The Big Bonanza

Bonanza is a Spanish mining word meaning solvent, profitable, in the money, or paying off. Its opposite, borrasca, just as common usage in the jargon of mining but less in popular circulation, means to be operating at a loss.

The phrase, “The Big Bonanza,” usually capitalized to set it apart from all other discoveries of precious metals just as, in many communities “The Big Fire” sets some particularly notable holocausts apart from all others, is conventionally used in the lexicon of the Comstock to describe a single momentous uncovery of riches at a specific date and does not refer to the profitable working of the Comstock Lode as a whole.

The Big Bonanza, which was to produce one hundred and ninety million dollars in almost pure silver in a single block of precious metal, was to raise to almost unbelievable wealth an entire new dynasty of American millionaires and was to create panic, terror and disintegration on all the bourses, stock exchanges and money markets of the world, was the result of good fortune, great resolution, an uncommon knowledge of mining and an ability to keep a screaming secret on the part of four astute and determined men. James Flood, James Fair, John Mackay and William S. O’Brien were no ignorant prospectors who stumbled by mischance upon fantastic wealth. They were extremely capable mine operators who were sure there was a tremendous bonanza awaiting the proper exploitation of their property and who clung to this belief against the better judgment of others until it was justified on a scale that made them the most envied men in the world.

By the year 1873 the mines of the Comstock had been in and out of bonanza half a dozen times. After each slump, new mining methods, enlarged facilities or renewed persistence upon the part of geologists and mine foremen had uncovered new treasure houses deep on the slopes of Sun Mountain. Blow hot, blow cold, Virginia City was always either on top of the world or in the lowest dumps of depression. The mines were played out, so the rumor ran, and the miners and prospectors were off bag and baggage to the newly reported strikes along the Reese River and in the White Pine district. The huge bonanza in Crown Point dispelled the gloom. The ores were getting so lean they weren’t worth milling. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad disproved that fallacy and the goose hung high again.

By 1873 the Comstock had been through a dozen depressions, created scores of millionaires, was the occasion of a thousand suicides, and had alternately panicked and rejoiced the Mining Exchange down in San Francisco until hysteria seemed the normal aspect of life and sudden riches and sudden ruin the conventional order of things.

The partnership of Flood, Fair, Mackay and O’Brien had profited in a fairly substantial way from such mines as Kentuck and Hale & Norcross in which they had interested themselves. They were on the way to becoming men of substance, but that meant nothing in the dreams which haunted men on the Comstock, and besides they had lost heavily in prospecting the unprofitable Savage. Fair and Mackay worked as superintendents on the actual scene of operations in Virginia City while Flood and O’Brien, the former saloon keepers and contact men, represented their interests in San Francisco, watched the market and spread information which advanced or depressed stocks to the advantage of the partnership.

Mackay was obsessed with the belief that there was rich ore to be taken out of two despised and then comparatively worthless properties lying adjacent to each other in the middle of the Comstock profile. Consolidated Virginia and California has produced nothing but assessments for their stockholders although they were strategically situated between the rich and prosperous properties of Ophir and Best and Belcher, but, at Mackay’s word, Flood and Fair down in San Francisco began buying stock in California and Con Virginia at depressed rates on the San Francisco market and, when control of the property was assured, Mackay and Fair sank an exploratory shaft in Con Virginia, obtaining at the same time permission from the management of nearby Gould and Curry to join it with an exploratory drift from that mine’s 1,100 foot level. Fair was below ground the day his workmen cut into an eighth of an inch of pure silver ore. Instantly he ordered the drift turned to follow this elusive seam. It ran briefly and disappeared, repeating the performance for several weeks until one day, well inside the bounds of Con Virginia it amazingly opened into a vein fully seven feet wide. The partners held their breath, both in C Street and down the hill in Montgomery Street. They held their counsel, too, and continued to buy up Con Virginia and California whenever a block of either stock appeared on the market. At the bottom of the shaft of Con Virginia a new drift was cut following the course of the one higher up and after tunneling less than 300 feet Fair and Mackay cut into a block of almost pure silver fifty-four feet wide and of as yet undetermined height and depth.

This was it. This was The Big Bonanza.

The assays, which ran as high as an unbelievable (considering the volume of ore in sight) $630 a ton, were kept secret. Con Virginia began producing immediately but not through its own shaft. That would have given the C Street tipsters a notion of what was toward. It was brought up in dead of night by trusted gangs of specially selected and paid miners through the shafts of the friendly Gould and Curry.

The pulse of the market rose and fell in normal sequence, but no word or action of the partners indicated that wealth to pale the treasure of the Incas was already in their hands and they continued to buy up Con Virginia and California whenever it appeared on the market. They called a meeting of the stockholders and increased the capital stock. They blocked the bonanza and knew they were among the richest men in the history of the world. Then they let their monstrous cat out of its bag.

Calling in Dan De Quille, mining editor of the Territorial Enterprise, Fair assumed great indignation about the treatment he and his partners had received from the San Francisco papers, where they had long been regarded as fly-by-nights and common stock riggers.

“You tell them the truth, Dan,” said Fair with a fine show of outraged virtue. “Go down there in Con Virginia and just tell them what you see.”

De Quille, a trusted and conservative mining reporter with years of Comstock experience behind him, went down in the mine, made his own measurements and computation and was so frightened by the result that he cut his estimate of the ore in sight by one half before publishing the result in his paper. Even thus halved, his story next morning announced there was visible in Con Virginia $116,748,000 worth of “finest chloride ore filled with streaks and bunches of the richest black silver sulphurettes.” The implication, of course, was that California might be even richer since it lay adjacent and presumably shared the same ore mass.

Under the careful management of the four men who henceforth were to be known as the Kings of the Comstock, the valuation of the two mines on the San Francisco Exchange rose from $40,000,000 to $160,000,000. At news of its discovery, Bismarck ordered Germany off the silver standard. It made the dateline of Virginia City more important on news stories throughout the world than those of ancient capitals: London, Rome, Paris, or Madrid. It enriched many; it touched some with scandal, and its implications, fraudulently implemented by promoters, were eventually to cost speculators on the Pacific Coast nearly $400,000,000. These were the gulls who came to believe the entire Comstock was founded on riches as authentic as those of California and Con Virginia. But the four who had brought in the Big Bonanza and actually controlled its real and tangible riches became the lords of creation, peers in the society of Crassus and Croesus, the Great Inca and the Indian Maharajahs, and eventually the Rockefellers and Mellons, the richest men of all time in the known world.

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