence along the Comstock ledge, nearby Gold Hill diggings, and the barren foothills of the Virginia Range. From the west, along the 100 miles to Washoe, came veteran California placer miners. From the northwest, arrived those who went bust following the disappointing trail of gold to the Fraser River in British Columbia in 1858. From the east, debarked a hodgepodge of newly minted prospectors, entrepreneurs, merchants, and various forms of the footloose who had become part and parcel of prior rushes.

Where Washoe Indians once peacefully hunted and fished, a legion of wide-eyed gold and silver seekers now arrived by mule, horseback, or on foot. “Old men and young, waifs from many nations, who had drifted during ten years to the Californian gold fields, with every variety of dress and equipment, mounted and on foot, driving pack-mules, burros, horses, and oxen—dusty, muddy, tired and foot-sore—this oddly-assorted company was knit together by the bond of a common purpose,” Eliot Lord wrote. Hurriedly they staked off the area for 20 to 30 miles until “even the Desert was pegged, like the sole of a boot, with stakes designating claims.”

“Every foot of the canon was claimed, and gangs of miners were at work all along the road, digging and delving into the earth like so many infatuated gophers,” gifted scribe James Ross Browne related of what he witnessed in the spring of 1860, upon passing through Devil’s Gate en route from Carson City. At Gold Hill, the “excitement was quite pitiable to behold,” Browne wrote. “Those who were not at work burrowing holes into the mountain were gathered in gangs around the whisky saloons, pouring liquid fire down their throats, and swearing all the time in a manner so utterly reckless as to satisfy me they had long since bid farewell to hope.”

Original settlers, though few in number, soon found themselves strangers in their own land as an unending stream of prospectors poured into the region, staking claims on all quartz outcroppings and in every crevice throughout the barren hills for miles around. Lacking suitable roads, food, water and, importantly, lumber for building (and mining), these were tough times for all who tempted to make a go of it in Washoe.

“If a city was to be built on the line of the lode, it must be a foreign creation,” Lord wrote. “Water must be made to flow from the rocks or conducted from distant lakes; roads must be cut and blasted through the cañons and along the edge of mountain precipices; the frame-work of the houses and the timber used in the mines must be cut from the trees of the Sierras and dragged up to the mountain camp; food, clothing, tools, and supplies of all kinds must be transported by slow and costly methods from the Pacific sea-board.”

Thus, at first, housing of a conventional style was nonexistent. Many simply burrowed deep into the hillside or dug straight into the ground— a telltale stream of smoke from their stoves in some cases the only visible evidence of their meager earthly existence. The rash of unkempt humanity made a misbegotten sight that even the well-traveled Browne found distressing:

Frame shanties, pitched together as if by accident; tents of canvas, of blankets, of brush, of potatosacks and old shirts, with empty whisky-barrels for chimneys; smoky hovels of mud and stone; coyote holes in the mountain side forcibly seized and held by men; pits and shafts with smoke issuing from every crevice; piles of goods and rubbish on craggy points, in the hollows, on the rocks, in the mud, in the snow, every where, scattered broadcast in pell-mell confusion, as if the clouds had suddenly burst overhead and rained down the dregs of all the flimsy, rickety, filthy little hovels and rubbish of merchandise that had ever undergone the process of evaporation from the earth since the days of Noah. The intervals of space, which may or may not have been streets, were dotted over with human beings of such sort, variety, and numbers, that the famous ant-hills of Africa were as nothing in the comparison. To say that they were rough, muddy, unkempt and unwashed, would be but faintly expressive of their actual appearance; they were all this by reason of exposure to the weather; but they seemed to have caught the very diabolical tint and grime of the whole place. Here and there, to be sure, a San Francisco dandy of the ‘boiled shirt’ and ‘stovepipe’ pattern loomed up in proud consciousness of the triumphs of art under adverse circumstances, but they were merely peacocks in the barn-yard.

Despite the often-unbearable living conditions, Washoe prospectors were true to the spirit of the rush. They were unflagging in their optimism. Hope did not spring eternal for just a few unflappable souls, but was free flowing for everyone. The big strike was always within reach. Every one of them thought they could get rich, would get rich. Every one of them knew it would happen soon. “Nobody had any credit, yet every body bought thousands of feet of glittering ore,” Browne wrote. “Sales were made in the Mammoth, the Lady Bryant, the Sacramento, the Winnebunk, and the innumerable other ‘outside claims,’ at the most astounding figures, but not a dime passed hands. All was silver underground, and deeds and mortgages on top; silver, silver every where, but scarce a dollar in coin.”

Sadly though, it quickly became apparent that these early prospectors, although great in spirit, were of a different breed than what would be needed to exploit the Comstock’s mineral wealth. They were not equipped, financially or otherwise, for the requisite hard rock mining. So, understandably, and lamentably, most of the original locators disposed of their valuable claims for a mere pittance of what even a foot of the same ground would be worth only a few years later. By the spring of 1860 many of the original claimants to the Comstock had sold out. The good judge from Grass Valley purchased Comstock’s claim for $100 down with the promise of $10,900 to follow. McLaughlin got just $3,500 from George Hearst, who would later father publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. O’Riley held out the longest, receiving nearly $50,000 through the sale of his claim and back dividends. Penrod let go for $8,500 to Judge Walsh, and Osborn sold his claim for $7,000. Though all had been blessed to participate in the greatest silver strike in U.S. history, local legend has it that, almost to a man, they later drifted inexorably into poverty, despair and even insanity.

With his money, Comstock opened supply stores in Carson City and Silver City. Both failed. For a number of years his wanderlust drove him from one mining camp to the next, much of his time spent in unsuccessful Idaho and Montana ventures. In 1870, most tellers say, the once brazen and well-known “Old Pancake” became distraught and sought permanent relief with a fatal bullet to his head.

McLaughlin’s $3,500 went quickly. He spent the remainder of his life doing odd jobs in various California mining camps, often serving as the camp cook. O’Riley squandered his nearly $50,000 on a hotel in Virginia City and on some bad stock investments. Paying undo heed to persistent voices in his head, he was soon found burrowing deeper and deeper into the Sierras near Genoa, reassured by his constant cranial companions that a new Comstock lay just ahead. In time, the voices did irreparable damage. A broken and delusional figure, he spent the last years of his shattered life in a private asylum for the insane in Woodbridge, Calif.

James “Old Virginny” Finney, who some claim gave his name to the city of silver that sprang up around the Comstock, sold off his interests in the Gold Hill claims for an undisclosed sum. A colorful, well-liked figure, with a weakness for drink, he fell from a horse in 1861, fracturing his skull.

It seems, if these oft-retold stories bear even a hint of truth, that finding precious metals is one thing, profiting from it another, and the odds of living beyond the discovery in comfort next to nil.

Virginia City | Silver Coin Collecting
Virginia City | Silver Coin Collecting
Two views of Virginia City taken from similar angles. The top is a vintage photograph of the Comstock during the 19th century. Note the International Hotel near the center. Courtesy of the Nevada State Museum Photograph Collection. The bottom is a later 20th century view. The mine workings and many of the buildings are gone.

Next Article > Heady Times at the Comstock Silver Mines

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