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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 5, Chapter 4

Nevada—Placerville—Staging across the Sierra—Discovery of the Washoe Mines—Speculation, Boom, and Collapse—The Comstock—Gould & Curry Mine—Sandy Bowers—Story of the Plato Mine—Mount Davidson—Salaries in Nevada.

Virginia City, Nevada.
November 4, 1864.

I sit down this lovely morning to write a letter from a new state, emphatically, in every sense of the word. I am in a city of twelve thousand to fourteen thousand inhabitants, where four short years ago the desert bushes grew unmolested, the desert mountains sent back no echoes of the sounds of human industry, and the desolate hills showed no signs of human inhabitants, or at least of the homes of civilized men. New in another sense—a state constitution has just been adopted, has been telegraphed entire to Washington, and the wires just bring the news the President has issued his proclamation making Nevada a state.

I have all along intended to visit this city and the famous silver mines of the region, expecting to take it in on my trip overland. Five days ago I had to give up that idea, relinquishing long-cherished hopes and plans. The season is late, my health is not entirely good, there are fresh Indian outbreaks, there is no certainty of my getting through, and even if I should, the expense would be enormous, for I have failed to get a through ticket; so I gave up the plan and came up here for a short visit.

November 1, I took the steamer for Sacramento, took the cars at midnight and passed over the hot plains in the cool night; then the stage. Daylight found us at Placerville, where we took our breakfast. It was my first visit to Placerville—a pretty mining town of considerable size and importance, but lacking the bustle and life that it had when surrounded by the rich placers that gave it a name. The old name of Hangtown, so well bestowed in early days, is about forgotten.

Here we took the Overland stage across the Sierra. For some miles the stage road runs through the dry, barren foothills, with signs of worked-out placers on all sides. But the road rises and the scene changes as it enters the granite region and the great forest belt of the western flank of the grand old Sierra Nevada. This has been the great road to Washoe—sometimes three thousand teams with twenty-five thousand animals at work at one time. We passed hundreds of freight wagons, with from six to ten horses or mules each. Three or four rival roads now divide the patronage—all, like this, toll roads and built at an enormous expense. Hotels and stables abound, even on the very summit, where the snow falls to an immense depth every winter. An aggregate of fifty feet fell there the “wet winter.” But what of that? Where money is to be made, be it in the cold and snows of the Sierra or the intense heat of the deserts, no matter, there will be a man to get it. “For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.”

The day was lovely, the sky clear, and the air balmy. The heat grew less, until near the summit the ice lay thick around the springs, and snow lay in patches among the trees. Six inches of snow fell in a recent storm, but it is now mostly gone. We had all the features of this grand Sierra scenery—high, barren peaks streaked with snow, rising above the dense, dark forests of the lower slopes, and deep canyons and steep precipices, around which at times the road passes at such a dizzy height that an upset would send the persons of the passengers several hundreds of feet below and their souls to the other world. But such drivers as there are! They manage the big coaches and their six-horse teams as if it were but play, and go dashing along steep grades and around short curves at a rate to make the hair stand on end.

We crossed the summit at last, over 7,200 feet high, then descended a steep grade to Lake Valley, with the lovely Lake Tahoe (once Bigler), finer even than Lake Thun or Lake Geneva. Night came on, clear and cold, long before we crossed the eastern summit. We descended into the Carson Valley, part fertile and part desert, then crossed the desert hills to this city, where we arrived about midnight. We passed through Silver City and Gold Hill, lively mining towns, where the clatter of nearly a thousand stamps greets the ear for miles. At the former place a political procession was in progress, indicative of the enthusiasm of the “honest miners.”

I find here various acquaintances and much to see. I had heard of all of this before, time and time again, yet had no just appreciation of it. One can hear of Niagara for many a year, yet really have no just conception of it until he sees it.

It is a popular idea on this coast that a country utterly barren, uncomfortable, with bad climate, worse water, nothing inviting about it, must of necessity contain the precious metals. “What else is it good for?” is their triumphant shout if you dispute it. Following this idea, this region was “prospected” by various parties and at various times from 1850 on. Gold was found quite early, and at last, about 1858 or 1859, silver ore. It attracted no attention, however, until 1860, when suddenly the tide set in here—such an immigration as only gold and silver can cause. Thousands poured in from California, Oregon, the Colorado, the States—adventurers, gamblers, speculators, miners, prospectors, lawyers—in short, all of that numerous class that “makes haste to grow rich” who could get here. Mines were located and opened, mills built, towns were laid out and grew like mushrooms. Capital was active.

