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Rags to Riches

The following text is from the Rags to Riches to Rags exhibit on display at the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum in Virginia City, Nevada, during its 2004 open season.

The gold and silver discoveries of the American West captivated those who dreamed of fabulous wealth. A timely mineral strike might turn a poor prospector into a millionaire. A twist of fate could replace affluence with poverty. Mining, with its opportunity for immense prosperity or complete ruin, was the nineteenth-century version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. In Nevada, the familiar rags to riches stories found a home on the Comstock Lode, where fortunes were made ~ and lost ~ overnight.

In 1859, area prospectors discovered the great Comstock Lode, and the “Rush to Washoe” began. As news of the gold and silver strike reached California, fortune-seekers from every profession hurried over the Sierra, settling on the eastern slope of Mt. Davidson. Soon, the tent cities of “Virginia” and Gold Hill swelled into a thriving mining district. Most of the first claimants sold out for several thousand dollars, thinking themselves rich beyond imagination. Those who made the Comstock their home held on to the hope that a claim, the right stock purchase, or a well-timed business investment would yield wealth. For every success, there were countless hard luck tales.

Newcomers to the Comstock Lode found a desolate landscape, a harsh climate, unsuitable drinking water, and meager accommodations. Ambitious entrepreneurs set up crude tents where they offered whiskey and refuge from the turbulent winds known as “Washoe Zephyrs.” Many of the region’s first prospectors came from the California gold country where everyone with a pick and shovel was an equal player in nature’s lottery. In Nevada, they found fabulous deposits of gold and silver, but only a few profitable mines controlled the wealth. For the Comstock’s newest residents, playing the stock market or buying marginal claims kindled a dream of riches rarely realized. With their hopes crushed, many became wage earners in the emerging industrial complex. Others left to spend their lives as drifters searching for the next big bonanza. Primitive times yielded crude technologies, especially at first. Arrastras, simple mills based on sixteenth-century Spanish methods, were the earliest means of processing valuable ores.

Hosea B. and Ethan Allan Grosh were among the miners drawn to the western Great Basin in the 1850s, chasing the illusive prosperity of precious metals. The brothers discovered a promising vein of silver in early 1857 while prospecting in Gold Canyon near present-day Silver City. They believed they were about to make a fortune when tragedy struck. Hosea punctured his foot with a miner’s pick and died from an infection a few weeks later. In late 1857, Ethan Allan decided to cross the Sierra to look for investors. He perished in a sudden winter storm. Such were the risks and misfortunes of their day. Though they never saw the riches, the Grosh brothers knew they were close.

After the 1859 mineral discovery, several miners shared the gold and silver emerging from the ground. They made high wages, but when newcomers called “California Rock Sharps” arrived, prospectors including James “Old Virginny” Finney, who named Virginia City, and Henry H. P. “Pancake” Comstock eagerly sold their claims. Common sense predicted the ore body would soon pinch out. The early miners settled for several thousand dollars each. Later, they cursed themselves for allowing millions to slip away. Impoverished and regarded as a drunken fool, Finney fell off a horse in 1861 and broke his neck. In 1870, Comstock shot himself, dying in relative obscurity in Montana. Finney, Comstock, and others actually held some of the wealth, unlike the Grosh brothers, who only saw it. However, they sold out too soon.

In the Comstock mining district, the appearance of stability was critical for corporations selling stocks to cover the expense of running their operations. The public needed to believe in a prosperous future. Highly paid miners along with an international array of investors purchased shares of mines as “feet” and eventually as stocks. Many speculators cashed out at high marks, claiming lucrative jackpots similar to the dot-com bonanzas of recent years.

The opportunity to make a quick fortune fueled a stock-buying frenzy that drove prices up and encouraged others to take the gamble. Most, however, rode the rollercoaster as reports fluctuated between bonanza and its opposite, borrasca.

In 1861, African American artist Grafton Brown captured the robust mining community of Virginia City. Solid wood structures replaced the haphazard array of frame shanties and canvas tents as the crude mining camp transformed into a sophisticated industrial metropolis.

The constant din of hoisting works, pumps, and stamp mills furnished the backdrop as a mining legend sank deep roots. Hundreds of people dreamed of wealth as fortunes rose only to despair when their hopes turned to rags. But for every downturn, the Comstock engines continued their roar, and for twenty years the next bonanza was just around the corner.

