Thursday, September 13, 2007

Virginia City and the Comstock Lode

The biggest problem in this grubstake paradise was the sticky blue-gray mud that clung to picks and shovels. When the mud was assayed, it proved to be silver ore worth over $2,000 a ton -- in 1859 dollars! Gold mixed with high quality silver ore was recovered in quantities large enough to catch the eye of President Abe Lincoln. He needed the gold and silver to keep the Union solvent during the Civil War. On October 31, 1864 Lincoln made Nevada a state although it did not contain enough people to constitutionally authorize statehood.

The resulting boom turned "Ol' Virginny Town" into Virginia City, the most important settlement between Denver and San Francisco; and the grubby prospectors into instant millionaires who built mansions, imported furniture and fashions from Europe and the Orient, and financed the Civil War. With the gold and silver came the building of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which ran from Reno to Carson City to Virginia City and later to Minden. The investments made in mining on the Comstock Lode in the 1860's, 1870's and 1880's fueled the building of San Francisco. William Ralston and Charles Crocker, founders of the Bank of California, made their money in Virginia City. Names like Leland Stanford, George Hearst, John Mackay, William Flood and many others made their fortunes in Comstock mining.

At the peak of its glory, Virginia City was a boisterous town with something going on 24 hours a day both above and below ground for its nearly 30,000 residents. There were visiting celebrities, Shakespeare plays, opium dens, newspapers, competing fire companies, fraternal organizations, at least five police precincts, a thriving red-light district, and the first Miner's Union in the U.S. The International Hotel was six stories high and boasted the West's first elevator, called a "rising room".

Mark Twain got his start as a writer at the local newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. Here's one of his articles, entitled "Dead Indian Found in Water Tank", and also excerpted, the Stockbroker's Prayer:

Our father Mammon, who art in the Comstock, bully is thy name; let thy dividends come, and stock go up, in California as in Washoe. Give us this day our daily commissions; forgive us our swindles as we hope to get even on those who have swindled us. Unlead us not into temptation of promising wildcat; deliver us from lawsuits; for thine is the main Comstock, the black sulphurets and the wire silver, from wallrock to wallrock, you bet!

More as I can get to it, mostly about Nevada.

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