Selected excerpts from The Big Bonanza of the Territorial Enterprise
Coworker and friend to Mark Twain, William Wright, wrote for the Territorial Enterprise during the great silver strike and development of the Comstock Lode, under the penname Dan DeQuille. A hardened and knowledgeable reporter, Wright authored many stories about the mines and activities of Virginia City, Nevada during late 1850s and continuing into the 1870s. Considered a mining expert by many—especially the miners themselves—he was invited into all the great mines which he wrote about in the Enterprise's daily paper. In 1876, Wright put together the history of Virginia City, along with his personal recollections of the town, in a book entitled The Big Bonanza, the history of the Great Comstock Lode.
Our editors' selected stories
Although occupying the western portion of the Utah Territory, the laws under which the people of the Comstock range were at this time living were of their own making. At a meeting held by the miners of Gold Hill, June 11, 1859, the following preamble and "rules & regulations" were unanimously adopted:
Section 1. Any person who shall wilfully and with malice aforethought take the life of any person, shall, upon being duly convicted thereof, suffer the penalty of death by hanging.
Section 2. Any person who shall wilfully wound another, shall upon conviction thereof, suffer such penalty as the jury may determine.
Section 3. Any person found guilty of robbery or theft, shall upon conviction be punished with stripes or banishment, as the jury may determine.
Section 4. Any person found guilty of assault and battery, or exhibiting deadly weapons, shall upon conviction, be fined or banished as the jury may determine.
Section 5. No Banking games, under any consideration shall be allowed in this district under the penalty of final banishment from the District.
At the present day (1876) all manner of gambling games are allowed by the state laws and are licensed by the state and cities. In the original documents, preserved in the old Gold Hill book of records, there are given several additional sections, but as they relate to matters not of general interest to the reader, I have omitted them. One of these provides that "No Chinaman shall hold a claim in this District."
As may be seen, the laws of the first settlers were few and to the point; they were for use, not for ornament or the puzzling of the common understanding. In each settlement were in force some such "rules & regulations" as these. The man who broke one of the rules was sure to suffer a strict inforcement of the "regulation."
On August 1859, two thieves, who gave the names of George Ruspas and David Reise, stole a yoke of cattle in Chinatown (now Dayton), and, driving them to Washoe Valley, offered them for sale at a price so low that they were at once suspected of having stolen the animals. They were arrested, and, it having been proven that the cattle had been stolen from a ranch of Mr. Campbell near Dayton, the sentence of the jury was that they have their left ear cut off and that they be banished the country.
The trial was held under a big pine tree near the Western shore of Washoe Lake at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. Jim Sturtevant, and old resident of Washoe Valley, was appointed executioner. He drew out a big knife, ran his thumb along the blade, and not finding its edge just to his mind, gave it a few rakes across a rock. He then walked up to Reise and, taking a firm hold on the upper part of the organ designated by the jury, shaved it off, close up, at a single slash.
As he approached Ruspas, the face of that gentleman was observed to wear a cunning smile. He seemed very much amused about something. The executioner, however, meant business, and tossing Reise's ear over to the jury, who sat at the root of the pine, he went after that of Ruspas, whose eyes were following every motion made and whose face wore the expression of that of a man about to or do a good thing.
Sturtevant pulled aside the fellow's hair, which he wore hanging down about his shoulders and lo! there was no left ear, it having been parted with on some previous and similar occasion.
Here was a fix for the executioner! His instructions were to cut off fellow's left ear, but there was no left ear upon which to operate.
The prisoner now looked him in the face and laughed aloud. The joke was so good that he could no longer restrain himself.
Sturtevant appealed to the jury for instructions. The jury were enjoying the scene not a little and, being in a good humor said they would reconsider their sentence; that rather than anyone should be disappointed, the executioner might take off the prisoner's right ear, if he had one.
The smile faded out of the countenance of Ruspas as he felt Sturtevant's fingers securing a firm hold on the top of his right ear. An instant after, Sturtevant gave a vigorous slash and then tossed Ruspas's ear over to the jury, saying as he did so that they now had a pair of ears that were "rights and lefts" and therefore properly mated.
This little ceremony over, the pair of thieves were directed to take the road leading over the Sierras to the beautiful "Golden state." They went, not as Adam and Eve left paradise, "dropping some natural tears," but as a pair of twin lambs are seen to depart when in the spring time the farmer has whacked off their two luxurant tails -- went dropping blood.
The first winter after the discovery of silver, 1859-60, was one of the severest the country has known. As I have already stated, there were very few buildings in Virginia City that were worthy of the name. The majority of the inhabitants lived in mere shanties and in underground caves and dens - a tribe of troglodytes.
Many men who were in the country during the summer and fall left for California before winter set in, some with the intention of returning and others cursing the country. These last were men who had for years been working in the placer mines of California and who had rushed over the mountains to Washoe as soon as news had reached them of the great wages being taken out with rockers. They supposed there were extensive placer-mines in the new region. When they found none but such as had already been gutted by the Johntowners and the Chinese who had worked about the mouth of Gold Canyon. They wanted nothing more to do with the country. They had no taste for working quartz veins or for deep mining of any kind. They lingered in the country till toward fall, hunting for rich pockets in veins of quartz that appeared to be gold-bearing, then rose up and in a flock crossed the Sierras to the more congenial hills, flats and gulches of the Golden State.
Many persons, however, remained at Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton, and a rough time they all had of it before spring. The first snow fell on the 22nd of November; it snowed all day, and four days later set in again, when snow fell to the depth of five or six feet, cutting off all communication between Gold Hill and Virginia, though the two towns were but a mile apart. The worst of the winter was between this time and the 1st of February. In December many cattle were dying of cold and hunger about Chinatown (Dayton), where they had been sent to find a living in the valley along the Carson Rover, Not only cattle, but also horses, donkeys, and animals of all kinds died of cold and hunger. Most of them starved to death. It was impossible to procure food for them.
In March 1860 hay was selling at fifty cents per pound and barley at forty cents. Men could not afford to keep horses and therefore shot them of let them wander away into the valleys and flats and take their own time about dying. Food for man was about as dear as that for beast. Flour sold for seventy-five dollars per hundred pounds in Virginia City; coffee at fifty cents per pound, and bacon at fourty cents. Lumber was worth a hundred and fifty dollars per thousand feet, and all else in proportion. None of the settlers starved, but the stomachs of many of them had frequent holidays. Fuel was scarce, it being necessary to pack it through the deep snow from the surrounding hills, where, at that time, was to be found a sparce growth of stunted pines and cedars. The stoves of the Saloons and lodging-houses were well patronized, Bean-poker and old sledge were the principal amusements, aside from talking over the great expectations that all cherished. Every man who had a claim expected to sell it for a fortune when spring came.
Little work could be done in the mines, but that little showed them to be growing richer and richer for every foot of progress made or depth attained. The excitement was at fever heat in California, and a grand rush of capitalists was expected as soon as the mountains could be crossed. This being the case, those who were wintering in Washoe, though physically, uncomfortable, were comfortable in sprit. Gold lent its hue to all of their visions of the future.
In the early part of February it began to grow warm. Many days were allmost as warm as summer, but at nights it continued to freeze. Building soon began, and in March many houses were going up in Virginia City, in all directions, and the town was roughly laid out for nearly a mile along the Comstock lead. People began to flounder throught the snow from California during the latter part of February, and early in March began to cross the Sierras in swarms. Great hardships were endured by some of the first parties that crossed the mountains, and a few persons lost their lives in storms that suddenly arose.
The early settlers at Virginis made the acquaintance of the " Washoe zepher" during this first winter of their sojourn in the town. This "zepher," as it is sarcastically termed, is a furious westerly gale which is a frequent visitant during the fall and spring months. It appears to come sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean, passing over California, and only plunging down to the earth when it has crossed the sierras. It made wild work that first winter with the frail tenements of the first settlers. Canvas houses, tents, and brush shanties were scattered right and left.
Avalanches also put in an appearance, and in March a man who was cutting wood on a hill just north of Virginia was burried by one, and his body was not recovered till the snow had melted away. Avalanches are still of occasional occurrence, and several lives have been lost and a number of buildings demolished in the sourthern part of Virginia City by heavy slides of snow rushing down the side of Mount Davidson into the western suburbs of the town.
In the spring of 1860 an avalanche that fell near Silver City covered the mouth of tunnel in which half a dozen miners were living. It came down in the night when they were all asleep. At the usual hour in the morning some of the men awoke, but, finding it still dark, turned over and went to sleep again.
