Do leave a comment with your email as Sawyer is giving away a free copy of her story!
The Nevada Silver Strike
The word “Nevada” conjures mostly glittering images of Las Vegas. Reno and Yucca Mountain may also get an honorable mention. But what is rarely referenced is a little known mountain in the northwest part of the state that peaks at just under eight thousand feet, a meager height when compared to the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains nearby. It is a bland and uninteresting-looking mountain, brown and barren but for crusty mounds of sagebrush and creosote, and the odd cottonwood bursting at its base. It is unimposing, unassuming, and resting upon a designated National Historic Landmark. That mountain is Mt. Davidson, and what happened beneath it changed mining around the world, stirring up a wild reputation for the west in the process.
Besides the unprecedented amount of wealth flowing from this western enclave, the Comstock Lode gained notoriety around the world for technological advancements in mining. The bowels of Mt. Davidson were full of silver, with miners burrowing more than 3500 feet underground to claim it all. That’s the length of twelve football fields below the surface of the earth and was the deepest of any mines in the world at that time. Of course, this gave way to conditions never encountered before in mining.
Miners would work in fifteen-minute increments before being hoisted back to the surface to cooling stations, where each man was allotted three gallons of water and ninety-five pounds of ice per day.
In addition, the ore was extremely soft, soft enough to be shoveled out, and the soil did not support itself. Large amounts of clay used to reinforce tresses would swell when exposed to air, closing in the walls on the miners.
Traditional mining tresses did not support the soft earthen ceilings, resulting in many devastating and deadly collapses. Poisonous gases would often flow through the tunnels, reaching deadly levels.
These and other dangers claimed the lives of at least 300 miners and maimed at least 600, prompting improvements in traditional mining processes and systems.
To combat the issue of cave-ins, German engineer, Philipp Deidesheimer, designed a support system that allowed miners to tunnel safely without fear of a cave in (pictured below). Modeled after the scheme of a honeycomb, Deidesheimer created “square-set timbering,” a sort of wooden trellis of stacked wooden cubes which supported each other. This method, pioneered in Virginia City, was soon used around the world.
|Square set timbering|
Other innovations include massive hydraulic pumping systems and stations to relieve water. However, pumps quickly became inefficient at greater depths and bulkheads, drills, and lateral tunnel schemes were employed to reroute the water.
The greatest of these tunnels was the Sutro Tunnel, named after its mastermind, Adolph Sutro. This massive tunnel traveled six miles underground to reroute water to a nearby town. Though its construction took too long and was never used, it was still an historic feat of engineering and ingenuity for the time.
With so much prosperity, the appeal of the city was infectious, and people poured in. The good and the bad. The town quickly grew a reputation for raucousness. Any western fable will likely have a true counterpart in Virginia City. Shootouts, lynchings, robberies, suicides, gambling, mad men and Madams…you name it and Virginia City had it; plenty of drama and plenty of hope and despair and everything that makes life raw and wild. Mark Twain once reflected on his days as a journalist for the city’s newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise:
“The seemingly tranquil ENTERPRISE office was a ghastly factory of slaughter, mutilation and general destruction in those days.”
You can find Sawyer on her Website, Twitter and Facebook.