Senator Gwin sailed out of San Francisco Bay on the same ship as General Sumner, who was reporting to Washington. When the general learned that Gwin had approached several of his Union officers with offers to join the Confederacy, he had Gwin arrested and imprisoned. After his release Gwin went to France. Upon returning to the United States in 1865 he was again arrested and imprisoned in Fort Jackson.

Like David Broderick, William M. Gwin had come to the Far West with the ambition to become California’s senator to Washington. Both men had realized their ambition; and it had brought them disaster: Broderick’s reward was a bullet at ten paces, Gwin’s a traitor’s prison.

A number of California’s secessionists made their way south to join the Confederate army, among them David Terry and Albeit Sidney Johnston. Unionists such as John C. Fremont and William Tecumseh Sherman left for Washington to be commissioned officers,

Congress, convinced of the conspiratorial plot in California, required easterners to secure passports before they could go to California.

The Civil War had made its way west.

* * * * * * * *


The Comstock Has as Many Troubles as It Has Prospectors


They got little more from their discoveries than did their California predecessors, James Marshall and John Sutter. Because Pancake Comstock could talk more fluently about the lode than anyone else, it bore his name, yet he quickly sold his holdings for $11,000. He then ran away with an alleged Mormon’s wife and, when the husband caught up with him, bought the woman for a horse, a revolver and $6o in cash, insisting on getting a bill of sale!

Alvah Gould, half owner of the Gould and Curry mine, sold his interest for $450, then rode his horse down Gold Canyon, crying for all to hear:  “I’ve taken the Californians!”

Peter O’Riley, who first dug up gold at the spring, sold well at $40,000, but Pat McLaughlin, Penrod and Osborne sold their interests in the Ophir mine for $3,000 to $8,500. They were all surface miners who imagined they had just exhausted their claims; they understood nothing about veins that went thousands of feet deep into the mountains. Every last one of them was dogged by bad luck, even as Allen and Hosea Grosh had been: Cornstock, penniless, killed himself; O’Riley died in an asylum; Gould ended up running a peanut stand in Reno; McLaughlin, after working as a cook, died broke.

In the fall of 1859 a single street was laid out on Sun Mountain, now named Mount Davidson after Donald Davidson , the first man to purchase its ore. On this street men hastily threw up a few board shanties and tents . Old Virginia came home to his cabin one night hilariously drunk, fell at the door and broke his bottle of whiskey . Waving the neck of the broken bottle in the air, he cried: “I baptize this ground “Virginia Town.”

The name stuck, though the residents changed it to the more formal Virginia City. Having, like Comstock, earned his immortality, Old Virginia once again got raving drunk, fell off his horse and was killed.

The Indians around Coloma were right: where there was gold, there was a most carnivorous demon.

These mountains were the only spur the Sierra Nevada threw into Nevada. The area was named after the Washoe Indians, its original settlers. The prospectors who made it into Washoe Valley that fall before the snows fell bought out the old-time settlers, prospected and covered the hillsides with “location monuments” as the claim markers were called. Old Nevada settlers found themselves surrounded by outlanders, but most of the California prospectors were surface miners and when they learned that they could not work with a pick, shovel and pan out in the fresh air, but would have to dig tunnels into Mount Davidson and work like moles in the dark, they quit in disgust and went back to California.

Winter came early in 1859, catching the mining camp unprepared. Five to six feet of snow fell, cutting off Virginia City from Gold Hill, a little settlement only a mile away. There were shelters to house but a small portion of the men, who spent their days and nights huddled around the blazing stoves of the saloons, playing poker and dreaming of rich strikes. Twenty-five feet of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada this winter, blocking the road up from Placerville, turning back the most stouthearted mules with supplies in their saddlebags. On the bare hillsides and on the flat deserts of the Washoe the cattle, horses and donkeys died from cold and hunger. Men starved too, for the painfully scarce flour sold for $75 a hundred pounds, with bacon and coffee equally prohibitive.