The prospectors who came to the eastern slope of the Sierra from the California Gold Country in the 1850s brought their meager belongings, crude tents for shelter, and a technology better suited to placer mining. The miner’s life required patience, tenacity, and luck. Illustrations of the Gold Rush era depict tranquil settings where prospectors pan for gold, crush their mineral finds with arrastras, and use rockers or longtoms to separate valuable minerals from worthless dirt.

This approach yielded profits in the Great Basin’s Gold Canyon until the late 1850s when surface ores were depleted. Miners soon discovered that Comstock riches lay deep underground, calling for a new technology.

Silver in Washoe! Not gold now, you silly men of Gold Bluff; you Kern Riverites; you daring explorers of British Columbia! But SILVER ~ solid, pure SILVER! Beds of it ten thousand feet deep! Acres of it! miles of it! hundreds of millions of dollars poking their backs up out of the earth ready to be pocketed! Let us be off! Now is the time! A pack-mule, pick and shovel, hammer and frying pan will do. You need nothing more.

J. Ross Browne A Peep at Washoe, 1860 Manufactured furnishings were rare during the 1850s when placer miners worked Gold Canyon. Homemade furniture, for example chairs, provided some comfort in a region short on luxuries. Miners prepared their humble meals in cast iron pots suspended over an open fire. Coffee was transported in bean form and had to be ground. Lighting was generally provided by candles. Toys tended to be simple and small like hand-carved horses and marbles. Early technology relied on crude implements made and repaired with basic hand tools. Prospectors used pans to test sand deposits for gold. A sluice box gave miners a cheap way to separate gold from dirt. As mining operations became more complex, some of the miners’ tools remained simple. A candlestick holder was easily crafted and inexpensive. The Comstock’s well-to-do spared no expense when they furnished their mansions. A lavish Victorian parlor displayed luxuriously upholstered arm chairs and fancy curio shelves. Gilded porcelain vases and silver serving pieces crafted from Comstock riches conveyed opulence.

Daughters of the wealthy played with imported dolls. More ornate toys for boys suffered from use while dolls often survived as cherished relics of youth. Lighting had advanced to kerosene lamps, and even gas and electric. Comstockers enjoyed the delicacy of live oysters from both coasts, especially after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. During times of borrasca, Comstock residents could not afford to replace household goods and furnishings. Chairs that once symbolized riches were now held together with baling wire. Aging kitchenware also showed the signs of repair. Once beautiful oil lamps might only have a cork for a filler cap. Toys became rusted, cracked, and repaired, but always loved.

The Comstock suffered its first downturn in the early 1860s. Pessimists believed it was a sign of the district’s end, but Virginia City was far from finished. Miners found new ore bodies, attracting more people and producing greater profits. By the early 1870s, the Comstock had grown into a dynamic community with an ethnically diverse population, fine educational facilities and churches, lucrative businesses, and gracious homes. In 1873, Virginia City became internationally famous for the Big Bonanza, the enormous strike that made the Big Four ~ Mackay, Fair, Flood and O’Brien ~ phenomenally wealthy.

Comstock mines yielded roughly $360 million or the equivalent of several billion dollars today. Riches seemed to pour from the earth.

In 1859, George Hearst borrowed $3000 to acquire the Gould & Curry mining claim before prices inflated. He was an instant success. Under Hearst’s direction, the mine built a superintendent’s house visible from the windows of this gallery. Bonanza king John Mackay later acquired the D Street property. Hearst knew that wealth in a mining district could be fleeting. Having enjoyed several years of profit, he left with nearly $100,000, the core of future investments in Utah, South Dakota, and Montana. With his Comstock start, Hearst acquired the foundation for a legendary financial empire.

By 1864, corporations exploited the Comstock, replacing individual miners. William C. Ralston, a California businessman with early Comstock investments, organized the Bank of California to monopolize the district and seize its profits. With the help of the Bank’s shrewd local agent, William Sharon, the institution controlled critical aspects of the local economy. The Bank Crowd dominated the Comstock for several years. Its crowning achievement, the Virginia and Truckee Railroad, linked Virginia City to the Transcontinental Railroad in 1872. Originally called the Virginia, Carson, and Truckee River Railroad, the line helped the Bank of California tie together mills, mines, and sources of supplies, enhancing its monopoly. Comstockers quickly dubbed it the “Very Crooked and Terribly Rough Railroad.”

By the early 1870s, a reversal of fortunes forced the Bank of California into a downward spiral. By then, a new set of entrepreneurs were taking control of the mining district as the Bank confronted increasing financial difficulties. It finally closed in 1875.

