University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
1 occurrence of roughing it
[Clear Hits]


expand section 
1 occurrence of roughing it
[Clear Hits]




SINCE I desire, in this chapter, to say an instructive word
or two about the silver mines, the reader may take this
fair warning and skip, if he chooses. The year 1863 was perhaps
the very top blossom and culmination of the “flush times.”
Virginia swarmed with men and vehicles to that degree that
the place looked like a very hive—that is when one's vision
could pierce through the thick fog of alkali dust that was generally
blowing in summer. I will say, concerning this dust,
that if you drove ten miles through it, you and your horses
would be coated with it a sixteenth of an inch thick and present
an outside appearance that was a uniform pale yellow
color, and your buggy would have three inches of dust in it,
thrown there by the wheels. The delicate scales used by the
assayers were inclosed in glass cases intended to be air-tight,
and yet some of this dust was so impalpable and so invisibly fine
that it would get in, somehow, and impair the accuracy of
those scales.

Speculation ran riot, and yet there was a world of substantial
business going on, too. All freights were brought over
the mountains from California (150 miles) by pack-train partly,
and partly in huge wagons drawn by such long mule teams
that each team amounted to a procession, and it did seem,
sometimes, that the grand combined procession of animals
stretched unbroken from Virginia to California. Its long
route was traceable clear across the deserts of the Territory by
the writhing serpent of dust it lifted up. By these wagons,


Page 377
freights over that hundred and fifty miles were $200 a ton for
small lots (same price for all express matter brought by stage),
and $100 a ton for full loads. One Virginia firm received one
hundred tons of freight a month, and paid $10,000 a month
freightage. In the winter the freights were much higher. All
the bullion was shipped in bars by stage to San Francisco (a
bar was usually about twice the size of a pig of lead and contained
from $1,500 to $3,000 according to the amount of gold
mixed with the silver), and the freight on it (when the shipment
was large) was one and a quarter per cent. of its intrinsic
value. So, the freight
on these bars probably
averaged something
more than $25 each.
Small shippers paid
two per cent. There
were three stages a
day, each way, and I
have seen the out-going
stages carry away a
third of a ton of bullion each, and more than once I saw them
divide a two-ton lot and take it off. However, these were extraordinary
events.[1] Two tons of silver bullion would be in


Page 378
the neighborhood of forty bars, and the freight on it over $1,000.
Each coach always carried a deal of ordinary express matter
beside, and also from fifteen to twenty passengers at from $25
to $30 a head. With six stages going all the time, Wells,
Fargo and Co.'s Virginia City business was important and

All along under the centre of Virginia and Gold Hill, for a
couple of miles, ran the great Comstock silver lode—a vein of
ore from fifty to eighty feet thick between its solid walls of
rock—a vein as wide as some of New York's streets. I will
remind the reader that in Pennsylvania a coal vein only eight
feet wide is considered ample.

Virginia was a busy city of streets and houses above ground.
Under it was another busy city, down in the bowels of the
earth, where a great population of men thronged in and out
among an intricate maze of tunnels and drifts, flitting hither
and thither under a winking sparkle of lights, and over their
heads towered a vast web of interlocking timbers that held the
walls of the gutted Comstock apart. These timbers were as
large as a man's body, and the framework stretched upward so
far that no eye could pierce to its top through the closing gloom.
It was like peering up through the clean-picked ribs and bones
of some colossal skeleton. Imagine such a framework two
miles long, sixty feet wide, and higher than any church spire in
America. Imagine this stately lattice-work stretching down
Broadway, from the St. Nicholas to Wall street, and a Fourth


Page 379


[Description: 504EAF. Page 379. In-line image of a multi-storied building in which a man stands on the bottom level.]
of July procession, reduced to pigmies, parading on top of it
and flaunting their flags, high above the pinnacle of Trinity
steeple. One can imagine that, but he cannot well imagine
what that forest of timbers
cost, from the time they
were felled in the pineries
beyond Washoe Lake,
hauled up and around
Mount Davidson at atrocious
rates of freightage,
then squared, let down into
the deep maw of the
mine and built up there.
Twenty ample fortunes
would not timber one of
the greatest of those silver
mines. The Spanish proverb
says it requires a gold
mine to “run” a silver one,
and it is true. A beggar
with a silver mine is a pitiable
pauper indeed if he
cannot sell.