Others of the party did the same. After a time all were tired of sleeping and began talking about what a long night it seemed. However, they concluded it was all right, and each again addressed himself to the task of trying to sleep the night through. All would not do, and in an hour or two they were again discussing the apparent great length of the night, wondering, also, whether of not all hands might not be unusually wakeful.
At length one of the party said he would go to the mouth of the tunnel and see if he could perceive a sign of the approach of daylight. On reaching the mouth of the tunnel, he ran his nose into a solid bank of snow. The exclamation of surprise he uttered brought all to their feet. They soon comprehended the situation. Luckily they had several shovels in the tunnel. Lighting a candle, they set to work, and in half an hour had dug their way out, when they found that it was almost sundown.
About three fourths of the prospecting miners who came over from California packed their traps on the backs of donkeys, and, driving these before them, boldly, if not swiftly, scaled the Sierras. These donkeys became a great nuisance about the several camps. All became thieves of the most accomplished type. They would steal flour, sugar, bacon, beans, and everything eatable about the camp. They would even devour gunny-sacks in which bacon had been packed, old woolen shirts, and almost everything else but the picks and shovels. The donkeys would be seen demurelly grazing on the flats and on the hillsides when the miners left camp in the morning to go out prospecting, but all the time had one eye upon every movement that was made. Hardley were the miners out of sight ere the donkeys were in the camp, with heads in the tents devouring all within reach. When the miners returned, the donkeys were all out picking about on the hillsides,as calmly as though nothing had happened; but the swearing in camp as the work of the cunning beasts came to light would have furnished any ordinary bull-driver a stock of oaths that he could not exhaust in six months.
One of these donkeys - too confiding - was caught in the act. Many of the miners used a kind of flour called "self-rising." There was mixed with it when it was ground all of the ingredients used in the manufacture of yeast powders. All the miner had to do in making bread from this flour was to add the proper quantity of water and mix it, when it "came up" beautifully. The donkey in question had struck a sack of this flour and had eaten all he could hold of it. He went down to the spring near the camp and drank a quantity of water. When we came home that evening Mr. Donkey was still at the spring. The self-rising principle in the flour had done its work. The beast was as round as an apple and his legs stood out like those of a carpenter's bench. He was very dead. Here was one of the thieves. Cunning as he had been, he was caught at last, and with "wool in his teeth."
A queer genius* thus described the donkey called by everybody in that region "the Washoe Canary"
Let it be proclaimed at the outset that ye Washoe canary is not at all a bird; and, though hee hath voice in great volumn, lyke unto that of a prima donna, yet is hee no sweet singer in Israel. Hee is none other than ye ungainly beaste known in other landes as ye jackass. You may many times observe ye Washoe canary strolling at hys leasure high up on the side of ye craggy hill and in ye declivous place, basking in ye picturesque and charging hys soul wyth ye majestic. Hee rolleth abroad hys poetic eye upon ye beauties of nature; yea, expandeth hys nostryls and drinketh in sublimity.
Hee looketh about hym upon ye rocks and ye sage-bushes; hee beholdeth ye lizard basking in ye sun, and observeth ye gambols of ye horned toad. Straightway hys poetic imagination becometh heated, hee feeleth ye sprit upon him; hee becometh puffed up with ye ardent intensity of hys elevated sensations; hee braceth outwardly hys feet and poureth forth in long-drawn, triumphant gushes hys thunderous notes of rapture, the meanwhile wielding hys tayle up and down in the most wanton manner. Hys musick does not approach unto ye ravishing strains whyche decended through ye charmed mountain of Alfouran, and overflowed with melody the cell of the hermit Sunballed. It hath, in some parts, a quaver more of Chinese harmoniousness.
A wild, uneducated species of canary was thought worthy of mention in ye book of Job, amoung the more note-worthy beasts and birds of ye earth; now, how much more worthey of description must be the cultivated and accomplished warbler whyche is the subject of this brief history? We shall presently see that he will compare favorably with any foul or beaste of whyche we have mention in the good booke. Of ye leviathan we read- "Who can come to him with a double bridle?" But, ah! who dare come to ye Washoe canary wythe a spanish-bitted double bridle, two rope halters and a lasso? Again, of the leviathan: "lay thine hand upon hym, remember the battle, do no more." Verily, I say of ye Washoe canary- lay thine hand upon hymm remember hys heels, do no more.
Of ye behemoth it is said: " he moveth hys tayle like a cedar," but when ye Washoe canary giveth vent to hys sudden inspiration in an impromptu vocal effort he moveth hys tayle like two cedars and one pump-handle.
Again, of ye behemoth- " He eateth grass like an ox." Ye Washoe canary not only eateth grass, but in ye wild luxuriance of hys voluptuous fancy, and hys unbounded confidence in hys digestive capacity, rioteth in ye most reckless manner on sage-brush, prickly-pears, thornes and greasewood.
Of ye horse: " He smelleth ye battle afar off and saith, "ha, ha!'" Now, not any horse can further smell out a thing presumed to be hidden - sugar, bacon, and ye lyke - than ye Washoe canary - then, indeed hys "yee-haw" far surpasseth the "ha-ha!" of a horse laugh. What are ye wings of ye peacock of ye feathers of ye ostrich to ye fierceness of hys foretop and ye widespread awfulness of hys ears?
Of ye horse: "He swalloweth ye ground in fierceness and rage." Now, ye Washoe canary swalloweth woolen shirts, old breeches, gunny sacks and dilapidated hoop-skirts when in a state of pensive good nature - what, then must we suppose hym capable of swallowing, once hys wrath is enkindled and all ye fearful ferocity of hys nature is aroused: Such is ye Washoe canary. Be in haste at no time to proclaim a victory over hym.
*HG editor's note: We've often wondered if DeQuille is referring to his co-worker, Mark Twain, as the "queer genius" when he introduces the Washoe "Canary" description. The mis-spellings are intentional (we didn't spell those words that way! editors) and does well at immitating the obnoxious sounds made by the mules, common in Virginia City at the time and a sound familar to the readers. The resulting humor inflected is something Twain did quite well. Today, a lasting result is that we have a description ~ written at the time ~ on the life of the miners and their daily companion. (Dec. 1998)
Owing to he break-out of the war with the Piutes and to the fact that the precious metals existed in solid quartz, and in most instances far beneath the surface, where it could be reached by means of deep shafts or long and expensive tunnels, many men who came to the country early in the spring of 1860 left in disgust.
Hundreds of prospectors came in the expectation of being able to find rich placer mines, or at least large deposits of decomposed quartz, rich in gold, which they might wash out with rockers and sluiced, as they were accustomed to wash the auriferous gravel of the California gold-fields. Being unable to find anything of this kind, except the ground already taken up and worked at Virginia and Gold Hill, these men said that, though rich, the mines were of "no extent," and made haste to return to those they had left on the western slope of the Sierras, in the Golden State.
The business of working silver-mines was then new to our people, and ar first they depended much on what was told them by the Mexican silver-miners who flocked to the country. Mexicans were in great demand. The man who had word of a Mexican that his lead or his location was "bueno," felt that his fortune was made. It has since been suspected that many of these Mexicans were but "vaqueros" from the cow counties" of California, who knew no more of silver and silver-mining than a Digger Indian. They were shrewed enough,however, to keep their own counsel, and any man who spoke the Spanish language was supposed to have mined all his days in the richest silver-mines of Mexico.
There were, however, undoubtedly in the country many old and skill Mexican miners- skillful after the fashion of mining in Mexico-and with what our people were able to learn of these men, and what they soon themselves discovered, it was not long before very good work was being done, both in the mines and in the works erected for the reduction of the ores. In the reduction of ores much that was of great practical value was learned from the scientific Germans who flocked to the mines, men who had had much experience in the silver-mines of their own country, both in mining and in the working of ores. Allthough rapid progress was made in mining and milling, in building roads and making substantial improvement of all kinds, Washoe was a region almost destitute of laws of any kind, and all carried pistols and knives at their belts, each man a "law unto himself."
The people of Western Utah, now Nevada, were supposed to be living under Mormon law, but the laws of the Saints were distasteful to the Gentiles and they would have nothing to do with them. They preferred living under some such " rules and regulations" as we have seen were adopted at Gold Hill in June 1859, or to settle their difficulties in a fair fight. Such a dislike had the people to the Mormon laws that they early began to agitate the matter of a separation from Utah and the erection of a new territory out of its western half. Delegates were sent to Congress to urge this, but nothing was accomplished, and at length the people took the matter into their own hands and determined to seccede from Utah.
