The Gold Rushes of North America (1847-1900)

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright Calliope Film Resources, Inc.

Part III. 1859-1864 -- The Comstock Lode: Finance and Technology

In 1851, a gold strike in Australia fueled a migration to the other side of the globe by thousands of Californians; the Australian who discovered the gold had prospected in California. In 1858, prospectors surged to the Canadian northwest and to Colorado ("Pike's Peak or Bust"). And then, only miles from the Carson Valley trail used by so many Forty-niners a decade earlier, came the fabled Comstock Lode. The rush to the Comstock in 1859 virtually shut down the mines of California. A new era dawned, scientifically, economically, and socially.

By the late 1850s, thousands of gold seekers were doubling back from California, through the Western territories. Many were professional prospectors by now, roving from one small strike to the next. Others belonged to a new wave of novices, fleeing a severe financial depression back East.

The Greatest Strike in History

All were scratching the mountain dirt for "color" when some electrifying news came drifting over from the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada - some "blasted blue stuff" that had been found was actually a fabulous silver strike, the legendary Comstock Lode, probably the greatest single mineral strike in history.

During the next year, 17,000 swarmed into the Washoe region of what is now the state of Nevada.

"Frame shanties pitched together as if by accident - tents of canvas, of blankets of brush, of potato-sacks, and old shirts, with empty whisky barrels for chimneys - 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 in the hollows, on the rocks, in the mud, in the snow everywhere, scattered broadcast in pell-mell confusion."

Seemingly overnight, the mud metamorphosed into pop-up villages -- Gold Hill, Silver City, Virginia City. "Houses are built anywhere and everywhere, and the streets are then made to reach them... The people were camped all around in wagons, tents and temporary brush houses or wickiups. The principal business houses were saloons, gambling houses, and dance halls, two or three so-called stores with very small stocks of general merchandise and little provisions."

Mark Twain, after an unsuccessful stint as a prospector, found himself working for Virginia City's largest newspaper. Part of the job involved shameless promotion of fair-to-middling claims in exchange for free shares --

"If the rock was moderately promising, we followed the custom of the country, used strong adjectives, and frothed at the mouth as if a very marvel in silver discoveries had transpired. If the mine was a 'developed' one we would squander half a column of adulation on a shaft, or a new wire rope, or a dressed-pine windlass, or a fascinating force pump."

Early arrivals included lawyers, freighters, and merchants, as well as the men and women who earned a living providing for the miners. "My husband is to do the blacksmithing for the company, and as was arranged, I am to cook for the men. My heart sinks within me when I see 18 or 20, and no conveniences at all. They are so filthy they require a great deal of cleaning wherever they go, and this wears out a woman very fast."

As one incredibly rich strike followed another, a financial community materialized. An outdoor stock market blossomed along the muddy streets of Nevada's Virginia City. Shares in mines zoomed from a dollar and a half to above $1,500 in not much more than a year's time.

Success Stories

More dramatically than in California, the people who grew wealthy off the Lode's immense trove of silver and lesser amounts of gold were not the single prospectors - they were the speculators, the developers, the enterprising middlemen.

As one incredibly rich strike followed another, a financial community materialized - an outdoor stock market blossomed along Virginia City's muddy streets - shares in mines zoomed from a dollar and a half to above $1500 in not much more than a year's time.

How did speculators put a value on the land? They priced mines by the foot. The Comstock's richest mine, the Ophir, lay along a claim nearly a quarter of a mile in length, and was quoted at $4,000 per foot. "Feet that went begging yesterday were worth a brick house today," Mark Twain observed.

Silver and gold from the $400 million Comstock Lode invigorated local enterprise. Virginia City, Nevada, developed into a metropolis of 20,000, the second biggest city in the West. A generation of regional tycoons arose. Their names were Ralston, Sharon, Fair, Flood...

In contrast to California, where profits from the rush made their way back East or to Britain and France, the Comstock profits benefitted mostly westerners. Much of the wealth found its way to San Francisco, where an important financial and banking system grew up around the frenzied trading of Comstock shares and eventually underwrote the continuing growth of the city.

Mining Technology on the Comstock

Mining technology had already begun to develop during the California years, as individuals wielding picks and shovels in the stream beds gradually gave way to large-scale systems of dams, steam power, and hydraulic mining, which used high-pressure hoses to wash away whole hillsides. It was the beginning of an industrializing process that was to transform the landscape and the society overwhelmingly.

Differently from California, the odd configuration and instability of the Comstock geography required the development of new technologies. The treasure lay deep in the ground rather than at the surface or in streams, and prospectors came to the dispiriting realization that mining the Comstock Lode meant using costly equipment and sinking deep shafts into the earth - and hence required investors, mining companies, and organized work crews.

The difficulty of getting the Comstock ores out of the earth's tenacious grip challenged the era's best engineers and inventors; mining technology was a science that Americans were only beginning to grasp.

The Civil War... the Transcontinental Railroad... Mark Twain

At the height of the Civil War, the Comstock Lode exercised a far-ranging political and economic influence. Seeking to bolster the Union with another free state, President Lincoln encouraged Nevada to seek statehood at such a rapid pace that the state constitution had to be telegraphed to Washington. The territory became the thirty-sixth state in October 1864, just weeks after the fall of Atlanta. From its mineral riches, Nevada contributed $45 million to the federal government during the War. Silver from Nevada, together with gold from California, helped finance the defeat of the Confederacy.

