Digital History

Closing the Western Frontier

The Comstock Lode and the Mining Frontier Previous Next
Digital History ID 3149



The richest silver deposit in American history was discovered in 1857 in Nevada. Two brothers, Evan and Hosea Grosh, found the deposit, but died before they were able to record their claims. Henry Comstock, a sheepherder and prospector, who cared for the brothers' cabin, unsuccessfully tried to find gold on the land, sold his claims within months, and died a poor man. But the silver lode came to bear his name.

While the Comstock claim did contain some gold, miners were unable to get to it because it of an abundance of bluish clay. It turned out that the clay was silver of exceptional purity. This discovery triggered a rush of thousands of miners to the area. A railroad was quickly built and the area became one of the most heavily industrialized areas in the West.

Virginia City, a town built on top of the mother lode, was the most important city between Chicago and the Pacific in the 1870s. The population soared from 4,000 in 1862 to 25,000 in 1874. The town's six-story hotel had the only elevator west of Chicago, and downtown had 110 saloons, several opium dens, and 20 theaters and music halls.

Largely because of Virginia City's population boom, Nevada Territory was created in 1861 and statehood came just three years later. By the 1870s, over $230 million had been produced by the mines, helping to finance the Civil War and bolstering the value of the Union's paper greenbacks. But beginning in 1877, Virginia City's population began to decline, and by 1930, only 500 still lived in the town.

Working the Comstock Lode was extraordinarily dangerous. Apart from the risk of cave-ins and underground fires, miners had to worry about underground flooding. The temperature of water below 700 feet rose to 108 degrees. When miners penetrated through rock, steam and scalding water would pour into the tunnel, and miners had to jump into cages, risking death if the hoisting mechanisms failed to lift them quickly enough.

It was in Virginia City that Samuel Clemens acquired the pseudonym Mark Twain. At the age of 26 in the summer of 1862, with just $45 to his name, Clemens accepted a job as a $25 a week reporter for Virginia City's most influential daily newspaper. A year later he began signing the name "Mark Twain" to his columns. In a letter to his mother he described life in the rowdy mining town:

I have just heard five pistol shots down the street.... The pistol did its work well...two of my friends [were shot]. Both died within three minutes.

In his book Roughing It, Twain described the arduous process of refining the ore. Workers, wielding sledgehammers, broke up the ore, which was then pulverized by machines. The dust was mixed with water, mercury, and salt in heated tubs. The mercury attracted particles of silver and gold. When heated, the mercury evaporated, leaving pure gold and silver. About 15 million pounds of poisonous mercury were used to extract gold and silver from the ore. Today, the Comstock mines are contaminated with levels of mercury 26 times higher than the federal standard.

One of the earliest discovers of the Comstock Lode's silver riches was George Hearst, who later found more mineral wealth in the mountains of Utah and South Dakota and finally the Anaconda copper deposits in Montana. His son, William Randolph Hearst would become the nation's most powerful publishing baron. Beginning with The San Francisco Examiner, which his father gave him in 1887, when William was 24, he would develop the nation's first media empire, including newspapers in most major cities and a string of magazines.

In the late 1850s and 1860s, gold and silver strikes brought thousands of miners to Nevada and Colorado. The discovery of gold in Colorado in 1858 brought more than 100,000 to the area. On land that was promised to Arapahoe and Cheyenne Indians in an 1851 treaty, Denver was founded in November 1858. The discovery of precious metals in Nevada and Colorado in the late 1850s was followed by rushes to Idaho and Montana in the 1860s, and the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1870s.

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