A convention was called, and met at Genoa, July 18, 1859, when steps were taken for the formation of a "Provisional Government." " A Declaration " and "Constitution" were drafted, submitted to a vote of the people, and adopted. An election for governor and members of the legislature was held, and, December 15, 1859, this Legislature met at Genoa, the capitol, organized, received the "first annual message" of Governor Roop, passed a number of resolutions, appointed a few committees, and then adjourned. This was their first and last adjournment; they never met again. The silver-mines were discovered and Governor Roop and all hands had other things to think of. The new population created by the grand rush to the new mines so altered the whole face of affairs that it was considered inexpedient and impolitic to proceed further in the provisional government at that time. The discovery of silver and the rapid settlement of the country soon brought the people of Western Utah to the notice of Congress: The Territory of Nevada was created, and in July 1861 Governor Nye and a number of the Federal appointees arrived in the country and set in motion the wheels of a government that was in accord with the feelings and traditions of the people. In 1869, however, the Mormon laws were the only laws left to the people, the Legislature of the provisional government having adjourned before making any new laws. Having an abundance of rules and regulations, with that ready-reckoner the revolver, laws were not much missed for a time; besides, all were too eagerly engaged in the pursuit of wealth in the shape of mines of silver and gold to give much serious attention to matters political.
In the mines rapid advances were soon made, both in the development of the various claims and in the machinery and appliances used. Whereas the first shafts sunk were mere round holes, precisely similar in every respect to an ordinary well, now begain to be seen well-timbered square shafts of two or more compartments; the old hand-windlasses gave way to horse-whims and to steam-hoisting machinery, and large and substantially constructed tunnels took the place of "coyote holes" that were at first run into the hills.
The first steam hoisting and pumping machinery seen on the Comstock lead was put in at the Ophir mine in 1860. The machinery was driven by a fifteen horse-power donkey-engine. The mine was at that time being worked through an incline ( an inclined shaft), which folled the dip ofthe vein. A track was laid down in this incline and a car was lowered and hoisted through it by steam-power. The pump then used had a pipe but four inches in diameter, and it was hard work to keep the mine drained, even at the slight depth then attained.
In December 1860 the Ophir folks had attained a depth of but 180 feet in their mine. They were working down in the heart of the bonanza, or rich ore body, and at that depth the breadth of the ore was fourty five feet. No such great width of ore had ever before been seen, and the miners were a wits' end to know how to work it and keep up the superincumbent ground; how to support such a great width of ground with timbers was the question. The ordinary plan of using posts and caps would not do, as posts of sufficient length could not be obtained, and, even though they could be had, would be inadequate to the support of the great weight and pressure that would be brought to bear upon them. In this emergency the company sent to California for Mr. Philip Deidesheimer, a gentleman who had had much practical experience in both the mines in Germany and those of the Pacific coast.
After Mr. Deidesheimer arrived and was placed in charge of the mine as superintendent, he worked upon the problem before him for three weeks before he arrived at a satisfactory solution. He then hit upon the plan of timbering in "square sets," which is still in use in all tthe mines on the Comstock and without which they could not be worked. The plan was to frame timbers and put them together in the shape of cribs, four by five or six feet in size, piling these cribs one upon the another - but all neatly framed togther - to any desired height. Thus was the ground supported and braced up in all directions. Where the vein was of great width, a certain number of these cribs could be filled in with waste rock, forming pillars of stone reaching up to the wall of rock to be supported-up to the roof of the mine.
In 1861 Mr. Deidesheimer prevailed upon the Ophir Company to put up a fourty-five horse-power engine, and eight-inch pump, and improved hoisting machinery for the incline of the mine. the company thought this a fearfully extravagent move and were almost frightened out of their wits when this "tremendous" machinery was first mentioned. Now there is hardly anything in the shape of a mine anywhere along the Comstock range on which there is not in operation more powerful and costly machinery.
At the depth of 180 feet, at what was called the third gallery, the width of ore was, as I have said, 45 feet; at the fourth gallery it became 66 feet in width, and the miners were delighted to find that the new timbers supported the ground in the most perfect manner. At this time the ore extracted from this first bonanza was assorted as it was extracted. That which would average a thousand dollars per ton was sacked up and shipped to England for reduction, while the remainder was piked uo as seconand third-class ore, to await the erection of proper mills for working it at home. At the Mexican and other mines of the neighborhood, about the same disposition was at this time being made of the ores taken out, while at Gold Hill they had not attained a sufficient depth to reach the silver and were working their ores for gold alone, though much silver was obtained with the gold.
The superintendent of a water-mill on the Carson River, when working for a considerable length of time an ore in which gold largely predominated, used every precaution to guard against loss. In addition to the usual settling-tanks, he caused to be dug in the ground a number of pits, into which the waste water flowed after leaving the tanks.
After leaving these pits, the water passed off in a small flume, and to the eye appeared as clear as the water of the purest mountain stream. For the sake of experiment, the superintendent coated a copper bowl with quicksilver and placed it in such a position that the water in the flume should fall into it. He also placed in the flume, below the bowl, some copper riffles, properly coated with quicksilver. Although the water passing through the flume appeared to be perfectly clear, yet at the end of three months the bowl and riffles were cleaned up and over a hundred dollars in amalgam was obtained.
This mill is driven by water taken from the Carson River and carried for a considerable distance through a large wooden flume. At one time it became necessary to shut off the water for the purpose of repairing this flume. In making the repairs it was found that in many places the heads of the nails driven into the bottom of the flume were thickly coated with amalgam. Within a distance of about three rods along the flume the workmen engaged in making repairs collected over an ounce of amalgam.
As further evidence that quicksilver in considerable quantities floats in the water of flumes and streams, below the reduction - works, in a state of invisible division and yet carries with it the precious metals, I may give an aditional instance. At a mill on the Carson River one of the workmen required a piece of copper. Remembering to have seen some old sheets of that metal lying near the waste - gate of the flume through which water was brought to the wheel of the mill, he went to the spot and hauled them out of a puddle in which whey were lying. Much to his surprise, he found the sheets heavily coated with amalgam and so eaten up by quicksilver that they were as thin as writing - paper. The water pouring out through the waste - gate had a fall of about fifteen feet. It did not fall directly upon the copper plates, but in a way as to keep them constantly splashed and wet. The plates had lain where they were found four of five years. Over a pound of amalgam was scraped off them. It would seem that in these striking instances of the unsuspected floating away of the precious metals there is for millmen food for reflection, and for inventers a field of profit and distinction.
Just what becomes of all the quicksilver used in the reduction - works of Nevada is a question that has never yet been fully and satisfactorily answered. Much floats away with the water flowing from the mills, but it cannot be that the whole of the immense quantities used is lost in that way. Quiksilver in great quanities is constantly being taken into the state, and not an ounce is ever returned. When it has been used in the amalgamation of a batch of ore, it is taken to the amalgamating - pans and is used over and over again until it has disappeared. Whether it may float away with the water used in amalgamating, or is lost by evaporation while in the hot - bath of the steam - heated pans, there must be a vast amount of the metal collecting somewhere, as it is a metal not easily deatroyed. In case it is destroyed by evaporation it must condense and fall to the ground somewhere near the works in which it is used, and if it floats away in the water it must eventually find a resting - place on the bottom of the stream in which it is carried away.
It is an axiom among millmen that "wherever quicksilver is lost, silver is lost " ; therefore there must be a large amount of silver lost, as we shall presently see. The amount of quicksilver used by mills working the Comstock ores alone averages 800 flasks, of 76 and one-half pounds each; or 61,200 pounds per month. This in one year would amount to 734,400 pounds of quicksilver that go somewhere, and counting backwards for ten years shows 7,344,000 pounds that have gone somewhere - either up the flue or down the flume.
The quantity of quicksilver distributed monthly among the mills shows just how much is lost per month. None is sold or sent out of the country in or with the bullion; therefore if there were no loss the mills would never want any more quicksilver than enough to give them their first start, as the same lot could be used over and over again ad infinitum.
In 1862-3, with mills running in all directions and mines open and hoisting ore for a distance of a mile or more along the Comstock, Virginia City was a lively place. Where but two or three years before was nothing but a rocky slope cobered with sagebrush and scrub cedar were not to be seen large brick and stone buildings, and streets crowded with men and teams.