Lemuel “Sandy” and Eilley Orrum Bowers were the Comstock’s first millionaires. A Scottish immigrant, Eilley earned a modest living as a boarding house operator when she married Sandy. They combined their interests in a lucrative Gold Hill claim, and made a fortune in 1859. After spending most of their riches on a lavish mansion in Washoe Valley, Eilley and Sandy traveled to Europe to purchase opulent furnishings. They hoped to take English high society by storm. According to tradition, Queen Victoria refused to meet them. Disappointed, the couple returned to Nevada, and an uncertain future. Look for the conclusion to their story later in the exhibit.

The discovery of the Big Bonanza in 1873 was the climax of the rise of two Irish immigrants, John W. Mackay and James G. Fair. Both came to Virginia City without wealth. They became two of the richest men in the world. According to legend, John Mackay arrived in Virginia City with nothing in his pockets. After working in the mines, he made his first fortune through shrewd stock investments and the acquisition of mining claims. Between 1866 and 1868 he excavated the Kentuck in Gold Hill, relying on little more than his own shovel and a hand winch.

Mackay’s reward was over three million dollars in gold and silver. He and Fair formed a partnership with former San Francisco saloon keepers, James C. Flood and William S. O’Brien, also native sons of Ireland. They discovered the Big Bonanza in 1873, one of the world’s largest gold and silver ore bodies.

Residents of the Comstock watched the millionaires around them, looking for signs of corruption. The public regarded John Mackay as a humble, honest miner unspoiled by wealth while the greedy and deceitful James Fair epitomized the negative potential of sudden riches. The community also scrutinized the two men’s spouses. Many believed that prosperity had turned Marie Louise Mackay into a conceited, extravagant person who looked down upon Nevada. In contrast, Theresa Fair won popular sympathy during her divorce from her philandering husband. Mrs. Fair’s donations to the Catholic Church were remembered as evidence of her kindness.

While immense wealth and fame came to a few residents such as the Mackays and the Fairs, others lived in grinding poverty. In 1886, a diphtheria epidemic claimed the lives of the young daughters of impoverished Irish immigrants John and Mary O’Keefe. Maggie, Elizabeth, and Nellie perished within three days after playing near a stagnant pond filled with sewage. Like so many who came to the Comstock hoping for a taste of riches, the O’Keefes never moved beyond rags.

In the early 1860s, Adolph Sutro found an ingenious way to monopolize the Comstock. He proposed a tunnel nearly four miles long that would provide easy access to deep mines, allow for much needed ventilation, and drain the shafts of water while transporting miners and ore for a small fee. The Bank of California blocked Sutro, refusing to give up its control of the Comstock. Construction finally began in 1869 after Sutro exploited the disastrous Yellow Jacket Mine fire by asserting that his tunnel would have saved lives.

Excitement over the completion of the tunnel reached a peak in 1878, inspiring yet another stock market frenzy. But insiders recognized that the mines had descended far below the tunnel intersection point making the project nearly worthless. Sutro sold his stocks at their height and with his fortune, retired to San Francisco before the bulk of shareholders realized they held little but thin air.

In the early 1860s, a stock prospectus for the famed Gould & Curry Silver Mining Company boasted lithographs of its cutting edge technology. Comstock mines and mills established industry standards used internationally for the next fifty years. The images invited investors to capitalize on the dynamic combination of ingenuity and natural resources, and when gold and silver poured from the mills, prosperity touched thousands of people.

At a minimum wage of $4 per day for underground work, miners enjoyed salaries the envy of the industrial world. But for all their good fortune, laborers made millionaires of mine owners and stock holders. Injury, death, and a lack of benefits left many working-class families destitute.

The extraordinary Comstock Lode exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations by expanding underground into a gold and silver vein up to sixty feet wide. Baffled miners could not imagine how to support the cavern created by excavating such riches, but leaving the wealth behind was not an option. In 1860, the Ophir Mine hired Philipp Deidesheimer, a young German engineer, to solve the problem.

Deidesheimer developed supports known as square-set timbering. It called for modular cubes roughly six feet tall by five feet wide that could expand in every direction to shore up any space. Filling the cubes with waste rock added stability, eliminating the cost of hoisting debris to the surface. Square-set timbers were a pivotal invention that made the Comstock mines possible, and Deidesheimer’s genius became the international industry standard for the next fifty years.

Unfortunately, the young engineer let a fortune slip through his fingers. Millions of dollars were invested in square set systems around the world, but Deidesheimer never received a dime as he had neglected to patent his design.

