How It All Began

What was the Comstock Lode and how did it come into being?

The Comstock was the greatest bonanza in precious metals ever to be uncovered in modern times and probably in all history, although the wealth of Peru in the days of the Incas may have rivaled or surpassed it. The total wealth in gold of the Incas has never been definitively calculated, but the riches that poured out of the Comstock came close to the three quarters of a billion dollar mark. Two of its mines alone produced $190,000,000 in silver and gold in a space of a few years.

The Comstock, which was first known as the region of Washoe, embraces three communities, Silver City, Gold Hill and Virginia City, the last of which is located directly above its richest mines and is immeasurably the most famous. Virginia City, Queen of the Comstock, is built on the precipitous slope of Mount Davidson or Sun Mountain as it came later to be known, approximately eighteen miles south of the present city of Reno and in a mountain range which forms the eastern barrier of a pleasant series of Nevada lakes, valleys and meadows known as Washoe, Pleasant Valley and Eagle Valley.

For nearly half a century Virginia City and the Comstock Lode dominated the imagination of the world. They produced a generation of multimillionaires whose names are history and the saga of its fabulous bonanzas is an integral part of the mighty body of legend known as Western Americana.

Envision if you will the terrible and wonderful hills of Nevada, winter-bound and gale-swept six months of the year; reposing in the glare of a pitiless sun the rest, but holding locked in their bosom a secret treasure which was soon to raise empires and set the world’s older treasures tottering into the dust, was to finance the American Civil War and bring into being the city of San Francisco as the golden Carthage of the Western World.

Along the eastern slopes of Sun Mountain the fateful year of 1859 there might have been discovered a group of prospectors of far from prepossessing appearance or reassuring mode of existence. They lived in a tent town insecurely located on the east slopes of Sun Mountain and they were induced to a backbreaking existence in this remote and desolate midst by rumors, repeatedly circulated and sometimes doubtfully substantiated by sample ores, of a great bonanza in silver uncovered thereabout some years before by two brothers, Ethan and Hosea Grosch. But the secret had been lost with the death of both brothers and only a ragtag of prospectors, inspired more by shiftlessness to remain in Washoe, as the region was known, than by diligence, continued to putter about Sun Mountain in search of samples rich enough to secure them a homeric drunk every Saturday night and a correspondingly stupendous hangover every Sunday morning.

Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin are generally credited with having uncovered the first significant silver ores in the Washoe. Actually they were prospecting for gold, and the heavy blue clays in which they discovered its traces were but a source of annoyance in the recovery of the precious metal. But one day in the autumn of ’59 a specimen of the “blue stuff” found its way back to a sophisticated assayer in Grass Valley in the California Mother Lode and within a few hours the Western world was hysterical with the intelligence that the despised “blue stuff” was silver in unfamiliar geological form but of almost incredible richness.

The rush eastwards across the High Sierra was on and on a scale of concentration and hurrah which dwarfed to insignificance every aspect of the earlier California gold rush. Within a few weeks almost as many fortune hunters were hitting the trail for Washoe as had voyaged to California overland, via Cape Horn and the Isthmus of Panama in the first swaggering years of Mother Lode gold.

First to cut himself in on the Washoe bonanza was a sanctimonious gaffer named Henry Comstock. As soon as O’Riley and McLaughlin had staked their claims approximately where Virginia City’s C Street now runs, this prophetic fraud arrived smelling powerfully of Valley Tan, a potable essence of hellebore favored by the Mormon pioneers, and announced that Honest Pete and Stalwart Pat had jumped a claim to which he had previous and undisputed title. Comstock had the grand manner and for the occasion the grand manner was inspired to unprecedented heights by frequent reference to the bottle of Valley Tan in his coat skirt. Pat and Pete were impressed and dismayed. Working the claim of another man was a lapse in manners and etiquette in a community where these qualities were distinctly at a premium. Men had, in fact, been hanged for it. Pat and Pete were, therefore, overwhelmed when Comstock grandly allowed that he would permit them to work his claim on a percentage basis, and everyone headed for the nearest tent saloon to celebrate the partnership. Thus by virtual fraud and by fraudulent virtue of Valley Tan did the hitherto despised Washoe Diggings become the world-shaking Comstock Lode.