But before the snows fell the permanent settlers of Carson Valley again held a convention in Carson City, drawing up a constitution based on that of California and electing a delegate to go to Washington to ask that Nevada be separated from Utah and made an independent territory. It was a demand the settlers had been making since John Reese, Frank Hall and the men of Eagle Station had come together at Mormon Station in November 1852. This time the delegate took with him visual proof of Nevada’s wealth: a hundred-thirty-pound piece of very rich Comstock ore.

A goodly quantity of the same ore had been sent to San Francisco in the saddlebags of mules, there being only four primitive stamp mills in operation on the Comstock. The ore was smelted into several bars of gleaming silver and carried through the streets of San Francisco.

In Washington the ore, along with Congress’ perennial quarrel with the Mormons, would earn Nevada its territorial status. The silver bars carried through the streets of San Francisco created the same excitement that Sam Brannan had evoked a decade before when he rode through the streets holding a quinine bottle aloft and crying, “Gold! Gold from the Sierras!”

By February i1, 1860, the sun came out and winter was over on the Nevada desert. By March a line of thousands of Californians was already trying to break trail in the snow. Few of the early ones got through; they died in the freezing cold, lost their feet and legs even as had the Groshes. The trail was littered with broken wagons, abandoned packs, carcasses of animals.

The first trader to reach Virginia City in March put up a tent, took in $200 over his bar in the first night and rented blankets plus sleeping space for $1.00 each to forty men.

Then the snows melted and the trail was opened. Suddenly there were thousands of prospectors making camp wherever there was water and wood to be cut, falling over each other’s monuments, spread out for miles along the hills . But there was no shallow Mormon’s Bar, no penknife mining, no easy scratching up of the day’s keep . Nor was there any way for individual prospectors to remain independent, as they had in the early years in California. Since the gold and silver had to be followed deeper into the mountain, the mines had to be industrialized at once, with heavy machinery and steam hoists brought in from California. There were a few owners with the necessary capital; everyone else was immediately an employee. Those who had trades practiced them at the mines and in the newly built mills and smelters; the others became shaft miners or returned home

With heavy supplies flowing into Virginia City , more streets were notched higher and lower on the hillside. Someone with a sharp eye painted a portrait of Virginia City in the spring of 1860. “Frame shanties pitched together as if by accident; tents of canvas, of blankets, of brush, of potato sacks and old shirts, with empty whiskey >barrels for chimneys; smoking hovels of mud and stone; coyote holes in the hillsides forcibly seized by men; pits and shanties with smoke issuing from every crevice; piles of goods and rubbish on craggy points, in the hollows, on the rocks, in the mud, on the snow, everywhere scattered broadcast in pellmell confusion.”

Board and lodging cost $4.00 a day . Wages were $5.00 a day, which did not leave too wide a margin for the extravagances of life. There were still no proper streets, only trails used by pack mules and miners across the slope of Mount Davidson. As the traffic grew heavier in the summer the trails were widened so that wagons could pass each other, and then were designated A , B and C streets, there being no Pancake Comstock or Old Virginia around to provide more colorful names. The streets were unpaved and dust-laden until the rains came, when they were mud bogs, while the trails which xvent straight up and down the mountain were more like vertical leaning ladders.

By late spring the Comstock had as many troubles as it had prospectors. Indians, outraged at the whites mistreating two of their women at Wilhams Station, burned down the settlement and killed its occupants. The first avenging force of Nevadans, grcen in the ways of Indians, walked into an ambush in a narrow valley. All hut twenty-five of over one hundred were massacred. Volunteer companies were formed in the California towns of Downieville, Nevada City and Sacramento in answer to pleas from Virginia City, where the few women and children were being protected in a quickly built stockade. The new force included two hundred soldiers and five hundred miners . It was not until they had gone hack to the same valley and killed almost all of the Paiute warriors that it was learned that the Paiutes had not burned Williams Station; it had been burned by braves from the Bannock tribe.

On Mount Davidson there was chaos. V. A. Houseworth, blacksmith turned saloonkeeper and keeper of the books of mining claims, let everyone enter his own claim. The erasures outnumbered the original entries.

