The 2015 Annual Conference of the Mining History Association (MHA) returns to Virginia City, Nevada, June 11-14, 2015. Virginia City was the location of the first MHA meeting in 1990 as part of the Western History Association conference. It is thus fitting that for our 25th – Silver – Anniversary, the MHA will return to the Comstock Lode, site of America’s first great silver boom, for a series of events, tours, and sessions.
The venues for the conference events will be the historic Piper’s Opera House, the Fourth Ward School, and the Virginia & Truckee’s Gold Hill Depot. Program sessions will be held in the opera house. Constructed in 1885, Piper’s Opera House was the third opera house owned by John Piper, the first having been constructed in 1863. Some other activities will occur in the historic Fourth Ward School Museum, with its grand Second Empire architecture, the location of our original sessions in 1990. The Virginia & Truckee Railroad served the Comstock during the boom, and the recently restored Gold Hill Depot will be one of our convening spaces as well.
There will not be a single conference hotel. The MHA has reserved the entirety of the new Silverland Inn & Suites (67 rooms) at a very reasonable conference rate (mention the Mining History Association when booking). Also highly recommended is the historic Gold Hill Hotel located just south of Virginia City. Virginia City has nine hotels and bed & breakfasts providing a range of accommodations for our relatively small group.
The final program and arrangements for field trips are still being organized (see below). Bookmark this web page and check back as details will be added as they become available.
The entire towns of Virginia City and nearby Gold Hill comprise one veritable mining history museum. Historic 19th century buildings seem to be located in every block. The large series of cemeteries located at the north end of Virginia City tell the stories of countless immigrants who came to the area to seek their fortunes.
Technological history destinations include the Best & Belcher mine tour, which is accessed through a working saloon in the historic Bank of California building, plus the Sunday tour. Sunday's tour includes a set of very intact historic mills; and the new operations of Comstock Mining, Inc. The company and the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture own or have access to several historic mills, including the Donovan, one of the earliest cyanide mills on the Comstock.
Today’s visitors can experience a wide variety of historically-themed attractions appealing to all ages. Train, trolley, and stagecoach rides, mine tours, and a variety of museums have something for every visitor. Mark Twain might greet you at any corner. No visit to Virginia City would be complete without a stop for a refreshing beverage (alcoholic or non) at one of the famous saloons which still provide the local color of the booming mining days.
The easiest way to reach Virginia City is through Reno, NV, just 27 miles to the north. Reno is served by several national air carriers and all major rental car companies. Although Las Vegas is 430 miles southeast of Virginia City, the route of travel goes through several other historic mining areas such as Tonopah, Goldfield, and Beatty (near Death Valley National Park). Those choosing to drive from California will find that beautiful Lake Tahoe is only 42 miles west of Virginia via Carson City. Elko, in the heart of Nevada’s modern gold mining area, is 300 miles to the northeast.
Mining History of Virginia City and the Comstock
The first prospectors in the Virginia City area were groups of miners headed to the California Gold Rush in 1850. Unimpressed by the placers along the Carson River and its tributaries, they continued west to California. The discovery of the silver in the Comstock Lode had to wait for miners making the trek eastward. In 1857, the Grosh brothers, Ethan and Hosea, discovered a vein of ore on the slope of Mt. Davidson, but died before they could develop their mine. They left a trunk with ore samples and documentation with another local prospector, Henry Comstock. In 1859, Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin discovered silver while prospecting for gold in the same area. Assays confirmed the richness of the find. Comstock, remembering the contents of the abandoned trunk, used an accusation claim jumping to gain a partnership with O’Riley and McLaughlin and three others. Their discovery would become the fabulous Ophir Mine. Like many prospectors in those days, the original partners sold their shares early and did not benefit from the riches yet to be mined.
One of those purchasing a share of the Ophir was a miner from Nevada City, California, George Hearst. His earnings from the Ophir and the Gould and Curry mines became the foundation of the Hearst fortune that eventually included such other famous mines as the Ontario in Park City, Utah, the Pacific in Pinos Altos, New Mexico, the Anaconda in Butte, Montana, and the Homestake in Lead, South Dakota. The Hearst legacy continued under the direction of his son, William Randolph Hearst.
Also in 1859, other discoveries were being made in Gold Hill. These would define the southern end of the main trunk of the Comstock Lode. By the spring of 1860, the “Rush to the Washoe” was on. Eventually discoveries were made along the length of Comstock from above Virginia City to below Gold Hill. From north to south, the list of mines eventually included the Sierra Nevada, Union, Mexican, Ophir, California, Consolidated Virginia, Best and Belcher, Gould and Curry, Savage, Hale and Norcross, Chollar, Potosi, Bullion, Exchequer, Alpha, Imperial, Challenge and Confidence, Yellow Jacket, Kentuck, Crown Point, Belcher, Overman, and Caledonia. CLICK HERE for a map of the Comstock. (Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology)
Much of the mining in the Comstock took place in very unstable ground. To solve the problem, Philip Diedesheimer, a German mining engineer and Superintendent at the Ophir Mine, devised the method of square set timbering. It became a standard mining practice world-wide. As the mines got deeper, temperatures rose rapidly. Hot water entering some mines caused underground temperatures to exceed 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooling the stopes required extra mine ventilation. Ice was taken underground to help provide relief to the miners. Large Cornish pumping engines were used to remove mine water.
The wealth pouring from the mines of the Comstock supported the Union cause during the Civil War. From 1861 to 1864, Samuel Clements, AKA Mark Twain, was in Virginia City. Failing as a miner, he pursued a journalism career with the Territorial Enterprise.
In 1869, Adolph Sutro began construction of a mine drainage tunnel that would collect water from the mines and discharge it near the Carson River several miles south of Virginia City. The tunnel held the promise of lower cost ore transport, an alternate escape way for miners, and the potentially to intersect new ore. However, numerous complications delayed completion until 1888. By that time, several mines were already operating well below the level of the tunnel and ore reserves were being depleted.
The four “Bonanza Kings,” John W. MacKay, James G. Fair, James C. Flood, and William S. O’Brian rose from miners and saloon keepers to make their fortunes in mining investments and stock speculation.
Fire swept through Virginia City in 1875, destroying the business district and leaving 2,000 people homeless. Several mines including the Ophir, Consolidated Virginia, and the California lost all or some of their surface facilities. The Fourth Ward School, the Presbyterian Church, and Pipers Opera House survived.
Production peaked in 1877 but mining continued into the mid-1900’s. About 192 million ounces of silver and about 8.3 million ounces of gold were produced from the Comstock Lode from 1859-1986. Eighty percent of this production was prior to 1880. At the time of production the precious metal value totaled $412 million. At 2009 prices, the total value was about $11 billion with $3 billion in silver and $8 billion in gold. Notable discoveries include the 1871 Crown Point Bonanza which produced $35 million and the “Big Bonanza” of the Consolidated Virginia Mine which produced $111 million between 1873 and 1880. (Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology)
Although mining on the Comstock is down to just one operation, a heap leach precious metals mine owned by Comstock Mining Inc., mining remains a very important industry in the state of Nevada. In 2009, over $6 billion worth of non-fuel minerals were produced, making Nevada the number one non-fuel minerals producer in the Nation. Eighty-four percent of the value was from gold. The leading producers were Barrick Gold Corp. and Newmont Mining Corp. (U. S. Geological Survey).