20 October 2010

Money Matters: The Comstock Lode

By Jacquie Rogers

What one event influenced the outcome of the Civil War, built the Bank of California, financed San Francisco, created a new state, built a prestigious university, and pushed the completion of the trans-continental railroad? Yep, the discovery of the Comstock Lode.

Virginia City, Nevada, is on top of this momentous find--it's a great place to visit and you can go on several excellent tours. The Comstock Lode was the world's richest mining discovery at the time. People think about silver when you mention the Comstock Lode, but actually miners extracted 57% silver and 42% gold--more gold than most gold mines.

Since the 1849 California Gold Rush, prospectors scoured the western half of North America obsessed with gold fever. In 1859, Pat McLaughlin and Peter O'Reilly found gold at the head of Six-Mile Canyon. Henry Comstock, good fellow that he was, told McLaughline and O'Reilly that the discovery was on his pasture land and, well, they believed him. Same old story--the discoverers weren't the ones who made the money. But then neither did Henry Comstock.

Old Virginnie Town's population increased from about three to 17,000 in the first year. One major frustration the gold miners had was the annoying sticky blue-gray mud that clung to their shovels. When they assayed the mud, it turned out to be silver ore worth $2,000 per ton! That's a lot of money in 1859. Things really heated up around then! From Calliope:
Frame shanties pitched together as if by accident--tents of canvas, of blankets of brush, of potato-sacks, and old shirts, with empty whiskey barrels for chimneys--coyote holes in the mountain-side forcibly seized and held by men--pits and shafts with smoke issuing from every crevice--piles of goods and rubbish in the hollows, on the rocks, in the mud, in the snow everywhere, scattered broadcast in pell-mell confusion.
Lots of men who are household names today made their fortunes from the Comstock Lode, among them are: George Hearst, father of William Randolf Hearst; Leland Stanford (right), founder of Stanford University; William Ralston, founder of the Bank of California; and of course the most famous was an unsuccessful prospector who took up the pen, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.

Within a few years, the political climate back East heated to boiling. President Abraham Lincoln had a war to finance, and the Comstock Lode was entirely too enticing. The boundaries were defined and Nevada became a state even though the population was too small to qualify it.

All didn't go smoothly at first. There was much dispute and hooplah over boundaries, and in the first six years, of the $50 million of ore mined, $10 million went to litigation! And of course one of the preeminent lawyers, William Stewart, ended up in the U.S. Senate.

The Comstock Lode brought a lot of innovations: the first miners' union, advances in drilling and tunneling technology, square-set timbering (which changed mining all over the world), and lots of other inventions that were the catalyst for modern mining practices. It also made a few men rich and broke thousands.

Online Nevada
Stanford University

Jacquie Rogers writes quirky, magical romances. Available now are her contemporary western, DOWN HOME EVER LOVIN' MULE BLUES, a multi-era faery story, FAERY SPECIAL ROMANCES, and a Christmas story, FAERY MERRY CHRISTMAS. She's co-founder of 1st Turning Point, a pay-it-forward website where authors teach, share and learn promotion and marketing.