Since even the most legitimate claims were vaguely marked in the unmapped desert, and because the valuable veins ran sideways through a mountain, while mining claims ran straight down, the untimbercd Comstock became a jungle of lawsuits.

It was also becoming apparent as the mine owners drove deeper into the mountainside, slanting along with their veins, that instead of growing narrower the veins were growing wider: to forty feet then to fifty, and finally to sixty feet, probably the widest veins the world had known.

Twenty-four stamp mills, manufactured in San Francisco, were brought over the mountain to the Washoe; by the end of the year their owner had sixty-four in operation. Along with the greater potential of wealth went an equally greater potential of danger, for there was constant water seepage into the shafts, and cave-ins due to the soft crumbling nature of the Nevada ore. California mining methods of putting logs across the top of other logs to support the roof would not work. As the men got a hundred feet in and then two hundred feet, the overhead pressures became so great that the logs splmtercd audi the miners were buried where they stood.

The owner of the Ophir mine called in a German miner named Philip Diedcsheirncr, then working a quartz lode in California. Diedesheimer evolved a system of propping known as “square sets,” made of short timbers cut from the Sierra Nevada, twenty milcs away, from which were built self-supporting cells, as in a beehive, each so solid that other cells could he built upon them. Diecleshcirner’s engineering solved the problem of shoring in the mines of the Comstock. He became superintendent of the Onbir

Among the first of the post-winter arrivals had been David Terry, fresh from the killing of David Broderick, allegedly carrying a commission as governor from Jefferson Davis. ..... . as soon as he could bring Nevada into the Confederacy. While waiting for secession he chose three vantage points near the Comstock and began building forts.

The first Pony Express rider came into Spafford Hall’s Station on April 12, only nine days out of St. Joseph, Missouri, which made the miners feel as though they were next-door neighbors to the East. When another Pony Express rider came through in mid-June bringing the news from San Francisco of the Republican nominee for the presidency, the miners asked each other: Who in hell is Abraham Lincoln?”

Then on March 2, 1861, Congress officially created Nevada Territory out of western Utah. Though David Terry had not realized his ambition to become governor, he had organized southern sentiment so well that when a Confederate flag was raised over the Newman-Waterhouse saloon a crowd of armed sympathizers were able to patrol the boardwalk and keep it from being hauled down. A Union sympathizer rode to Fort Churchill for troops . Captain Moore brought twenty dragoons to lower the flag and make a house-to-house canvass, seizing all arms.

In July 1861, Nevada’s first territorial governor arrived, James W. Nyc, a forty-seven-year-old lawyer who had been commissioner of police in New York City, an experienced politician and amusing stump speaker who had campaigned for Lincoln. His party of Nevada officials, all of whom he had appointed himself, consisted of old-time New York political friends.

Nevadans were so happy at the arrival of government that they fired a welcoming salute on the twelve-pound cannon John C. Fremont had been forced to abandon in the region fifteen years before.

Nevada wa s now a federal territory. Except for the fertile Carson Valley, it was a barren wasteland: tens of thousands of square miles of brown sand, sage, rock and mountain, awesome to look at, dwarfing man, unhospitable, without the resources with which a land, once opened, can build its civilization: an irreparable fact which would have a strong influence on its future.

Governor Nye established courts, appointed judges, made preparations for an election for the first Nevada territorial legislature. His first census shewed that Virginia City, which had been the side of a mountain just two years before, now had almost thirteen thousand inhabitants, among them several wives who were angry and outraged: Julia Bulette, attractive young madam of one of the Comstock maisons, had been given the honor of riding in the Fourth of July celebration as the patron and mascot of a fire company!

By summer of i86i the town which a year before had been “tents with empty whiskey barrels for chimneys” had built almost forty stores, twenty-five saloons, ten livery stables, nine restaurants, eight hotels and a hundred solid homes. The old California Emigrant Trail was widened and improved by the Pioneer Stage Company, which kept a constantly moving stream of wagons across the Sierra Nevada, carrying mahogany bars for saloons, lumber for the mills and mines and private homes, such heavy equipment as a fifteen-horsepower steam engine for the Ophir mine. The miners who the previous year had frozen and starved were now provided with all the luxuries that had reached the California mines by the summer of 1849: wines and liqueurs, tins of oysters and caviar.