Next to take his cue from destiny and make an entrance on the now howling Sun Mountain scene was another boozy ancient named James Finney. Like Comstock, he was possessed of a sort of seedy grandeur and he was the lineal grandfather of all the whiskey advertising colonels who today sip their juleps in the coated paper periodicals amidst properties of the Old South. Finney was from Virginia and nobody within hearing was allowed to forget it, suh. He was widely and only slightly favorably known as “Old Virginny.” One epic Saturday night when the camp was still young, while returning to his foxhole in the side of Sun Mountain, Finney found himself taken in wine. Solicitous against the inevitable morning after, he purchased a bottle of Old Reprehensible and headed for home. But on the way catastrophe overtook the Old Dominion. There was a fearful crash in the night and then those within earshot heard the voice of Old Virginny raised in oratorical key. “I christen this God damned (and otherwise qualified) camp Virginia,” screamed Finney into the darkness. He had dropped his precious bottle but he was going to have a christening party out of it if nothing more.

Virginia City had come into being on the Comstock Lode.

Twenty years later the mines of the Comstock had financed the Civil War; they had produced a crop of millionaires unparalleled in the previous history of the world and were on their way toward the billion dollar mark in silver production; they had caused Bismarck to order Germany off silver as a monetary basis and had reduced this once proud currency to the estate of a base metal throughout the world; they had established San Francisco as the most glittering and opulent city of the modern age, built railroads, the Atlantic cable and places in New York, London and Paris, and had elevated sourdoughs to the estate of bank presidents, ambassadors, newspaper publishers and tycoons and had married their children into the titles and aristocracies of the Old World. And Virginia City itself, a metropolis of 30,000 people, had become an integral portion of the American legend, a source of wealth and riches beside which the resources of the fabled mines of Solomon pale by comparison.

These were some of the forces set in motion by Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin whose source and origin will be forever the names of Henry Comstock, the humbug, and Old Virginny, the alcoholic orator.

Fantastically few of the original discoverers of the new El Dorado ever lived to profit from the incredible bonanza they had unearthed. Comstock himself, co-discoverer of everything in sight, accepted $11,000 for the fabulous Ophir Mine and a few years later, an untidy and garrulous gaffer, he made a noisy end of himself with a heavy bore revolver. While their claims, which they sold for $40,000, were producing a total wealth of $17,500,000 for their new owners, Pat McLaughlin was a $40 a month cook on a Montana sheep ranch and O’Riley was dying in a madhouse, to be buried in a pauper’s grave. Alvah Gould, co-discoverer of the great Gould and Curry mine, sold his share for $450 and spent it on the course of a single magnificent carouse in Gold Hill while telling all comers how he had trimmed some suckers. Old Virginny, who had named the queen city of the mighty Comstock, sold out for a quart of whiskey and a stone-blind mustang and he too was in a pauper’s grave while a new generation of Comstock multimillionaires were swaggering through the bourses and money markets of the world. Alone of the first discoverers, Sandy Bowers, of whom there will be a more detailed report later in this volume, lived a few brief years with “money to throw at the birds” and a splendid mansion that is still one of the landmarks of Washoe Meadows down in the valley.

To the pioneers of the Goddess of Fortune was as blind as the Goddess of Justice is supposed to be.

Before I could even choke out my excuse, they all poured out from behind desks and drawing tables, and engulfed me in bear hugs and slaps on the back and shoulders, with all manner of totally out-of-character behavior. This is one weird day, I thought.

But on the heels of the tidings which were borne swiftly across the Sierra there came other men to the Comstock, men shrewder, more resolute and more sagacious. They bought out the pioneers for the proverbial song and remained to become the operators and beneficiaries of the seemingly inexhaustible wealth that had reposed unsuspected through the centuries in the depths of Sun Mountain. Their very names became legendary and Flood, Fair, Mackay, Sutro, O’Brien, Hearst, Mills, Sharon and Ralston will forever be a part of the sagacious saga of the American West.

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