Some of the mines proved immensely rich, and as a consequence “wildcats” flourished in all their glory. A few mines turned out bullion at such a rate that statesmen and financiers feared that silver must fall in value. Last year it culminated—when nearly a ton a day of gold and silver bullion was shipped from here; when more than five thousand teams were employed in bringing freights here; when stock in the paying mines was held at perfectly wild rates and values, even to over twenty thousand dollars per foot; when probably a dozen mines were paying high dividends, and millions of dollars were being expended in working the thousand “wildcat” mines whose stock was in the market; when a population variously estimated from sixteen thousand to twenty-four thousand was congregated here in a few miles, all drawing their “supplies and forage” from over the mountains; when speculation ruled the day and in the streets were met men poor three years ago, now worth their hundreds of thousands—then, I say, the excitement raised and culminated—and this summer the vast bubble broke.

All at once the stocks of the good mines went down from far above their real value to as much below, and “wildcat” collapsed. Ophir stock, once held at over $4,000 per foot, is now a drug at as many hundreds. Gould & Curry, once over $6,000 per foot, now sells for less than $1,500, and everything in the same way. As a consequence, thousands have been ruined, work has stopped on much “wildcat,” and good mines must in future be worked in a more healthy manner. Of course, a portion of the floating population has left, but still perhaps sixteen thousand are in Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, and the environs.1

This is the center of a region on which many hundreds of gold and silver mines have been located, but only a few of these have ever paid expenses, certainly less than twenty of them. All of these (unless it be one or two) are located on one line or vein—the famous Comstock Lead as it is called—all within a distance of 1 1/2 miles. The mines are reckoned by the foot, measured along the lead, and the stock sales are quoted at so much per foot, rather than at so much per share of the capital stock.

I was introduced to the superintendent of the Gould & Curry Mine, Mr. Bonner. He took me through the mine, and a description of that will answer for all.

The vein is several hundred feet wide, but not all rich ore. It is distributed in great irregular masses, called chambers, because when the ore is taken out a great room or chamber is left. The miners learn by experience what ore is good and what to reject as poor. The vein runs down slanting, so that men who commenced on one side at the surface are now at work over four hundred feet under the city. It requires great skill to explore the mine and keep the sides from caving in. The timbering is unlike any I have ever seen. Stout timbers, a foot square, in short pieces from five to seven feet long, placed in a peculiar manner, run entirely across the mine in every direction, further strengthened by braces where the pressure is greatest. Yet, at times, these timbers are crushed as if they were but straws. Long tunnels run into the mine from low down the hill, and out of these the ore is taken.

We descend into the mine and get out by a cage, a small platform running between guides down a shaft. The sensation is peculiar. Three or four men stand on this, the engine starts, and down we go rapidly in this shaft, like a deep well. It grows dark, as down, down, down we go. We hear the rope rattle over the pulley overhead and the rattle of the cage in its guides. We know that a chasm hundreds of feet deep is beneath. We are hung on this rope at a height twice as great as that of the tallest spire in the United States.

At last we strike the “lower level” and step out into the mine, where we find great timbers running in every direction. Here and there a candle sheds a feeble light. Long, dark galleries or “drifts” run from the landing place, with narrow railroad tracks in them, and little cars in which the ore is moved. We hear the rumble of the cars on these tracks, and the distant clatter of picks and drills as the miners are loosening the ore and rock. Perhaps a heavy pump is groaning, worked by a powerful engine, to get the water out of the lowest parts.

The miners load the good ore in the cars and reject the poor, which is sometimes left in the mine and sometimes is carried outside and dumped out of the way. These “dump piles” are among the most conspicuous features of the place—hundreds of thousands of tons of this useless material are piled up. They often contain silver and gold, for unless the ore runs twenty-five dollars of the precious metals to the ton of ore, it is rejected. As a matter of fact, it must contain more, for twenty-five dollars must be got out of it to make it pay, and no mill gets it all out, so generally one-fourth, sometimes even one-half is left in the tailings. Some of the ore will yield from one to two thousand dollars per ton, but if it yields a hundred dollars it is thought very rich.

We ascend in the mine by ladders, stage beyond stage. Men are at work everywhere, digging the ore, getting it away, putting in the heavy timbers. Here galleries branch off; there great chambers have been opened. We walk along planks, through galleries, sometimes dry, sometimes dripping with muddy water. Look out! That little black hole by your feet may be deep! Only two days ago a miner slipped into such a hole and fell 115 feet; he was buried the day we were in the mine.

The Savage Mine joins this, and you can pass from one to the other far underground. It is now the richest of the large mines. It is like the Gould & Curry in all its looks. They take out about two hundreds tons of ore per day, and last month sent $300,000 worth of bullion to market.

After the ore is taken out it is crushed in mills and goes through long processes to get out the gold and silver, but I will not attempt to describe them, for it would take a hundred pages to make all the various processes intelligible.

