There were so many claims made as to what really happened, the following spring after Allen Grosh’s death in the winter of 1856, that it is almost impossible to get at the true facts. The story generally accepted was not the one told by Comstock, but, concerns two Irish prospectors who were down on their luck — Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin — who had taken up an unpromising appearing claim for placer mining not far from the Grosh discovery claim. Getting little by placer mining, they decided to dig a trench straight up the hill from the small stream to cut through some hard, blue clay and yellowish gravel they had noticed on the hillside.
At a depth of four feet, they came upon a deposit of dark, heavy soil, which sparkled with minute flakes of gold. Running for a gold pan, one of them tested the dirt. The pan contained many dollars’ worth of gold. They had discovered the top of the famous Ophir claim, the northern end of the vast Comstock Lode. Just as they were finishing the last cleanup, up rode Henry Comstock. He had been looking for a lost horse, and now galloped down the ridge in time to see the prospectors looking at the gold in the pan and yelling with joy. Comstock shouted: “You’ve struck it, boys — but you’re on my land.”
Comstock, it is believed, had no claim of any sort to the ground, but, he apparently was a foxy individual, and he had done some quick thinking. “Look here,” he said to the two Irishmen, as he swung off his horse, “this spring where you’re getting your water for placer mining was old man Caldwell’s. You know that, for there’s his sluice box. Well, Manny Penrod and I bought his claim last winter, and we sold a one-tenth interest to Old Virginia the other day. You two fellows must let Penrod and me in on equal shares with you if you’re going to do any mining here.”
The two prospectors had to agree.
Now occurred the first “freeze-out” the district had known. Comstock jumped on his horse and loped off swiftly to the little camp nearby, called Gold Hill, and found the character he had mentioned by the name of Old Virginia. This man was a drunken prospector and barroom loafer. Comstock quickly explained the situation to him and offered his horse and part of a bottle of whiskey for a bill of sale to Old Virginia’s alleged interest in the ground. After a few drinks, the old man agreed and signed a bill of sale that Comstock wrote out.
Comstock later told a story about the matter that was an artistic piece of lying. He said in his account of the strike: “I had owned the greater part of Gold Hill and had given the prospectors working there their claims. O’Riley and McLaughlin were working for me at Ophir, and when they struck the gold I caved in the cut and went ahead to organize my company. I then opened the Comstock Lode.”
The little drama, as it really was played, was very simple. Comstock, one of the most ignorant and bombastic of men, managed by loud talk and pure “gall” to make himself the most important personage in the camp when the extent of the strike began to be realized. He had never, in truth, found anything, but he claimed everything in sight. In a few weeks when miners came from all points, the big man of the new bonanza appeared to be Comstock.
Comstock was wildly avaricious when mining, and as wildly extravagant with his gold when it was obtained. He bought whatever his fancy dictated and gave it away the next moment. His only pleasure seemed to be spending money like water, and most of his companions were like him in that respect.
McLaughlin sold his interest in the ground for $3,500. O’Riley was more fortunate and hung on till he secured $40,000, but, he spent it all in stock speculation and died in an insane asylum. McLaughlin hung around the district and drank himself to death, being buried at public expense.
Two months after the ledge was struck, Comstock sold his holdings for $11,000. After spending most of this in riotous living, he went north and prospected in Idaho, later drifting into Montana, where he died by his own hand.
About This Article: This article was published in 1922 as a chapter in the book Back-trailing on the Old Frontiers published by the Cheely-Raban Syndicate of Great Falls, Montana. The book was the first in a three-volume series that published a number of stories illustrated by Charles M. Russell, which had appeared in Sunday editions of daily newspapers in all parts of the United States. The article is not verbatim as it has been slightly edited for grammatical corrections.