Discovered under what would become one of the most important gold camps in the West – Virginia City, on the eastern slope of Mt. Davidson, the mines would yield more than 500 million dollars of silver and gold ore during the first decades.
Gold was first discovered in the area in the spring of 1850 by Mormon emigrants on their way to the California Gold Rush. After arriving far too early to cross the Sierra Nevada range, they camped on the Carson River in the vicinity of present-day Dayton, to wait for the snow to melt.
While they were waiting, some of the men began to prospect the area a discovered gold in Gold Canyon. Even though they found some gold, they crossed the mountains were passable, sure they would discover larger finds at the end of their route. Mining continued in the area, but a camp was not established until the winter and spring of 1852–53, at which time there were about 200 prospectors in the area. Though miners continued to work their way upstream, the amount of gold found at the time wouldn’t result in a huge rush for several years.
More ore deposits were discovered in the fall of 1857 by brothers, Ethan Allen and Hosea Ballou Grosh, sons of a Pennsylvania minister and veterans of the California goldfields. However, before they could work or file the claim, both would die tragically. Hosea Grosh ran a pick through his foot, which eventually resulted in lockjaw (septicaemia) and he died on September 2, 1857. His brother, Allen, while traveling to Last Chance, California in November 1857, got caught in a snowstorm and suffered severely from exposure. Though he was found before his death and taken to Last Chance, his legs were completely frostbitten, and refusing to have them amputated, he died on December 19, 1857.
Also working in the area was a man named Henry Tompkins Paige Comstock, known familiarly as “Old Pancake.” He had befriended the Grosh brothers, and though they had not shared the location of their find with him, when Comstock heard of Allen’s death, in the spring of 1858, he took possession of their cabin went in search of their claim.
He and several others laid claim to several sections of the Comstock Lode in 1859. A miner named James Finney, better known as “Old Virginny,” discovered the Gold Hill outcropping; “Big French John” Bishop, Aleck Henderson, and Jack Yount, discovered a vein that would later become part of the Comstock Lode, but not the main one. These four men are often re-credited with the “rediscovery” of the original Grosh brothers’ find.
In the spring of 1859, two miners named Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin began to work the area around the head of Six-Mile Canyon. By June, they had hit “pay-dirt,” but when Henry Comstock learned of the find, he claimed the men were working on land he had already claimed for “grazing purposes”. Unhappy with his current claim on Gold Hill, Comstock threatened that he would take the claim, but the miners finally agreed to give him an interest in the gold find.
Comstock’s and the others’ claims started the “Rush to Washoe,” and for the next two decades, it would be the dominating event in Nevada history.
Having few resources to develop these claims and unsure of the size of the strikes, all of the original discoverers would soon sell out, without ever making the huge fortunes that would come later for men such as George Hearst, William Chapman Ralston, William Sharon, Alvinza Hayward, and several others.
Henry Comstock left the area broke in 1862 and went to Oregon, where he continued to prospect. From there, he traveled to Montana, where, on September 27, 1870, he killed himself by putting a gun to his head. Though Comstock died poor and obviously unhappy, the rich lode that he had an early part of was named for him.
Western Nevada quickly became a center of mining activity, with numerous trading posts and mining camps established such as Virginia City, Silver City, and Gold Hill. Virginia City, established in 1859 quickly became a prosperous boomtown, and for several decades, would reign as the “capital” of the lode and one of the most influential political, financial, and social hubs in the American West.
In the earliest days, the ore was extracted through surface diggings, but these were quickly exhausted, forcing the miners to tunnel underground.
The ore, however, was so soft, that the tunnels were often subject to deadly cave-ins, later solved by square-set timbering in the tunnels. Also hampering the mining activities were heavy flows of water, required for pumping machinery.
Unfortunately, little was known about silver mining at the time, but the miners and investors quickly adapted, creating new technology to bring out the large amounts of ore. These first few years were also filled with litigation as miners and corporations fought over mining claim boundaries. However, during the first six years, from 1859 to 1865, an estimated $50 million in ore was taken from the claims, even though some 20% of that was spent on litigation. The litigation, as well as the cost of equipment and improved technology virtually pushed out all of the small miners and began to make fortunes for the would-be Silver Kings.
Over the next decade, representatives of the Bank of California, based in San Francisco, acquired the vast majority of the Comstock claims and mines when the market began to decline. Represented by William Sharon, the bank’s representative in Virginia City, Sharon gambled on the district’s future and won. Eventually, they took over the other area banks and became the controlling influence in Virginia City, even building the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, which dramatically reduced transportation costs. They also built and controlled the Virginia City and Gold Hill Water Company, the first non-mining incorporation on the Comstock Lode.