The Gould & Curry mill is the finest. It cost over a million dollars. A friend of mine has charge of it, and he showed me all through it. First is the ore room, where the ore is stored; then eighty ponderous “stamps,” which crush it with a noise and clatter that is almost deafening. Then it goes through the “pans,” until the rock is washed away and the precious metal is held, alloyed with quicksilver. The quicksilver is expelled by heat and the bullion is then cast into bars or “bricks,” which weigh generally about eighty or one hundred pounds. This bullion is worth twenty-five to twenty-six dollars per pound and in value consists of about one part of gold to three of silver.

You can get some idea of the magnitude of the works when you learn that the Gould & Curry Company employs five hundred men in its mine and mills, not counting carpenters, blacksmiths, and so forth. Last year this mine produced nearly six million of dollars. The bullion alone weighed over one hundred tons! But it will produce far less this year.

The yield of the mines of this vicinity last year was about nineteen or twenty million dollars—nearly a ton a day of bullion went to San Francisco. Such are the resources of this new state.

Gold Hill lies 1 1/2 miles south on the same “lead.” Its mines are even richer, but are smaller, so make less noise. They look like these. I visited several, only two of which I will notice, and that because of their owners.

The Bowers Mine is only twenty feet. Sandy Bowers, the lucky owner, four years ago drove an ox team in the territory, his wife an industrious, hard-working Irishwoman. He located a claim and held onto it, letting other men work it. It rose in value enormously. In three years it netted him an income of some ten thousand dollars per month, and he refused $400,000 for it, or at the enormous rate of $20,000 per foot. Last year he built a house costing him $240,000, adorned with $3,000 mirrors, and all the window curtains cost $1,200 each. The wife, who three years before thought $3 per day good wages for her man, told a friend of mine that she “didn’t see how one can get along on this coast with less than $100,000 per year.” Poor Sandy—he lived too fast—his $10,000 per month was too little, and he ran into debt $100,000, on which he pays Nevada interest, so I suppose he is a poor man again—if not, he soon will be. Do not say that “shoddy” is peculiar to any state or place.

One more—the Plato Mine is only ten feet. Five years ago, in San Francisco, an Irishwoman sold apples by day, and by night “received calls” for compensation. The latter business proved the more profitable and required the less capital, so she gave up her apple stand and came up here to the new mines, when they first began to attract attention, to ply her trade. She was successful, as is usually the case in the new mining towns, and an admiring lover gave her ten feet of his claim—either as a token of esteem, as he says—or “for value received” in her line, as she says. No matter which—she got the feet, which rose to be worth some $150,000 to $200,000. He finally married her to get his “feet” back, but died soon after, and she owns the mine yet, which, of course, yields her a handsome income.

Last night I dined with Mr. Bonner, superintendent of the Gould & Curry, and had a very pleasant time, indeed. There was a grand Union procession, with banners and fireworks. Rockets were fired over the town from the summit of Mount Davidson.

This Mount Davidson is one of the grand features of the place. It rises very steep two thousand feet above the city, or to a height of about eight thousand feet above the sea. It commands a sublime view, like a grand panorama, which extends more than a hundred miles in every direction. Of course I climbed it as soon as I got here. The afternoon was very clear. On the west and south were the grand old Sierras, clouds hanging over them and snow streaking the peaks. But everywhere nearer, and to the north and east, was a dry, desolate, desert region—sharp mountains, of no particular chain or name, very steep, entirely without trees or other green thing, of a uniform dry grayish-brown color—the canyons are deep and sharp—all is dry and desolate. There are desert valleys, as dry as the mountains, and often apparently as level as the sea, with here and there an alkaline lake, or a dry lake bed, now a shining sheet of white salt and alkali. No painting could convey any idea of the scene. The color is nearly uniform, the mountains much furrowed, so their details are endless—a photograph would show it, a painting could not.

Nevada Territory embraces over eighty thousand square miles, but it is nearly all desert. It has just been made a state, but I see no elements here to make a state. It has mines of some marvelous richness, but it has nothing else, nothing to call people here to live and found homes. Every man of any culture hopes to make his fortune here, but to enjoy it in more favored lands. The climate is bad, water bad, land a desert, and the population floating.

Enormous salaries are paid, of course, for it takes great skill to run a mine producing half a million per month. In fact, I think the highest salaries in the United States are paid here. Last year, Palmer, superintendent of the Gould & Curry got a salary of forty thousand dollars per year! I would have no serious trouble in getting a place here with a salary of three hundred to five hundred dollars per month—men of less knowledge in my line get twice that.


1. Virginia City had its revival a few years later, however. For a popular account of the Washoe mines see Charles Howard Shinn, The Story of the Mine (New York, 1896).

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management