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The Comstock Lode

 In 1859, The Comstock Lode was discovered in Mount Davidson, 20 miles outside of Reno, Nevada. The Comstock Load was one of the largest silver deposits, to ever be discovered within the United States. This abundant silver mine led to the rapid development of mining technology and industry, in the Nevada area. There is some debate over who actually discovered the Comstock Lode. Many attribute the original discovery to mineralogists, Ethan and Hosea Grosh, in 1857. The Grosh brothers, left their mineral samples and claim maps, in the charge of Henry T.P. Comstock, for safe keeping in their cabin, as they set off for California. Great misfortune fell on the brothers and neither survived the year. Upon learning of the brothers deaths, Comstock laid claim to the cabin and itís contents. Although, Comstock did not understand the maps and documents, left by the Groshes, he kept a watchful eye on local mine strikes, and quickly laid claim to an adjacent area when one was made on Gold Hill. The opportunistic Henry Comstock, also managed to work himself into a partnership in another claim in the surrounding area. He eventually sold his mining interests and unsuccessfully tried his hand as a storekeeper. Comstock then tried prospecting in Idaho and Montana.

Eventually disheartened by his lack of success, he committed suicide. While the original discoverers and the namesake of the strike, suffered terrible fates, many others gained vast fortunes from it, and great overall progress resulted. When the strike was publicly announced, adventurous would-be prospectors rushed to the area seeking to strike lucrative mining claims. Mining camps soon proliferated the landscape. The huge influx of prospective miners and those seeking to cater to them, quickly populated the newly founded community of Virginia City. During the boom years of silver mining, Virginia city was the largest city in Nevada, and was known as a center of wealth during the era. 400 million dollars worth of silver, as well gold ,were pulled from the area from the years 1859 through 1878. The vast wealth generated by the Comstock Lode not only spurred the growth of Nevada, but the San Francisco area ,as well. The decline of the mines, did not begin until 1874. The rapidly increasing population quickly overwhelmed the available water supply. It became evident that in order to have enough water to run the necessary steam engines, while still leaving enough for the everyday needs of residents, a new supply had to be tapped. To fulfill this need, the Virginia City and Gold Hill Water Company was created.

The company hired the engineer Herman Schussler to design a new system, to supply the water needed. Schussler oversaw the installation of miles of pipe, and constructed large flumes at the source as well as the outlet. At the time of itís completion it was considered the greatest pressurized water system worldwide. Much of the technological advancement, which occurred throughout the boom years of the Comstock Lode, involved attempts to mitigate the dangers in mining at this location. At first, ore was obtained through simple surface digging, as the surface became exhausted of ore, it became necessary to mine tunnels to get at the precious commodity. Early mining efforts were often hampered by flooding. This problem led to many technological developments in steam and hydraulic equipment, in order to pump out the excess water. As the mines tunneled deeper, the water they encountered was extremely hot. This super heated water could kill a man in a matter of seconds and made the tunnels unbearably hot. This dangerous situation, led to several innovations in ventilation technology and construction of the Sutro Tunnel.

The brilliantly conceived tunnel was the brain child of Prussian born Adolph Sutro. He ran the drainage tunnel under the Lode from the lowest point possible and ran flumes in the floor of the tunnel to drain water off. The tunnel which went through four miles of rock, was considered a technological marvel, at the time. The Comstock Lode differed from most silver deposits in that it was hundreds of feet wide at points. Though the soft ore was easy to dig, it did not supply much support, resulting in many cave-ins. The deadly problem of cave-ins was resolved by the ingenuity of a German mine superintendent named Philip Deidesheimer, who invented the square set timbering method. In this method, timber latticework was used to support the tunnels and ore exhausted areas were refilled with rubble. The use of the use of the square set method made such wide veins safe to mine, but also required vast amounts of timber. Since the region surrounding the mines was far too arid to supply this timber, it had to be imported from the Lake Tahoe area. To increase the speed and ease of transporting all this heavy timber, J. W. Haines created the V-flume. A method that used water pressure to flush the logs down from Spooner summit, where they could be loaded onto railcars. Overtime, pneumatic tools and new formulas for blasting explosives, were developed for use in the mines.

The wire cables used for the famous cable cars of San Francisco, were originally developed for use in the mines of the Comstock Lode. The hemp ropes formerly used in mining, could not adequately handle the increased strain of hauling ore to the surface, from these deeper mines. Woven wire rope was invented in 1864 to handle the task. The new stamp mill method of crushing the ore hastened processing immensely and several new ways of amalgamation, developed for use on Comstock ore, further sped processing. Most notable of these improved processes was the Washoe process, which utilized steam-heated pans, to smelt the ore. The discovery of the Comstock Lode also expedited the infiltration of the railroad system, into the region. Prior to the construction of the railroad lines in the area, large teams of mules or horses hauled the ore, from the mines. These teams also pulled wagons loaded with the necessary timber, machinery and other supplies to the mine. After the Central Railroad and the Virginia and Tuckee Railroad were completed, ore transport could be done far more efficiently. The Comstock Lode had a distinct and lasting effect, not only on the field of mining and ore processing, but also left a lasting legacy in our daily lives. It improved transportation. Methods of drainage and water supply, were enhanced by the obstacles encountered mining the deposit. We can attribute far more to the Comstock Lode, than precious ore and a population explosion.

Below a miner works the Comstock Lode and at right the Sutro Tunnel.

Contributed by Mike Champion