As all goods were at time brought across the mountains by teams, and as hundreds of teams were required to haul ore from the mines to the mills and to bring wood and timber from the hills and mountains, as well as to do all kinds of local freighting, there often occurred most vexatious blockages in the streets. A jam of teams would take place, owing to some accident or to mismanagement on the part of some teamster, and, teams rolling in from each side, there would be seen a regular blockade. These blockades were of daily occurence and sometimes lasted for hours. Teamsters waiting for the road to open grew hungry and, produced their lunch pails, sat on their wagon and ate dinner, still waiting patiently for the blockade to be broken.
Half a dozen stage-lines were running into the place, and these arrived loaded down with passengers - capitalists, miners, "sports," thieves, robbers, and adventurers of all kinds. Cutting, shooting, and rows of every description became of much more frequent occurence than at any time in the early days. The stages on all the roads leading to the city were frequently robbed by masked me, who halted the drivers with revolvers or double-barrel shotguns and called upon him to hand out Wells, Fargo & Co.'s treasure box. One driver was halted so often and became so well acquainted with the routine of the business that whenever he happened upon a man with a shotgun, he went down into the boot of his vehicle for treasure box. The usual plan of the robbers, after securing the treasure box, was to form the passengers in a line by the roadside, and while one masked robber stood guard over them with a shotgun, another would search them and relieve them of their coin, watches, and other valuables. After this ceremony they would be ordered on board the stage and told to "Go along."
The stages were robbed scores of times, bars of bullion, coin, and all manner of valuables being taken. It was finally ascertained that the gang who did most of this work - indeed, made it a regular business - were men living in Six-mile Canyon, only about five miles from Virginia City. They were ostensibly engaged in mining and had at least a mill, but the bars they produced were those captured in the raids upon the stages. The mill was only a blind. Without it they would not have dared to dispose of their stolen bars. The capture of stage coaches being considered not quite up to the genius of the gang, they finally took a whole train of cars on the Pacific Railroad and got a spoil of over $50,000. But this was their last exploit. All were soon captured and the greater part of the stolen treasure recovered.
On the ridge between Virginia City and Gold Hill, called the "divide" and forming the suburb of both towns was for most years was a place where footpads prowled nightly, and robberies there were of constant occurence. A belated Gold Hiller would be hurrying to his home when a man would suddenly step out from behind a lumber-pile and tell him to hold up his hands. With a cocked pistol pointed at his head, the Gold Hiller, or any other man, uniformly obeyed the order. When he was quickly relieved of his loose change and told to "Move on." A foodpad would sometimes rob three or four men in quick succession in this way, provided they happened along one at a time. They were quite industrious, and were not the men to borrow or beg while they were able to make a living by the labor of their hands.
Although a few dead bodies were found on the road, it is supposed that many murders were committed about this time, the majority of the victims being strangers in the country; yet, not a few well-known residents have from time to time mysteriously disappeared. Almost every year the remains of human beings are found in old shafts. Inquests are held by the coroner of the country, but the remains are generally so much decomposed that they can not be identified, but the witnesses summoned can only make mention of the several men known to them who at various times have suddenly and unaccountably disappeared. In one old shaft when work was resumed on it after the lapse of some years, no less than three dead bodies of men were found. Pieces of rope where found tied about the arms and legs, as though for the purpose of making the bodies up into a bundle convenient for transportation to the shaft. Many persons have also, no doubt, accidently walked into these old abandoned shafts which every where cover the face of the country, at night or in the winter when their mouths were covered with drifts of snow.
In Virginia City and other Washoe towns many goats are kept by families for the milk. There are hundreds of goats to be seen everywhere on the hills and mountains. The goat is an animal that is found of caves and caverns. The goats in Washoe constant frequent the old tunnels high upon the side of Mt. Davidson and other mountains. In many of these tunnels, at a distance from 200 to 500 feet from the mouth, vertical shafts have been sunk to the depth of from 100 to 2 or 300 feet. It often happens that the goats, in the darkness of the old tunnels walk into these shafts.
Some years ago a man living on Gold Canyon went out to look up a stray goat. He found the fresh tracks of goats leading into an old tunnel and ventured in. In walking back along the tunnel in the darkness he fell into a shaft in its bottom. The shaft was about 80 feet in depth, and we would have probably have been instantly killed but there were at the bottom the bodies of four or five dead goats; as it was, he had an arm and leg broken.
The man being missed, his neighbors turned out in search of him. They found his tracks leading into the tunnel and went in after him in Indian file. Suddenly the head man disappeared, He having in the dim light in the place stepped into the mouth of the old shaft from the groans heard below his friends knew that he had not been killed, and at once procured a windlass and rope and descinded to his rescue when, to their surprise they found that they had two men in the bottom of the shaft. The man who last fell in had a leg broken, and by his fall came so near jolting the life out of the man of whom at first came in search that when first taken out it was thought he was dead.
Many other instances - scores of them - might be given to show the dangerous character of these traps which every where cover the face of this country, for miles about the principal mining towns, but I shall conclude with the following:
A teamster, stopping at noon two or three miles from the city unhitched eight-yoke of oxen from his wagon in order to let them graze about among the sagebrush while he was eating his dinner. Although unhitched they were fastened together in a string by a heavy log chain that passed through their several yokes. The teamster, seated on his wagon, eating, was astounted at seeing his own team of cattle, then distant about 100 yards, suddenly disappeared into the ground. In picking along they reached an old shaft, round which those in the lead had passed, then, moving forward, had so straightened the line as to pull a middle yoke into the mouth of the shaft. All then followed, going down like links of sausage. The shaft was 300 feet in depth, and that bonanza of beef still remains unworked at its bottom.
The Comstock Range is a region in which a stranger should never venture to wander at night, on foot or on horseback. Even in daylight, in the midst of a driving snow-storm, a man once rode his horse into a shaft over 50 feet in depth. The city authorities have caused most of the old shafts to be filled up or securely planked over, but scores of open shafts are still to be seen every where in the suburbs of the town.
Some of the old shafts opened on and about the first or upper line of bonanzas have quite gone to decay. They still stand, but the timbers in many places, far down in the bowels of the earth, are racked and rotten; while the timbers built up in the mine to support the chambers from which ore was extracted, and set up in the galleries, drifts, crosscuts, and chutes, millions on millions of feet in all, have quite gone to decay. It is perilous to undertake the exploration of these old worked-out levels. In many places they are caved-in in every direction, the old floors are rotten, water drips from above, and a hot, musty atmosphere almost stifles the explorer; in places the air is so foul that his candle is almost extinguished.
Down in these deserted and dreary old levels, hundreds of feet beneath the surface, are encountered fungi of monstrous growth and most uncouth and uncanny form. They cover the old posts in great moist, dew-distilling masses, and depend from the timbers overhead in broad slimy curtains, or hang down like long squirming serpents or the twisted horns of the ram. Some of these take most fantastic shapes, almost exactly counterfeiting things seen on the surface. Specimens of these are to be seen in most of the cabinets of curiosities in Virginia City. Some of the fungi that grow up from the bottoms of old disused drifts are wholly mineral and are composed of minute crystals of such salts as are contained in the earth from which they spring.
These old decaying places breed all manner of gases, some of them, as the firedamp (carburetted hydrogen gas), dangerous to human life.
One winter night in 1874 some of the residents of the western part of Virginia City were startled by seeing what seemed a column of flame, 50 or 60 feet in height, shooting up from the mouth of an old shaft near the old upper works of the Ophir Company. It was at first thought that the timbers in the old mine were on fire, and three or four men ran to the spot to see what could be done toward smothering the flames.
On reaching the shaft, however, they found that there was no smell of smoke, and also that the supposed fire was a light unlike anything they had ever before seen in its weird whiteness and the strange coruscations of its component particles. In the light shed about by the flame the faces of the men were of a corpselike pallor. Their clothing and hair also partook in some degree of the same ghastly and unnatural hue. The light came up the full size of the large square shaft and, seen at a distance, as it rose through the falling snow, closely resembled one of the shooting spires of the aurora borealis, and it exibited something of the same waving and inconstant motion.
Although the men felt creeping over them a sort of superstitious awe, they still had sufficient courage to approach the shaft and gaze into it. A strange sight was there seen. The whole interior of the shaft seemed to be at a white heat and glowed like a furnace. The timbers on the sides were particularly brilliant. Each splinter, excrescence, or bit of fungus seemed darting dazzling rays that streamed steadily out in all directions. A warm, strange current of air ascended from the sweltering regions below, and there was observed a musty, sickening smell. All of those who looked into the shaft afterwards felt a severe pain in the temples, and two or three were made sick at the stomach.
