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The Comstock Lode: Its Impact on the West and Mining.

Updated on February 16, 2015

The Comstock Lode is known for being the richest silver deposit on Mt. Davidson in the Virginia Range. The discovery and subsequent mining of the Comstock Lode led to many inventions and advances in the mining industry. The longer the Comstock Lode was mined the more problems the miners faced. They combated many problems and developed “state of the art” (Witters, pg. 3) mining processes. The Comstock Lode had many influences and one was its effect on the silver stock market. The Comstock Lode was a learning experience for the miners it was not a traditional Silver mine and led to many disputes. There were also several financial affects that the Comstock Lode had on the West and other parts of the Country. The Comstock Lode was full of hardships but it did have many great affects on the west and the mining industry.

In 1957 it is believed to have been discovered by Ethan Allen Grosh and Hosea Ballou Grosh. But unfortunately they died “under tragic circumstances before their claims were recorded” (Comstock Lode, pg. 1). Henry T.P. Comstock took possession of their cabin and began looking for their old sites. At first Comstock only gave the miners meager earnings a day. Then came along Pat McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley. They ended up partnering with Henry Comstock and Emanuel Penrod. The four men worked hard to dig a trench and uncover the sand that was black as soot in some parts. The men cursed this sand and threw the heavy blue, black sand aside. Then a curious miner gathered up some of the “blue stuff’ and took it to an assayer. The assayer had to repeat his test several times because of the unbelievable results. It turned out that the “blue stuff” was loaded with silver. Until this point everyone was looking for gold. This discovery led to Comstock Lode being mined for silver. It turned out to be one of the richest silver deposits.

The Comstock Lode also had an influence on the silver market. While the stock market did improve and even remain steady in part to the Comstock Lode there was stock inflation and speculation that eventually hurt the stock market. When the speculators began to realize that there was not enough money to finance even a fraction of their transactions the stocks dropped. In fact the top ten mines dropped around $18 million within twenty-four hours. Stock speculation almost put the Bank of California out of business. Inflation and speculation of stocks hurt the mines and was one bad aspect but many good things came out of the Comstock Lode.

The Comstock Lode was different than any other placed that had been mined to date. It was thought that when it came to mining silver there was one great vein. But this was not that case at Comstock. There was no clearly defined vein but more scattered pockets. A typical vein of silver ore would have been considered large at 3 feet thick. While on Comstock it was hundreds of feet thick in some parts. The usual nature and layout of the Comstock led to many disputes about claims. They were dealing with a new kind of mine all of which led to new industry standards in mining.

The mining of the Comstock Lode led to many inventions out of necessity. One of the first problems the miners faced was the collapsing of the walls the deeper they excavated. They attempted to make timbered shafts but soon it seemed there would be no safe way to mine deeper even with their fortunes in sight. They called in Philip Deidsheimer a young German engineer. He developed squareset timbering. This was a system that replaced the removed ore with honeycombs of wood. While this was a brilliant system it did create another problem. Where would the miners get an unlimited supply of lumber? J.W. Haines solved this problem by inventing the V flume. “The V flume, named for its shape, floated timbers and firewood for miles down the mountains to points close to the mines” (Witters, pg. 2). In Western logging this soon became standard equipment. Another problem they faced was as they began sinking deeper shafts the weight limit on the hemp ropes was exhausted. In 1864 A.S. Hallidie invented the “flat woven rope” (Witters, pg. 2). His invention became a standard in Western mines and it even went on to power San Francisco’s cable cars. It was not always inventions that helped the miners often times it was adaptations to current products. For instance when they adapted the Cornish pump that helped them hold off the in-rushing hot water. Ventilation of the mines was a big problem for the miners and led to many deaths. In 1865 the Root blowers gave the miners some improvements but it was not until 1872 that they had a big improvement. The “Burleigh mechanical drills driven by compressed air” (Witters, pg. 2) really helped thanks to their compressed air ventilation along with small blowers. Another problem they faced was in the mills. They tried using the arrastras method but it could not handle the complicated ores without losing half their value. This called for a better method of refinement. The Frieberg process was a slow and costly process. It was a good process for retrieving the silver but lost a lot of gold. The next development was the Washoe process to help retain the gold. “The Comstock miners’ industrialized version of the patio process” (Witters, pg. 3) did cost more but it could “produce as much pure metal in six hours as a Spanish patio could produce in a month” (Witters, pg. 3). This was “State of the art” (Witters, pg. 3) for time and would not be replaced until the invention of the cyanide process in the mid-1890s. The Railroad also benefited from the Comstock Lode. The mine’s donated $700,000 to the development of the railroad. So many inventions and developments helped to better the mining industry. These miners were determined to mine and did whatever they could to get the job done.

The Comstock Lode was full of hardships. Due to the hard working environment of the mines many miners died. The terrain also made for a hard life for the settlers and miners. But the greatest disaster struck on October 26. When the “people were roused by the clang of fire bells and whistles of the mines” (Witters, pg. 5). Within four hours most of Virginia City, Con Virginia and Ophir were reduced to ashes. This left two thousands people homeless. Luckily every precaution was taken to keep the fire from burning down the shafts. It was successful and only the Ophir mine was burned to the 400-foot level. But the people of Comstock were not beaten. In fact the city went into feverishly rebuilding. The Comstock Lode had a twenty-year boom that helped the West that was in an economic decline from the California gold fields. The Comstock boom was also responsible for building San Francisco and financing the Civil War. It was a successful time not only for monetary reasons but also for the mining technology that was invented and developed.

In my opinion thanks to the discovery and mining of the Comstock Lode there were a lot of valuable inventions and advances that helped to propel the mining industry. It was so intriguing to me to see all of the inventions that came out of necessity during that time. I found it ironic that prospectors had mined there but were disappointed by their findings compared to what was believed to be in California. So the discovery of the Comstock Lode was a long time in the making. I also found it ironic that the two brothers who found it died before their claims were recorded. I found the spirit of the miners to be inspiring. Even in the face of inhabitable terrain, hard working conditions, and even fires they refuse to give up.

In other words without the Comstock Lode many advances in the mining industry may have taken longer to exist or may have failed to exist at all. The miners of the Comstock Lode were relentless and industrious. The mining of the Comstock Lode had many consequences. Many “inventions paved the way for skyscrapers and decisions that provided the model for the private exploitation of public lands (Peters, pg. 1).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

"Comstock Lode." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (December 2013): 1. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.

Peters, Stephen H. "Mile-High Fever: Silver Mining at Comstock Lode." Library Journal 134, no. 9 (May 15, 2009): 82. Business Source Complete, EBSCOhost.

Witters, George R. "History of the Comstock lode." Rocks & Minerals 74, no. 6 (November 1999): 380. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost.

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