The town did not yet boast a bank, though thirty-seven companies with a capital stock of $37,000,000 were working nineteen major mines, including the Savage , Gould and Curry, Yellow Jacket, Kentuck, Crown Point,Chollar- Potosi, Mexican, Best and Belcher, and some $7,000,000 of ore was being mined. Wells Fargo undertook to provide banking, paying in coin for bullion . More of this coin was needed now, for wages of carpenters, metalworkers and machine operators had risen to $6.oo a day, so much higher than the wage being paid in California that it started a migration of mechanics over the mountain.

It did have a rip-roaring newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise, with the tone an(l flavor of a wild-west mining camp . One of its reporters, Samuel Clemens, who had walked in from a neighboring but poor mining town, was rehearsing humor and elaborate practical jokes on a highly appreciative audience

After a brawl of an election, with free swinging and ballot-box stuffing, agricultural Carson City was gerrymandered into being the territory’s capital. The legislature moved into a two-story building which some earlier resident had had the foresight to build, the bottom floor a hotel, the top floor a legislative hall. The legislators covered themselves with glory by voting a library for Nevada; they also approved a petition from the Big Four’s Central Pacific to grant a railroad license across the state of Nevada, an act they would live to regret.

By fall the Comstock population was up to twenty thousand, of whom a very considerable number were a new kind of speculator. The mining laws were still wide open, any man could stake out a claim anywhere in the desert and sell shares in it for ten cents to $75 a linear foot, so long as he could find people to buy. With the nineteen big mines producing tens of thousands of dollars of bullion a month, and almost the entire population consisting of workers who would never have an opportunity to strike it rich through their own claims, a frenzy of share speculation overcame the Washoe. A large part of the inhabitants sank every dollar they owned into wildcat claims where never a shovel had been turned, the majority of them fraudulent in inception and purpose.

Because the telegraph line bad been extended from Salt Lake to San Francisco via Virgini a City , this speculative contagion was passed over the wires. San Franciscans invested their savings, buying blind into such new properties as the Bobtailed Nag or the Roote Hog or Die. Stocks were rising to hundreds of dollars per share in mines where not one dollar in gold or silver had been taken out.

With the coming of winter San Francisco suddenly woke up to the fact that it had been had . Mechanics, clerks, housewives lost every dollar they had invested . . . as did a number of the smarter businessmen of the city.

The bottom fell out of the Comstock market. In Virginia City, where every saloon had been a twenty-four-hour stock exchange, the results were calamitous. The savings of the town were wiped out. Stocks of the best-producing mines fell to a negligible fraction of their value, some selling at a penny in cash for a dollars worth of value. Panic hit the city, and the victims took the trail back to California. By the time winter closed in upon the Comstock the area was most seriously depopulated, its joy largely spent.

In December came the worst storm since Fremont forced the mountains, six feet of snow, then a long, heavy rain. A torrent swept down Mount Davidson, carrying with it a number of houses and the winter’s supply of hay and grain. The mining shafts were filled to the brim with water.

The wealth that had not been wiped out by the stock crash now vanished. William M. Stewart , able thirty-four-year-old lawyer who had practiced law and politics for ten years in California before setting up the first law office in the Comstock and cornering all the big mining suits, woke up on the morning of the flood to find his mine and mill property, valued at $1,500,000 the week before, worthless.

It looked as though the Washoe Valley would be given back to the few surviving Paiutes.



HAVING lost the western three fifths of their territory to Nevada, the Mormons made a bold move to obtain statehood: they would be loyal to the federal government providing they were permitted to govern themselves. The Mormon delegate said in Congress: “We show our loyalty by trying to get into the Union, while others are trying to get out.”

Importuned by the South to secede and have its grievances redressed as a Confederate state, the Mormons replied: “We have had our difficulties with the government, but we calculate they will be righted in the government, or we will endure them.”



Copyright @ 1956 . By: Irving Stone.

Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Garden City, New York

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