This strange appearance lasted over half an hour, and before it ended, a crowd of a dozen or more miners returing from their work had collected about the shaft. The light died out from the top downwards, and protuberances from the sides of the shaft continued to glow for some minutes after the light was no longer visible at its top. This remarkable phenomenon was undoubtedly caused by the belching forth of a highly phosphureted gas of some kind from the deep underground chambers of the old abandoned works. the rush of this gas was probably caused by an extensive cave in a place where the timbers had rotted away. One of the men who witnessed the spectacle was of the opinion that the mingling of the gas from the mine with the atmospheric air had something to do with intensifying the light. He observed in the ascending current of pseudo-flame myriads of small particles of some substance of a flosslike texture, which appeared to flash and glow as they darted upward and which presented in the general column of light much the same appearance as motes moving about in a sunbeam.
No premature explosion of blasts, crushing of timbers, caving of earth and rock - no accident of any kind is so much feared or is more terrible than a great fire in a large mine. It is a hell, and often a hell that contains living, moving, breathing, and suffering human beings - not the ethereal and intangible souls of men. It is a region of fire and flame from which the modes of egress are few and perilous. A great fire on the surface of the earth is a grand and fearful spectacle, but a great fire hundreds of feet beneath the surface of the earth is terrible - terrible beyond measure of the power of words to express, when we know that far down underneath the ground, which lies so calmly on all sides, giving forth no sound, and scores of human beings pursued by flames and gases, scorched and panting, fleeing into all manner of nooks and corners, there to meet their death.
A large mine in which are employed from five hundred to one thousand men is of itself a considerable village, though it be a village far below the light of day. In it are more timbers, lumber, and other combustable matter than is found in all the houses of a town of two thousand inhabitants. It contains millions on millions of square feet of timber; in it whole forests have found a tomb.
Besides being built up to a height of from one thousand to one thousand five hundred or two thousand feet, with cribs composed of massive timbers, each crib filling a space five by six feet in size, there are floors of heavy planks, six feet apart, one above another, all the distance from bottom to top. In many places, too, the main timbers are doubled again and so filled with blocks and wedges and braces that all is a solid mass of wood. In numberless places there are stairs leading from floor to floor, and then there are scores of chutes, built of timber and lined with planks, with verticle winzes, constructed in the same way, all of which, with the chutes, lead up through the floors from level to level; also numerous drifts and crosscuts supported by timbers and walled in with lagging (split pine-stuff, like staves, but longer), all of which serve as flues to conduct and spread the heat and flames throughout the mine.
The mines of the Comstock have not escaped fires. They have not been many, but they have been fearful as experiences and have cost many lives.
The first and most terrible of these fires was that which broke out in the Yellow-Jacket mine, Gold Hill, about seven o' clock on the morning of Wednsday, April, 1869, in which forty-five men lost their lives.
The fire started at the eight-hundred-foot level (that is, eight hundred feet below the surface) at a point two hundred feet south of the main shaft, near the line of the Kentuck mine. It was first discovered at seven o' clock in the morning, though it had no doubt been burning longer, as some of the miners asserted that they detected the smell of smoke as early as three o' clock a.m. The night shift (relay) left at four a.m. and the morning shift began work at seven a.m. , and it was supposed that the fire originated from a candle left sticking against a timber by men on the night shift. From four o'clock till seven o'clock the only men in the mine were the carmen, but before the danger had been discovered many of the day shift had been lowered into the mines - Yellow-Jacket, Crown Point, and Kentuck.
The first thing done on discovering the fire was to try to get the men up out of the mines. The alarm of fire was sounded, and the fire companies of Gold Hill and Virginia City at once turned out.
Pending the arrival of the firemen with their apparatus, those about the several mines were doing all in their power to rescue the men who were left underground. At first the smoke was so dense that no one dared venture into either of the shafts, but about nine o'clock in the morning it seemed to draw away from the Kentuck shaft, and men descended on the cage and recovered two bodies.
At the Crown Point mine, when the cage was being hoisted for the last time, some of the men on it were so far suffocated as to fall back and were crushed to death between the sides of the cage and the timbers of the shaft.
Toward noon some of the firemen working at the Yellow-Jacket mine ventured down the shaft to the eight-hundred foot level and recovered three of four bodies of asphyxiated miners.
About the same time at the Crown Point mine a cage was sent down with a lighted lantern upon it. It was lowered to the thousand-foot level, and with the lantern was sent the following dispatch, written on a large piece of pasteboard:
"We are fast subduing the fire. It is death to attempt to come up from where you are. We shall get you out soon. The gas in the shaft is terrible, and produces sure and speedy death. Write a word to us and send it up on the cage, and let us know where you are."
No answer came back - all below were dead.
As soon as it was known that the mines were on fire and that a large number of miners were imprisoned below by the dense volumes of smoke and suffocating gases that poured up through the several shafts, the most intense excitement prevailed, both in Gold Hill and Virginia City. The wives, children, and relatives of the lost flocked to the several hoisting-works, approached as near to the mouths of the shafts as they were allowed to come, and stood there on all sides, their grief and lamentations causing tears to coarse down the cheeks of the most stout-hearted. "Lost! Lost Lost!" was the despairing cry constantly uttered by many of the women whose husbands were below.
The Reverend Father Manogue, a pioneer of the country, and several other Catholic clergymen of Virgina City and Gold Hill, moved about among the people and did all that could be done to comfort and quiet the weeping women and children, but even the reverend fathers could find little to say in mitigation of the woes of such an occasion. Many of the poor women, with weeping children clinging about them, stood round the shafts, convulsively clasping and wringing their hands and rocking their bodies to and fro in excess of misery, yet uttering scarcely a word or a sob; they at first seemed utterly stupefied and overwhelmed by the suddenness and awfulness of the calamity. Turn where they might, there was no comfort for them.
At the Yellow-Jacket mine the smoke and gases drew away to the southward, men descended the shaft, and all but one man known to be below at that point were brought up dead.
As the cage containing the dead bodies rose up at the mouth of the shaft, there was heard a general wail from the women, who could with difficulty be restrained from climbing over the ropes stretched to keep back the crowd. "Oh God! Who is it this time?" some one among them would be heard to say. The dead bodies would them be lifted from the cage and them borne in the arms of stout miners and firemen outside of the circle of ropes.
As the men passed out with the dead, the women would crowd forward in an agony of fear and suspense to see the faces. " Oh, Patrick!" one could be heard to shriek, when the bystanders would be obliged to seize her and lead her away.
At the Kentuck and Crown Point shafts there steadily arose thick, stifling columns of smoke and pungent gases, generated by the burning pinewood and heated ores below. No person who stood at the mouth of either of these shafts could entertain the slightest hope that any one of those in the mines could be alive; yet wives and relatives would still hope against everything. In every direction almost superhuman exertions were made to extinguish the fire.
By closing up the shafts and pouring down water, it was thought that the fire might have been extinguished, but to have done so would have been equivalent to saying that all below were dead - and would, indeed, have been death to any that might have been living. Besides, the order to close the shafts would have drawn from all present at all interested in the fate of those below such a wail as no one would have cared to hear.
No one could enter the Crown Point or Kentuck shafts, but that of the Yellow-Jacket being cooler, the firemen began to work their way down it, carrying with them their hose and bravely battling with the fire. A long string of hose was attached to a hydrant and carried down to the eight-hundred-foot level, where the fire began. It was such work as few firemen in the United States have ever undertaken, and such as now but firemen in a mining country could have done. The miners and firemen battled side by side. The firemen would advance as far as possible, extinguishing the burning timbers, and when a cave of earth and rock occurred, or the blackened and weakened timbers seemed about to give way, the miners would go to the front and make all secure.
The walls of the drifts were so heated that it was very frequently found necessary to fall back, even after the burning timbers has been extinguished, and play a stream on the rock in order to cool it down, In places boiling hot water stood to the depth of two or three inches on the floors of the drifts. Steam, fumes of sulphur, and gases from the heated ore and minerals rendered the air so bad that it became necessary to lead in an air - pipe from the main blower above to enable the men to contnue work. When caves occured, flames and poisonous gases were driven forward upon the men, singeing and partially suffocating them. Their position was one of great peril, Their only means of reaching the surface was through the shaft, and at any moment an accident might happen that would cut off from this; or the draught might change and overwhelm them with stiffing gases before they could ascend to the surface.
