The Dream of Adolph Sutro

Among the earliest comers to the Comstock in the white heat of its first fame in 1859 was Adolph Sutro, a Jewish cigar maker from San Francisco. A contemporary, in Washoe chronology at least, with such future nabobs as George Hearst and John Mackay, Sutro was possessed of an orderly and practical mind to which waste was anathema and the useless and unscientific dissipation of energy an abomination.

Upon arriving in Virginia City Sutro set out on a tour of inspection of the mines then operation. Profit-taking started at the very roots of the sagebrush on the slopes of Sun Mountain, and such easy access to riches had banished all thought of anything even approximating scientific mining from the intelligence of the first miners. Ophir was little better than a cut in the hillside. Gould and Curry was being worked with Mexican peons under contract labor and no attempt was being made to reclaim any but the richest ores. The waste of less valuable ores was stupefying and they lay abandoned in the dumps to the value of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Sutro’s whole being was outraged. Here, he reflected, was a profile specifically created by nature for the easy, orderly and scientific working of its resources. The ore deposits lay on a hillside whence gravity, only slightly implemented by human ingenuity, would take them with an absolute minimum of waste labor down to the millsites along the Carson River. Obviously instead of sinking shafts straight down to follow the leads and fissures in their underground progress and then timbering up enormous chambers underground, the original shafts should be supplemented by a tunnel or tunnels dug in to meet them at right angles from lower down the hillside. Through this tunnel ore could be carried by gravity rather than by the expense of vast quantities of fuel to hoist it hundreds of feet vertically to the surface. Via the agency of a tunnel, too, it would be anywhere from five to six miles nearer Carson Water when the ore emerged to the light of day and all that distance would have been eliminated by a simple gravity-activated underground tram instead of by costly teaming down the side of the mountain. The thing was so obvious as to be almost laughable.

But Sutro’s tragedy was that to the easily satisfied miners of the Comstock’s early years, his project was laughable. Why in heaven’s name, they asked, should they be put to the trouble of digging a tunnel six miles long, even if such a project were practicable, which of course it wasn’t, to ventilate shafts that were now practically open to the sky and carry out ore that already lay on the surface? The miners, who at this stage were recovering surface values, never foresaw that in a few weeks or months their shafts must sink to levels where their digging and maintenance would prove increasingly costly and hazardous and where their depth would easily justify a lateral tunnel dug in to meet them. Nor did they or even Sutro foresee the floods of boiling water which, at increased depths, could be removed only by the most powerful and costly surface pumps, yet easily could have been drained by the very tunnel Sutro proposed at but a fraction of the expense of tremendous pumping plants working night and day on a year round basis.

Five years after the Comstock’s first excitements, its name was beginning to lose its power. The greedy manner in which the mines had been operating was having is effect and, more than anything else, their output was imperiled by water. Shortly thereafter it was to be entirely suspended. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the manner in which subterranean floods were able to defeat the shrewdest and most resolute superintendent was at Ophir. Ophir was the first to experiment with steam pumps in the hope of abating the seepage which, with every foot its shaft was sunk, became stronger and less controllable. A fifteen horsepower steam-activated pump was erected in San Francisco and installed while the Compstock held its breath. The pump functioned magnificently but it was soon apparent that, despite its satisfactory performance, it would require more and bigger pumps than existed anywhere to make an impression on the underground floods. Half of the mines along the Lode were closed and Virginia was in the midst of its first great panic.

Again Adolph Sutro came forward with his proposal of a tunnel to the Carson. His arguments now seemed more valid than they had before because, besides ventilating the mines and facilitating the economical, easy removal of ore, such a bore would perhaps drain off the waters that were plunging every shaft on Sun Mountain into borrasca. But there was powerful opposition to Sutro among the mine operators who were determined never to pay the two dollars a ten royalty that Sutro proposed to charge to defray the tunnel’s cost of construction and operation. Sutro obtained articles of incorporation from the Nevada Legislature in 1865 but funds were not forthcoming from any source at all. Sutro pleaded with Congress in Washington for funds. In vain. He submitted prospectuses to Commodore Vanderbilt and William B. Astor in New York. In vain. He received encouragement in France but the approach of the Franco-Prussian War put an end to that hope.

It remained for one of the Comstock’s periodic disasters to do more than all his own efforts had availed to promote Sutro’s tunnel. In 1869 there occurred the terrible fire in the Yellow Jacket Mine which cost scores of lives and it became apparent to everyone that, had Sutro’s tunnel been in operation as a subterranean fire escape, the holocaust need never have exacted so frightful a toll in life and treasure. With the united opinion of the Comstock miners behind him, Sutro scraped enough funds to begin work on his tunnel a short distance up the slope from Carson River in the fall of 1869.

Work on the tunnel was slow. Sutro had to meet a score of crises, most of them of financial nature. The mines were booming again and a period of bonanza was earning unheard-of wealth for the operators of the mines while employment, too, was up and Sutro experienced difficult in recruiting workmen for the construction of his project. The construction of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was also a threat since its completion materially cut the cost of freighting ore down the mills along Carson River, a boon which Sutro had planned to confer on the Comstock himself.

But, despite all opposition of man and nature, Sutro by May of 1878 was working at a depth of 2,000 feet under Virginia City and only 640 feet from the nearest operations of the Lode. Sutro was personally peddling small blocks of tunnel stock to anyone he could interest but relief was closer at hand than he had dared to imagine. At the 2,000 foot level all the mines of the Comstock were again encountering floods of hot water and no pumps on earth could avail to pump those steaming tides from such depths. Four of the biggest mines, Hale & Norcross, Best & Belcher, Savage and Crown Point suddenly capitulated and agreed to pay Sutro his two dollars royalty if he could finish his tunnel before they were irrevocably ruined. Only the mines producing the Big Bonanza, the California and Consolidated Virginia, held out.

On July 8 Sutro himself fired the final charge of dynamite which demolished the last underground barrier between his tunnel heading and the Savage shaft and, stripped to the waist and sweat-grimed as any laborer, stepped through the breach. After thirteen years of continued battle he had triumphed over his enemies in the ranks of the mine operators and over the implacable hostility of the forces of nature deep underground in the approaches to Sun Mountain.

Ironically the great Sutro tunnel was completed at the precise moment when the fortunes of the Comstock and Virginia City started the last great decline from which they never recovered. But there were still many years of unspectacular activity ahead on Sun Mountain and the tunnel, which had cost more than $5,000,000, paid off handsomely and remained in useful operation until the forties of the present century when deep mining on the Comstock was entirely suspended. In one year it drained more than 2,000,000,000 gallons through its laterals and connecting passages.

Sutro sold out his interest in the property at a profit and left Nevada to become one of San Francisco’s most respected public citizens and a benefactor of many good causes, while the tunnel of which he dreamed, although of scant moment by comparison to the titanic feats of engineering which the twentieth century was to evoke, will remain for all time an integral part of the Comstock story.


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