I spoke of the underground Virginia as a city. The Gould
and Curry is only one single mine under there, among a great
many others; yet the Gould and Curry's streets of dismal drifts
and tunnels were five miles in extent, altogether, and its population
five hundred miners. Taken as a whole, the underground
city had some thirty miles of streets and a population
of five or six thousand. In this present day some of those
populations are at work from twelve to sixteen hundred feet
under Virginia and Gold Hill, and the signal-bells that tell
them what the superintendent above ground desires them to
do are struck by telegraph as we strike a fire alarm. Sometimes
men fall down a shaft, there, a thousand feet deep. In
such cases, the usual plan is to hold an inquest.

If you wish to visit one of those mines, you may walk


Page 380


[Description: 504EAF. Page 380. In-line image of a mining shaft with people at the bottom and top and on the latter.]
through a tunnel about half a mile
long if you prefer it, or you may
take the quicker plan of shooting
like a dart down a shaft, on a
small platform. It is like tumbling
down through an empty steeple, feet
first. When you reach the bottom,
you take a candle and tramp through
drifts and tunnels where throngs of
men are digging and blasting; you
watch them send up tubs full of great
lumps of stone—silver ore; you select
choice specimens from the mass, as
souvenirs; you admire the world of
skeleton timbering; you reflect frequently
that you are buried under a
mountain, a thousand feet below daylight;
being in the bottom of the
mine you climb from “gallery” to
“gallery,” up endless ladders that
stand straight up and down; when
your legs fail you at last, you lie
down in a small box-car in a cramped
“incline” like a half-up-ended sewer
and are dragged up to daylight feel-as
if you are crawling through a coffin
that has no end to it. Arrived at the
top, you find a busy crowd of men
receiving the ascending cars and tubs
and dumping the ore from an elevation
into long rows of bins capable of
holding half a dozen tons each; under
the bins are rows of wagons loading
from chutes and trap-doors in the
bins, and down the long street is a
procession of these wagons wending
toward the silver mills with their


Page 381
rich freight. It is all “done,” now, and there you are. You
need never go down again, for you have seen it all. If you
have forgotten the process of reducing the ore in the mill and
making the silver bars, you can go back and find it again in
my Esmeralda chapters if so disposed.

Of course these mines cave in, in places, occasionally, and
then it is worth one's while to take the risk of descending into
them and observing the crushing power exerted by the pressing
weight of a settling mountain. I published such an experience
in the Enterprise, once, and from it I will take an extract:

an Hour in the Caved Mines.—We journeyed down into the Ophir
mine, yesterday, to see the earthquake. We could not go down the deep
incline, because it still has a propensity to cave in places. Therefore we
traveled through the long tunnel which enters the hill above the Ophir
office, and then by means of a series of long ladders, climbed away down
from the first to the fourth gallery. Traversing a drift, we came to the
Spanish line, passed five sets of timbers still uninjured, and found the earthquake.
Here was as complete a chaos as ever was seen—vast masses of earth
and splintered and broken timbers piled confusedly together, with scarcely
an aperture left large enough for a cat to creep through. Rubbish was still
falling at intervals from above, and one timber which had braced others earlier
in the day, was now crushed down out of its former position, showing
that the caving and settling of the tremendous mass was still going on. We
were in that portion of the Ophir known as the “north mines.” Returning
to the surface, we entered a tunnel leading into the Central, for the purpose
of getting into the main Ophir. Descending a long incline in this
tunnel, we traversed a drift or so, and then went down a deep shaft from
whence we proceeded into the fifth gallery of the Ophir. From a side-drift
we crawled through a small hole and got into the midst of the earthquake
again—earth and broken timbers mingled together without regard to grace
or symmetry. A large portion of the second, third and fourth galleries
had caved in and gone to destruction—the two latter at seven o'clock on the
previous evening.

At the turn-table, near the northern extremity of the fifth gallery, two
big piles of rubbish had forced their way through from the fifth gallery,
and from the looks of the timbers, more was about to come. These beams
are solid—eighteen inches square; first, a great beam is laid on the floor,
then upright ones, five feet high, stand on it, supporting another horizontal
beam, and so on, square above square, like the framework of a window. The
superincumbent weight was sufficient to mash the ends of those great upright
beams fairly into the solid wood of the horizontal ones three inches,
compressing and bending the upright beam till it curved like a bow. Before
the Spanish caved in, some of their twelve-inch horizontal timbers were com


Page 382
pressed in this way until they were only five inches thick! Imagine the
power it must take to squeeze a solid log together in that way. Here, also,
was a range of timbers, for a distance of twenty feet, tilted six inches out
of the perpendicular by the weight resting upon them from the caved galleries
above. You could hear things cracking and giving way, and it was
not pleasant to know that the world overhead was slowly and silently sinking
down upon you. The men down in the mine do not mind it, however.