The situation below, when the fire broke out, was fearful. The smoke and gases came upom the men so suddenly that although they ran at once for the shaft, many were suffocated and sank down by the way. At the Crown Point the men so crowded upon the cage at first (a cage holds from twelve to sixteen men) that it was detained nearly five minutes, the station - tender being afraid to give the signal to hoist while so many men were in danger of being torn to pieces. A young man who came up on that cage told me that as they were finally about to start, a man crawled upon the cage and, thrusting his in between the young man's legs, begged to be allowed to remain there and go up. He was permitted to keep the place, and his life was saved.
As this cage started up, hope left the hearts of those remaining behind. They were heard to throw themselves into the shaft and to fall back on the floors of the mine. Another young man told me that in rushing toward the shaft, it occured to him that he might fall into it, all being dark below - when he got down on his hands and knees and crawled, feeling his way until he knew that he was at the shaft. While lying there, three or four men came running along from behind and pitched headlong into it, to their instant death. At one lowering of the cage a man who went down form the surface, finding that there were more persons below than could be brought up that trip, generously got off into a drift and put on board a young man who was so far suffocated fhat he was unable to stand. The man who did this was afterwards brought up unharmed.
Not only did the firemen go into the burning underground cheerfully, but there was strife among them to be allowed to go. To see them in their big hats ascending and descending the shafts as they relieved one another was a novel sight. It was a new way of going to a fire. Although a stream was kept playing at the eight-hundred-foot level of the Yellow-Jacket all day, at nine o'clock at night it was found that the fire was rising, and a second stream was put on at the seven-hundred.
At two o'clock, on the morning of the 8th, thirteen bodies had been recovered. Some of these were found in the sump (place in which to collect water at the bottom of a shaft, at the eleven-hundred-foot level, where they had fallen from stations above; others were found at the thousand-foot level, lying in all kinds of despairing positions, just as they had sunk down and died when overtaken by the poisonous gases.
At one o'clock on the afternoon of the 8th twenty-three bodies had been recovered. When the fire first broke out, an explosion of gases occurred near the Crown Point shaft, which is supposed to have killed several men in that direction. Wherever the stifling gas swept in upon the men, it left them dead. One miner was found clasping a ladder with death grip, his head hanging backwards. It was necessary to lower the body with a rope a distance of fifty feet to the bottom of the level. On the nine-hundred-foot level of the Crown Point mine, about thirty feet from the shaft, nine men were found in one heap. They had unjointed an air-pipe in the hope of being able to get enough fresh air to keep them alive.
On the morning of the 10th it was evident that the fire had increased to such an extent that no more bodies could be recovered - that none in that pit of fire could be alive - and at eleven a.m., the mouths of all the shafts were covered with planks, wet blankets, and earth. At noon steam from the boilers was turned into the Yellow-Jacket shaft through the air-pipe leading from the blower (a fan revolving in a drum, used in forcing air into the mines) down to the eighth-hundred-foot and nine-hundred-foot levels whence it would go wherever it could find egress.
On the 12th a few more bodies were found, and there was so much fire that the mines were again closed and steam was forced into them. Some of the bodies last taken out of the mines were so decomposed, owing to the great heat below, that in order to handle them it was necessary to roll them up in canvas coated with tar. Several bodies were in such a condition that the wives and the relatives of the deceased were not allowed to see their faces. They were told to remember them as they had last seen them in life. One woman begged hard to see the face of her husband, then to see his hair. Being shown his hair, she laid her hand on it and said: "Good-bye, my husband." As she turned away, a little girl she was leading said: "Can't I see my papa?" when the mother fainted.
On the 14th, at 3 o'clock p.m., steam was shut off from the shafts and all the work stopped. Five bodies still remained in the mines. Three days later, the shafts were opened and some explorations made. Spots of fires were extinguished where they could be reached. Almost daily they were able to get into some of the mines and direct streams of water upon some parts of the fire. At this work men were frequently asphyxiated, and then it was necessary to hasten with them to the surface. On the 28th another body was recovered, and on the 29th efforts were made to reach the bodies (four) still remaining on the upper levels of the Kentuck; but some of the men fell down insensible from asphyxia, and the attempt was abandoned.
Thus, the miners struggled with the fire until May 2, when it grew worse. The drifts between the Yellow-Jacket and the Kentuck and the Crown Point mines were then closed, and the shafts of the latter mines were again sealed. The fresh air thrown into the mines by the blowers was supposed to give the fire new life.
On May 18th, the Kentuck and the Crown Point mines were opened, and miners descended to the lower levels of both. On May 20 another body was recovered in the south compartment of the Crown Point shaft when it was found lying on a scaffold at the thousand-foot level, leaving three bodies not yet found. After this the fire again increased and drove the men away from places where they had been able to work. On May 24, it was discovered that the fire was on the eight-hundred-foot levels of the Crown Point and Kentuck mines, and the miners finally succeeded in walling it up and confining it to this space.
As late as June 23, men were occasionally brought to the surface in an insensible condition and the fire continued to burn in that portion of the mine to which it was confined for over a year. Nearly three years from the time of the breaking out of the fire the rocks in the eight-hundred-foot levels of the Crown Point and Kentuck mines were found to be red-hot. Only fragments of the skeletons of the three missing men were ever found. Their bodies were in those parts of the mines that were walled in and given up to the flames.
On the 20th of September 1873, about three o'clock in the morning a second fire and series of explosions occurred in the Yellow-Jacket mine, by which six men lost their lives and several were seriously injured.
This fire originated in a winze on the thirteen-hundred-foot level of the mine. The winze was directly over the forge of an underground blacksmith's shop, for which it served as a chimney. The fire seems to have been burning in the woodwork of this winze in a smoldering way, generating a quantity of gas, and when an assistant blacksmith approached with a lighted lantern in his hand, a heavy explosion occured. A great quantity of smoke rushed up the main shaft and hung in a black cloud over the works. When this was seen, an alarm of fire was sounded on the surface, and soon there were over two thousand persons collected about the mine. Among the wives, children, and relations of those in the mines were enacted the same heart-rending scenes as on the occasion of the first great fire in April 1869. When the firemen reached the works, the fatal mistake was made of throwing water down the shaft, thus driving the smoke and gases back upon the men in the lower levels and causing the loss of life. This was stopped by Captain Taylor, superintendent of the mine, as soon as he arrived on the ground.
About this time a man was sent to the old shaft of the mine, some distance above on the hill, to see that all was right there. Doors were shut down over the mouth of this shaft, and while the man was looking to see that these were properly closed, he took the candle from his lantern and held it over the shaft. As he did so, he saw a streak of fire flash along up a post that stood in the middle of the shaft, between the folding doors. Thinking that a quantity of lint on the corner of the post had taken fire, he struck at it with his hat to blow it out. As he did this, an explosion occurred that shook the whole town. A sheet of flame darted from the mouth of the shaft, and the man, who was still over it, hat in hand, was thrown backwards a distance of several feet.
This second explosion, which caused the solid earth to rock, not only added greatly to the terror of those on the surface, but sent sheets of flame through all the mines as far as the Belcher, a distance of two thousand feet. Men who were in the Crown Point mine at the moment stated that this fire seemed a solid mass that filled all the space about them and that it flashed toward and past them as swiftly as lightning. At the same time the concussion that accompanied the flash was so great as to knock them down and drive them along the ground for a considerable distance. These streams of fire did not penetrate into the cross-drifts, but darted straight southward along the main drifts and galleries, owing to which fact, doubtless, several miners who happened to be in cross-drifts escaped being killed or seriously injured. To add to the terrors of the situation, all of the lights were blown out by the explosions, and the lower levels of the mines were everywhere in total darkness.
Those who lost their lives died from asphyxia, while those who were injured were burned by the sheets of flame that darted through the several mines. The fire burned and stripped the shirts entirely off the backs of some of the men, and those who were touched by any part of the flame lost their whiskers, eyebrows, and the greater part of their hair.
There being several hundred men in the mines, the utmost consternation prevailed when the first explosion occurred, and the smell of smoke and gases -- a smell well remembered by the old miners -- swept through the lower levels; but the work of hoisting these men to the surface was performed at the several shafts with safety, precision, and almost lightning swiftness. Notwithstanding the excitement that prevailed all about them, the engineers never for a single instant lost their presence of mind. They answered every tap of the signal-bells as promptly and kept their eyes as steadfastly fixed upon the marks on their cables as though nothing were wrong below. The cages and "giraffes" were rushed up and down the shafts and inclines with their living freight at a rate of speed that under ordinary circumstances would have been simply terrific. But by no means was this work too rapidly performed to suit the men who were fleeing up from the fiery furnace of the regions below.
