Tragedies of Gold Seekers

From Cheely-Raban Syndicate, 1922

Miners prospecting by Frederic Remington, 1880

Miners prospecting by Frederic Remington, 1880

Sudden riches often lead to madness, say old prospectors. Often, the mere idea that he has acquired a vast fortune unsettles a man’s mind. Also, tragedy in some dreadful form often stalks at the elbow of those searchers for wealth in the hills whose picks have tapped deposits of extraordinary richness. One of the most striking instances of this kind — but only one of hundreds  — was the story of Horace Tabor of Denver, Colorado who became immensely wealthy overnight from a gold strike in the Leadville district. He bought a seat in the United States senate and spent money like water. He built a magnificent theater in Denver, which he called the Tabor-Grand, under which name it was until recently operated. On the night of the opening, it is related, Tabor was entering the theater to the private box that had been prepared for him. He had with him a gay company of men and women.

Horace Tabor, Colorado Silver Baron

Horace Tabor, Colorado Silver Baron

Suddenly his arm was seized by a witch-like old woman, who clung to him while she cursed him shrilly for leaving his wife — the woman who had helped him bear the burdens of poverty — when he became wealthy. “Look there,” shrieked the hag, pointing to the splendid curtain before the stage, on which was painted the ruin of an ancient temple, with the motto beneath:

“So pass the works of men; Back to the Earth again. Ancient and Holy Things Fade like a dream.”

“Back to the earth again,” she shrilled. “A year from today you will be dead — in a pauper’s grave.”

Her prophecy was a true one. Tabor lost his wealth nearly as fast as he made it, and within a year died in poverty and misery.

Later, the American Zinc Company took over the great Silver Dyke property at Neihart, Montana, a deposit of silver ore 200 feet in width. From it, they expected to make great profits. But, the two men who prospected the mine and bonded it were both inmates of the state insane asylum at Warm Springs. They were Dick Heidenreich and Peter Erickson, old-timers in the Neihart district.

There is a well-grounded superstition among miners that ill-luck or violent death is the legacy of all discoverers of hidden treasures. The original locators of some 35 or 40 of the richest mines in the west were known to have come to tragic ends.

Virginia City, Montana

Virginia City, Montana

On July 1st, 1864, “Uncle Johnny” Cowan, Reginald Stanley, D. J. Miller, and D. J. Crab, were returning to Virginia City, Montana, after a discouraging prospecting trip in the Big Belt mountains, when they came upon a gulch that gave promise of containing placer gold. They decided to make their last cast of fortune’s dice there and sank a shaft in the bed of the creek, which they named Last Chance. They struck colors, and in four years’ time, gold to the value of $20,000,000 was mined there. Three of the four members of the party died paupers. Stanley lived to old age and ended his days in comfort in England.

Bill Fairweather, discoverer of Alder Gulch, Montana, in May 1863, whose pick tapped a stream that yielded $100,000,000 in gold, lies in an unmarked grave at Virginia City, Montana, within a few miles of where he and five companions drove their discovery stakes. Only one of the six had any money left at the end. This was Tom Cover, one of the original owners of the townsite of Riverside, California.

In Sunset Hill cemetery, on a hill overlooking the city of Bozeman, Montana, a plain marble slab bears the following inscription:

“In memory of Henry T. P. Comstock, discoverer of the famous Comstock Lode. Storey Co., Nevada. Died at Bozeman, Sept. 27, 1870. Aged 50 years.”

Pioneer Stage leaving Wells-Fargo, Virginia City, Nevada, 1866.

Virginia City, Nevada – Pioneer Stage leaving Wells Fargo, by Lawrence and Houseworth. 1866. Click for prints, downloads and products.

Beneath this piece of marble lies all that is mortal of the body of one of those adventurers of the early western gold strikes who discovered vast streams of golden wealth in mountain gulches, and who usually died in squalor, victims of the lurid life of the mining camps. On the date given on the slab of marble perished by his own hand, friendless and penniless, the man whose name is borne by the richest gold and silver-bearing lode the world has ever known —  the famous Comstock Lode of Virginia City, Nevada, which produced more than $350,000,000 for its owners, and which was immortalized by Mark Twain in his story, “Roughing It.”

The story of the discovery of the Comstock Lode begins with the coming to Nevada of two brothers, Hosea and Allen Grosh, sons of a Pennsylvania Universalist minister, who struck rich silver ore on a portion of what afterward was called Comstock Lode about 1855 or 1856, and realized that they had made an important discovery. They had no capital for quartz mining, however, and were forced to spend most of their time placer mining for gold to buy food, meanwhile neglecting the rich quartz deposits.

There is a story to the effect that a rich stockman and trader of the name of Brown had agreed to supply them with funds to develop their silver mine, but, just after, he had sold his store and was about to join them, he was murdered by road agents. Then Hosea Grosh pierced his foot with the point of his heavy pick, and a month later died in their rude cabin from blood poisoning.

Allen Grosh, heart-sick over the death of his brother, and discouraged by repeated misfortunes, at length, decided to cross the Sierra mountains to California to raise money with which to develop the silver property, which he had proved by prospecting, to be far bigger in size and richer than he and his brother had at first thought. But, he fell a victim to what was called by old-timers, the curse of the Comstock, and after being overcome in a mountain storm, he managed to drag himself to a mining camp and died there from the results of exposure 12 days later.

When Allen Grosh started on his fatal journey, he cast about for someone to leave in charge of his effects. The most available man seemed to be the placer miner, Henry Comstock, who was working on a creek nearby. It is said that a contract was drawn up, by the terms of which Comstock was to have one-fourth interest in one claim for keeping the property from being “jumped” in the absence of Grosh. Comstock agreed to live in the little stone cabin that had been built on the claim by the Grosh brothers. However, Allen Grosh, who was a well-educated man and a thoroughly equipped prospector, did not take Comstock into his confidence or tell him anything of what he called his “monster vein.” Instead, Grosh hid his assaying equipment and the memoranda of his discovery before Comstock came to the cabin, and long after his death, when his heirs searched for months to find evidence to bear out their claims to this rich mining property in court, little could be found.

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