Returning along the fifth gallery, we struck the safe part of the Ophir
incline, and went down it to the sixth; but we found ten inches of water
there, and had to come back. In repairing the damage done to the incline,
the pump had to be stopped for two hours, and in the meantime the water
gained about a foot. However, the pump was at work again, and the flood-water
was decreasing. We climbed up to the fifth gallery again and sought
a deep shaft, whereby we might descend to another part of the sixth, out of
reach of the water, but suffered disappointment, as the men had gone to dinner,
and there was no one to man the windlass. So, having seen the earthquake,
we climbed out at the Union incline and tunnel, and adjourned, all
dripping with candle grease and perspiration, to lunch at the Ophir office.

During the great flush year of 1863, Nevada [claims to
have] produced $25,000,000 in bullion—almost, if not quite, a
round million to each thousand inhabitants, which is very
well, considering that she was without agriculture and manufactures.[2]
Silver mining was her sole productive industry.


Mr. Valentine, Wells Fargo's agent, has handled all the bullion shipped
through the Virginia office for many a month. To his memory—which is
excellent—we are indebted for the following exhibit of the company's business
in the Virginia office since the first of January, 1862: From January
1st to April 1st, about $270,000 worth of bullion passed through that office;
during the next quarter, $570,000; next quarter, $800,000; next quarter,
$956,000; next quarter, $1,275,000; and for the quarter ending on the 30th
of last June, about $1,600,000. Thus in a year and a half, the Virginia office
only shipped $5,330,000 in bullion. During the year 1862 they shipped
$2,615,000, so we perceive the average shipments have more than doubled
in the last six months. This gives us room to promise for the Virginia
office $500,000 a month for the year 1863 (though perhaps, judging by the
steady increase in the business, we are under estimating, somewhat). This
gives us $6,000,000 for the year. Gold Hill and Silver City together can
beat us—we will give them $10,000,000. To Dayton, Empire City, Ophir
and Carson City, we will allow an aggregate of $8,000,000, which is not over
the mark, perhaps, and may possibly be a little under it. To Esmeralda we
give $4,000,000. To Reese River and Humboldt $2,000,000, which is liberal
now, but may not be before the year is out. So we prognosticate that the
yield of bullion this year will be about $30,000,000. Placing the number of
mills in the Territory at one hundred, this gives to each the labor of producing
$300,000 in bullion during the twelve months. Allowing them to
run three hundred days in the year (which none of them more than do), this
makes their work average $1,000 a day. Say the mills average twenty tons
of rock a day and this rock worth $50 as a general thing, and you have the
actual work of our one hundred mills figured down “to a spot”—$1,000 a
day each, and $30,000,000 a year in the aggregate.—Enterprise.

[A considerable over estimate.—M. T.]


Since the above was in type, I learn from an official source that the
above figure is too high, and that the yield for 1863 did not exceed $20,000,000.
However, the day for large figures is approaching; the Sutro Tunnel is to
plow through the Comstock lode from end to end, at a depth of two thousand
feet, and then mining will be easy and comparatively inexpensive; and the
momentous matters of drainage, and hoisting and hauling of ore will cease
to be burdensome. This vast work will absorb many years, and millions of
dollars, in its completion; but it will early yield money, for that desirable
epoch will begin as soon as it strikes the first end of the vein. The tunnel
will be some eight miles long, and will develop astonishing riches. Cars
will carry the ore through the tunnel and dump it in the mills and thus do
away with the present costly system of double handling and transportation
by mule teams. The water from the tunnel will furnish the motive power
for the mills. Mr. Sutro, the originator of this prodigious enterprise, is one
of the few men in the world who is gifted with the pluck and perseverance
necessary to follow up and hound such an undertaking to its completion.
He has converted several obstinate Congresses to a deserved friendliness toward
his important work, and has gone up and down and to and fro in Europe
until he has enlisted a great moneyed interest in it there.