It luckily happened that the winze in which this fire raged was surrounded on all sides by solid rock; therefore when the timbers it contained were consumed, the fire died out. The man who at first approached the smoldering winze with his lantern was found lying dead at a distance of about two hundred feet from it, having been asphyxiated. Men who die of asphyxia in the mines look like living men if brought to the surface at any time within a few hours after life is extinct. Their cheeks are flushed and roseate, and their bodies are as limp as though they were still alive. With their eyes closed, they appear to be men in a fever, lying in a sound sleep. It is a painless death. Several miners who were brought to the surface in an unconscious state, and who would no doubt have died in a few minutes had they been left in the mine, assert that a sensation of faintness was all they experienced. They do not even remember falling to the ground; but all are very sick after regaining their senses.
As it would have been impossible for the small fire in the winze to have generated such immense quantities of inflammable gases as must have been consumed in the two explosions that occurred during this last fire in the Yellow-Jacket mine, many men are of the opinion that a small quantity of the gas from pinewood, mingled with gases already in the mines, rendered the whole explosive. In this instance some such accidental compound must have been formed. Common air being mingled with the gases probably had much to do with causing the explosions.
On the morning of May 24, 1874 the hoisting-works of the Succor Mining Company, near Silver City, were destroyed by fire, and two miners who were at work in the shaft at the time lost their lives. The fire was kindled by some cartridges of giant-powder that had been left lying on the boiler. The cartridges did not explode, but simply burned. They were about a dozen in number, enough to have blown the works to atoms had they exploded. They burned very rapidly, throwing up a fountain of fire. The flames were intensely bright, and everywhere the jets struck, they set fire to the woodwork. The roof and all that part of the works about the boilers were on fire in an instant.
The only men in the works were the engineer and the carman. Two miners were at work at the bottom of the shaft, five hundred feet below the surface. The engineer and carman shook the cable attached to the hoisting tub, which was at the bottom of the shaft, as a signal for the men below to come up; also shouted to them, but could not make them understand their danger. Soon the two men were driven out of the building, which was speedily consumed.
Two days later, when the fire in the timbers of the upper part of the shaft had been extinguished, a windlass was rigged and men were lowered to see how things looked below. It was not expected that the bodies of the dead miners would be found, as much earth had caved from the top of the shaft, and its bottom was supposed to be filled to the depth of twenty or thirty feet with broken timbers, rocks, and earth. Contrary to the general expectation, the men had not been lowered a great distance into the shaft before they signaled those above at stop; they then shouted up the shaft that the bodies were found. A large crowd had collected about the shaft, and when this unexpected report came up, the excitement was great.
The bodies of the poor fellows were discovered at the pump station - a recess some feet square in one side of the shaft, to which point they had ascended by almost superhuman exertions. This pump station was two hundred and sixty-five feet above the bottom of the shaft, and the whole of this great distance the men had climbed in their desperate struggle for life, with nothing to cling to but the slight cracks between the timbers walling the sides. Considering the small and uncertain hold afforded by the timbers of the shaft, their climbing to such a height was a feat bordering on the miraculous and one which could only have been performed by young and active men, as both were. Both men had died from asphyxia. Neither their bodies nor their clothing were scorched.
In the pump station they were protected from the falling brands and beams from the burning building, and there they had remained till suffocated by the deadly gases that settled down into the shaft. The face of one of the men was rosy and as natural as in life, while that of the other, who lay in the outer part of the station, was black and frightfully swollen.
An inquest was held, and the verdict of the coroner's jury was that the men who lost their lives by the fire, James Billings and James Rickard came to their death by suffocation caused by the burning of the Succor hoisting-works and part of the shaft, said fire having been caused by the combustion of giant-powder which was kept on the top of one of the boilers, and we strongly deprecate the custom prevalent in many mines of keeping giant-powder on the boilers about the works.
And well they might find fault with this practice of cooking giant-powder on the tops of boilers; also they might mildly suggest that the custom of thawing frozen giant-powder and nitroglycerine on stoves and at the forges of blacksmith's shops is a thing not to be encouraged. Several, however, have prospected about until they have found this out for themselves. It is now probably well-known in the other world, as a few of those best informed on the point have gone there.
About two o'clock on the afternoon of October 30, 1874 the air shaft of the Belcher mine took fire and was totally destroyed. The shaft was not completed at the time of the accident, but went down to a depth of a thousand feet below the surface. It was twelve by six feet in width, divided into two compartments, and substantially timbered from top to bottom. It had cost between $30,000 and $40,000 and was designed to ventilate and cool the lower levels of the mines--those at the depth of fifteen hundred and sixteen hundred feet.
As soon as the fire was discovered, the miners working below were notified, and all were safely hoisted out of the mine, It being found impossible to save the shaft, all connection between it and other parts of the mine was cut off and the fire allowed to have its way.
The fire was first discovered by persons down in the mine, but it soon made itself manifest of the surface, in the dense volume of smoke of inky blackness that rose from the mouth of the shaft and ascended to a perpendicular height of three or four hundred feet. This large column of smoke was one of the grandest sights imaginable. The air was perfectly calm, and the smoke assumed the form of huge balloons rolling upward, one over the other. This ominous cloud of smoke was visible for many miles in all directions and filled the hearts of all beholders with terror. The steam whistle at the Belcher hoisting works, near at hand, sent forth its long-drawn wail --the fire signal-- as soon as the first black puffs of smoke rose above the surface of the ground, Instantly the whistles of dozens of mills and hoisting--works joined in, and the whole air was rent for half an hour with their steady unceasing shrieks. All who saw the awful pall of smoike rise up and hang over the mine feared the worst, and all who had husbands, fathers, brothers, or friends at work in the Belcher, hastened to the mine.
Firemen from Gold Hill and Virginia, with steamers and hand engines, soon swarmed the place, but were not allowed to throw water into the shaft -- the effects of this had been seen at the last fire in the Yellow-Jacket mine. There were houses to save, all about the shaft, and to this work the attention of the firemen was turned. To attempt to describe the wretchedness and despair of the women and children gathered round the shaft and looking upon the awful column of smoke would be futile, and to the imagination of the reader may be left their joy on being told that all who had been in the mine were safe upon the surface.
After the great column of smoke had rolled upward from the mouth of the shaft for twenty minutes or more, and when a great crowd was collected about the spot, there came a flash, as of lightning, there was a dull, heavy report, which was heard at the distance of a mile, and a sheet of flame shot upward to the height of nearly five hundred feet.
Instantly the dark column of smoke was gone--was consumed in the tall pillar of fire. The flame then gradually fell back to a height of about sixty feet, and to this height it continued to rush for over an hour, with a roar that could be heard at the distance of half a mile. Pieces of flaming wood and live coals larger than a man's hand were shot sixty feet into the air and fell in such showers that they covered the ground on all sides and rolled by bushels from the roofs of buildings in the neighborhood. At a distance the burning shaft bore a striking resemblance to an active volcano. The draught through it was the same that would be seen on the surface in a burning chimney a thousand feet in height.
At this critical juncture it was decided to go below and close all of the drifts leading from the burning shaft. The main hoisting shaft and works stood at a distance of one hundred yards from the air shaft, and in the buildings at this point were collected the miners who had just escaped from the lower levels. Showers of live coals were falling upon the roofs of all the buildings about and over the main working shaft, and a score of men engaged in pouring water over them could hardly prevent them from taking fire. In the hoisting works the engineers stood at their posts awaiting orders. A rope had been stretched about the mouth of the main shaft to keep back the crowd, and within the circle of this rope stood thirty or forty miners, also awaiting orders. The cage was below with two or three officers of the mine, who had gone down to ascertain the situation in the neighborhood of the bottom of the burning shaft. All were anxiously awaiting some news from these men, as since the escape of the miners from the lower levels, they were the first who had ventured back into the underground regions.
Presently a cage -- a three-decker-- came up and stopped at the mouth of the shaft. On its lower deck stood an underground foreman. As the cage stopped, this official said: " I want eighteen men to go down to the thousand-foot level with me." The men knew that on the level mentioned was the bottom of the perpendicular portion of the burning air-shaft, but they did not know the situation at that point, nor did they know what they would be asked to do on arriving at their destination. Yet no sooner had the call for volunteers been made than there was a rush of men to the cage.