Probing the Comstock continued from 1860 to the late 1880s; throughout the period, technological advances fed other changes as well. Hauling industrial-strength machinery, supplies and ore was soon beyond the capabilities of mule and wagon freight operations.

In 1869, a railroad was built to link Virginia City with Carson City on the river. It took 30 days to lay out the railroad, but nine months to build it with a crew of 1200 laborers, mostly Chinese. The Nevada line was soon connected to the nation's first transcontinental railway, completed the same year. The railroad brought not only industrial supplies to Virginia City but the Eastern effects of a finer life - fancy furniture, stone for an opera house (performers included Artemus Ward and Edwin Booth), and carved woodwork for a six-story hotel.

"The flush times were in magnificent flower!" wrote Mark Twain. "The 'city' of Virginia claimed a population 18,000, and all day long half of this little army swarmed the streets like bees, and the other half swarmed among the drifts and tunnels of the Comstock, hundreds of feet down in the earth directly under those same streets. Often we felt our chairs jar, and heard the faint boom of a blast down in the bowels of the earth under the office."

Industrial Expansion; Work in the Mines; Environmental Damage

In the traditional view, commercial development brought progress to the West. In reality, the consequences were mixed. What became of the Argonauts' dream?

In the quick turn to industrial mining, many Argonauts became wage earners, stripped to the waist to work in the underground tunnels of the Ophir, the Yellow Jacket or the Crown Point mines. Beneath the surface of the new Eldorado hundreds were killed, maimed, or seriously injured. There were periods when a man was killed every week by cave-ins or fires ... a man injured every day by falling into shafts or sumps of hot water.

Working 2,000 feet underground brought severe occupational hazards - heat exhaustion, pneumonia, and rheumatism. It was a hellish vision - Thoreau's rich metaphor come to life ("Going to California. It is only three thousand miles nearer to hell.") Heat increased 5 degrees Fahrenheit every hundred feet. At 3,000 feet, clouds of steam obscured a man's work, wooden pick handles became so hot that miners had to use gloves, work time was reduced to 15 minutes out of each hour, and the ice allotment went up to 95 pounds a day per man.

Not long before, the original Argonauts had been awed by the West's thrilling landscapes as they passed along the overland trails. Now, as their successors dug into the earth, the Western landscape was transformed. Timbering the mines inspired innovative logging techniques - which soon stripped the hills of trees for stretches of a hundred miles.

Mark Twain's colleague Dan De Quille, who chronicled regional events for three decades on the area's leading paper, called the Comstock Lode "the tomb of the forests of the Sierras." And while the Comstock's factory-like operation marked the first true industrial expansion in the West, by the 1870s it had introduced atmospheric pollution as well.

Mining the land very quickly became an industrial endeavor, but gold rushes continued - and single miners who stayed faithful to their own crusade moved on. On the heels of Nevada came word of new bonanzas - "greater than the Comstock" - in Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas.

Full of optimism, hurrying to cash in, "boomers" built one instant town after the next. If the bonanza was a borrasca (a bust), they moved on, sometimes in only two years, leaving a string of played out mines and desolate ghost towns in their dusty wake.

Could they have survived and made a life for themselves if they had stayed? Perhaps, but the dream was to strike it rich, start over, and prosper, not simply survive.

If the strike was rich, the pattern of urban and industrial development unfolded. The front-running prospectors were quickly followed by the developers and the myriad businesses necessary to supporting a booming mining town. George Hearst, for one example, went on from the Comstock to make still greater fortunes in the gold and copper mines of South Dakota and Montana.

Improvements in transport and communication - the railroad and the telegraph - speeded up the process. Through a whole series of lesser bonanzas and borrascas that built into one long on-and-off gold rush, the cycle repeated and swept people, towns, and technology into virtually every region of the West in a great hopeful, searching churn.

Out of the 17,000 who first hurried into the Washoe in 1859, the mines yielded great fortunes to only a few dozen. Hundreds of others emerged from speculations on the Comstock mines in the San Francisco stock market as wealthy men by 19th century standards, with bank accounts of $100,000.

But most either moved on in new gold rushes ( chasing rumors of bonanzas "greater than the Comstock," from the Dakotas to the Pacific Northwest ) - or ended it by signing on with the mining industry ( itself the greatest beneficiary of the Comstock riches ), establishing a laboring population that would later be the base for a new chapter in labor history with the rise of the Western Federation of Miners at the end of the nineteenth century.

For a generation, industrialization dominated the ore fields. There were still gold rushes, to be sure. The 1880s brought a gold rush to southern Africa - but it was the diametric opposite of the North American pattern, a millionaires' game with no room for the ordinary player. When the world's solitary prospectors converged in a final major gold rush at the end of the century, it would be on the North American continent -- the Klondike.

Major Gold Rushes, continued:
Part IV. The Klondike
Back to Part I and Student Permission
Back to Part II. California
Gold Rushes Bibliography

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Updated Jan 1 2009
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