The lower compartment was instantly filled. The engineer, who stood with his hand on the lever of his engine, dropped the cage till the second compartment stood level with the floor, and this had no sooner been done than it was filled with men. The same was the case when the last compartment came down; indeed, there was a quiet struggle among the men for a place on the cage, though few words were spoken. As the six men were taking their places on the last section of the cage, a young man pulled one of them off and took his place, saying: "No, John, you've got a family."
The men were all brave, determined-looking fellows. The faces of all were calm and firm-- not a cheek was pale. While the men were filling the cage, as it hung in the mouth of the shaft, I said to a friend: "Those are all fine, brave men. See with what nerve they step upon that cage to go down into the burning mine! It may be that some of these men will never reach the surface alive, yet not one shows a sign of fear."
" Very true," said my friend, " but I don't think there is any real danger down there. The fire is confined to the air-shaft; all around it is safe enough."
" Men never go into a mine at any time, " said I, " but they are in danger; and when there is anything wrong in the mine the danger is vastly increased -- particularly when there is a fire in any of the lower levels."
" Well, but what can happen to these men?" asked the gentlemen. " these men," said I, " will probably come out all right, if no cave shall occur in the burning shaft while they are below; but it will now soon be time for the caving to begin. The timbers must soon begin to weaken."
" Well, what would be the result of a cave in the shaft?"
" It would close up the shaft and suddenly send poisonous gases through the lower levels."
Leaving the shaft and the works soon after the men had descended on their dangerous mission a thousand feet below the surface of the earth, we returned to the town of Gold Hill.
As we entered the main street of the town, we turned and looked in the direction of the burning shaft, half a mile away. No sign of flame was visible, but there rolled up from the mouth of the shaft a great inky cloud of smoke.
" See, " cried my companion, " the fire has gone out! It is all smoke now!'
" There has been a cave in the shaft ! " said I, and in less than half a minute the column of flame again darted into the air to the height of sixty or eighty feet, and instantly all the smoke disappeared.
Now let us see what happened in the mine at that time. After the fire broke out in the air-shaft, the draft, which had always before been downward into the mine (contrary to the general expectation when it was made}, changed and rushed fiercely upwards. The draft in the main shaft at the hoisting works, one hundred yards distant, which had before been upward, was instantly changed, and in it there was found a strong downward suction. This allowed the men who went below to approach quite near to the bottom of the burning shaft. They were set to work at tearing out the woodwork and pulliing up the car- tracks in a drift connecting with the air-shaft at the thousand-foot level, preparatory to filling it with a bulkhead of rocks and earth in order to cut off its connection with other parts of the mine.
While they were at this work the cave occurred in the shaft. When the mass of rocks and earth composing the cave fell down through the shaft -- perhaps a distance of five hundred feet -- it forced back, down into the mine, and out through the drift in which the miners were at work, a vast tongue of flame as fierce as that from a blow-pipe -- forced back upon the men all the heat and flame there was in the lower part of the shaft when it fell.
This deluge of fire lasted but the fraction of a minute, when it was all sucked back into the shaft by the draft, but while it lasted, it was fierce as the flames of a furnace. The men working in the drift were naked from the waist upward, and below wore nothing but cotton overalls. In a moment the flames were upon them, and all were terribly burned, notwithstanding that they threw themselves flat upon the ground. In some instances their overalls were licked from their bodies -- turned to ashes in an instant.
Nine of the eighteen men we saw so bravely descend into the burning mine were hoisted out, scarred and crisped, their clothes burnt from their bodies, and the skin peeling off in great flakes wherever they were touched. One man was brought up dead. He was not found till the next day, when his dead body was discovered at the bottom of a winze into which he had fallen while fleeing before the flames. All of those burned finally recovered, but several not for many weeks. When the first squad of men was disabled, others bravely took their place in the drift and finally succeeded in completing a substantial bulkhead, thus saving the mine. Though several caves occurred and drove them from their work, none were so disastrous as the first -- the mass of rock in the bottom of the shaft doubtless preventing a free outpouring of flame.
Although this fire occurred in October 1874, in May 1875, when a new shaft was being constructed, great masses of rocks still almost at a white heat were encountered by the workmen. These lay at the bottom of the old shaft, and there was no burning timber, charcoal, or fire among them, but they were so hot as to set on fire the timbers the miners were trying to set up in the drift run by them, and in order to work at all it was found necessary to carry a line of hose into the place and play a stream of water upon the rocks.
When we find so small a mass of rocks as can be contained in the bottom of a shaft remaining red-hot for eight months, should we be incredulous on being assured by men of science that the center of the earth, once a molten mass of rock, still remains in a molten state after untold ages?
As not much has yet been said in regard to the principal towns of the "big bonanza," I shall now devote a few chapters to Virginia City and Gold Hill, but more particularly to railroads, waterworks, lumber-flumes, and other things intimately connected with the growth and prosperity of theose towns and the cheap and economical working of the mines.
To begin, I may say that the two towns, Virginia City and Gold Hill, which were formerly over one mile apart, are now united, and the dividing line cannot be distinguished. The population of Virginia City ia a little over twenty thousand, and that of Gold Hill about tem thousand, according to the directory for 1875.
Virginia City, as had already several times been mentioned, lies along the eastern face of Mount Davidson, on a broad sloping plateau, and is surrounded on all sides by rugged hills and rocky mountain peaks. In the early days these hills were covered with a sparse growth of nut pine trees-- a sort of stunted pine, in size and form of trunk and branches somewhat resembling an ordinary apple tree-- but the demand for fuel for the mines, mills, and domestic uses swept all these away in a very few years, and even the stumps have been dug up and made into firewood by the Chinese.
Gold Hill is situated at the head of Gold Canyon on the south side of Mount Davidson, and is shut in by the walls of the ravine, along which stand the principal buildings of the town. A ridge about 200 feet in height lies between the two towns, which is known as the "divide." The divide is covered with buildings and is a fine airy location - a place where the Washoe "Zephyr" marches to and fro at will.
In 1859 there was some scattering nut pine trees on the sides of the mountains about Gold Hill, but these soon went the way of those about Virginia City, and now all the hills and mountains, as far as the eye can reach are brown and treeless. The only covering of either hills or valleys is the eternal and ever present sagebrush.
This shrub grows to a height of from one to four feet, and its leaves are not green, but of an ashen gray, much the color and much the same in shape as the leaves of the common garden sage. The botanical name of the shrub is Artemisia tridentata. Through this scanty covering of sagebrush the rocks every where rise up as though they might be the bones of the land peeping through its skin.
The first house built in Virginia City was a canvas structure, 18 by 40 feet in size, erected in 1859 by Lyman Jones, one of the pioneers of the country. Mrs. Jones was the first white woman who lived where Virginia City now stands, and her daughter, Ella, was the first white child seen in the camp. The first white child born in Virginia City was the daughter of J.H. Tilton, one of the pioneer wagon-road builders of the country. She was born on the first of April 1860 and was named Virginia. She still lives in the town in which she first saw the light.
In Virginia City are to be seen as many large and substantial buildings, both public and private, as in any town of like population on the Pacific Coast. The Catholics, Espiscopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and other leading Christian denominations have fine and costly churches in the town, and these are as well attended as the churches in any other land. The Masons and Oddfellows have fine halls and both societies are in a very flourishing condition.
There are in the city most of the orders and societies found in other large towns as the Knights of the Pythias, ancient order of Druids, improved order of Red-men, Knights of the Red Branch, Champions of the Red Cross, Crescents, Irish Confederation, Ancient order of Hibernians, Caledonia Society, Society of Pacific Coast Pioneers, too Turnvereins, miners union, printers union and several similar societies.
In the way of benevolent associations there are they Virginia Benevolent Society, Italian Benevolent Society, Hibernian Benevolent Society, St. Vincent de Paul Benevolent Society and several others. In the city is St. Mary's Orphan Asylum and School (under the charge of the Sisters of Charity), built at the cost at about $100,000, and the St. Vincent Hospital, which cost $40,000 to $50,000. In the town are five military companies - the National Guard, Emmet Guard, Washington Guard, Montgomery Guard, and the Nevada Artillery.
In the several wards of the city are handsome, commodious, and comfortable schoolhouses, and there are several flourishing Sunday schools conducted under the auspices of various religious societies. The city is lighted with gas and is supplied with pure water from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and has telegraphic communication with all parts of the world.