When an immense fire destroyed the heart of Virginia City in late 1875, residents vowed to rebuild on a scale that would show the world that the Comstock was still a land of opportunity with a bright future. Throughout 1876, Virginia City was the scene of a construction boom with the height of Victorian architectural designs dotting the landscape. The new Fourth Ward School and International Hotel featured the distinctive Second Empire style while the Storey County Courthouse conveyed stability with its Italianate facade.

Private mansions displayed prosperity as well. Residents in Gold Hill and on the upper streets of Virginia City including along B Street’s “Millionaire’s Row” chose opulent architectural styles and well-appointed interiors. Names like Mackay, Jones, King, and Graves meant affluence, which their homes reflected. Lift the handle to see the King Mansion’s elegant parlors and bedroom.

An 1875 Bird’s Eye View of Virginia City is a stark contrast with Grafton Brown’s 1861 portrayal of a young mining camp. Now a congested industrial complex, buildings sprawl in every direction as large mining operations convey the image of a prosperous community. Speculation about mineral discoveries continued to fuel stock market fluctuations on the Comstock. While their muscle and bone clawed gold and silver from rock vaults, miners were sometimes used as tools of stock manipulation. Following the discovery of a bonanza, mine owners occasionally locked the work force underground while they purchased stocks at low prices. Upon announcing the discovery, they became the beneficiaries of inflated prices.

As the general population learned the trick, mine owners occasionally locked miners underground without a discovery. When word spread of an apparent bonanza, the owners could profit by dumping worthless stock into the market frenzy.

I sat down sick, grieved ~ broken hearted, indeed. A minute before, I was rich and brimful of vanity; I was a pauper now, and very meek . . . I can always have it to say that I was absolutely and unquestionably worth a million dollars, once, for ten days.
Mark Twain
Roughing It 1871

Finally, “our” Ophir [mine] took a boom. Dad’s holdings rose in value to $10,000 and mother began to talk of buying a farm. I was a real king, as far as feelings went. The stock kept going upward. Dad was worth $15,000 for at least a minute. He wanted $20,000, the clock ticked a few times; the bottom fell out of Ophir, and Mother’s dream farm fell with it, for Dad was broke.
John Taylor Waldorf
A Kid on the Comstock: Reminiscences of a Virginia City Childhood 1968

For generations, the mining world has borrowed the Spanish words Bonanza and Borrasca to describe times of opulence and poverty. The Comstock enjoyed bonanza for two decades because its abundance of gold and silver sustained success. Unfortunately, fortune’s clock was ticking. By the 1880s the Big Bonanza was depleted, and the mines sank into borrasca. The population of Virginia City and Gold Hill quickly declined as the unemployed lost hope and left to seek better opportunities. The refugees from financial collapse were not the first to know both success and failure. For some residents, the decline was almost immediate. Like so many who found wealth only to lose it, the Comstock itself went from rags to riches to rags again.

Sandy and Eilley Orrum Bowers returned to Nevada in 1863 after their grand tour of Europe, only to find the territory in the midst of an economic depression. Before long, their ore ~ and their fortune ~ ran out. Sandy died in 1868 of pneumonia. Eilley lived in poverty for nearly four decades. She sold her beloved mansion and resorted to fortunetelling until her failing eyesight left her a ward of the state.

The poignant tale of Sandy and Eilley Bowers remains one of the Comstock’s best rags to riches to rags stories, underscoring the uncertain nature of the mining industry.

The arrival of the twentieth century inspired hope on the Comstock, but successes were short-lived. The once vibrant community fell into sharp decline. By 1930 fewer than 400 people lived in Virginia City. A few fortune-seekers displayed the optimism of the mining district’s early prospectors. During the Great Depression, William J. Loring hoped to exploit the mineral potential of the great Comstock Lode.

In the mid-1930s, Loring excavated a pit directly across from the Fourth Ward School at the south end of C Street, but his enterprise failed miserably. Like so many before him, Loring left town impoverished.

The Bank of California controlled the Comstock for several years. By the early 1870s, a reversal of fortunes forced it into a downward spiral. Overextended investments, maneuvering by enemies, and bad luck when looking for new ore conspired to destroy the Bank.

Now, as a new set of entrepreneurs ruled the mining district, the Bank confronted increasing financial difficulties. It finally closed in 1875. With his riches gone, bank officer William Ralston took his daily swim in the Pacific Ocean and drowned.

The Roman Catholic Daughters of Charity arrived in Virginia City in 1864, establishing a school, an orphanage, and eventually a hospital. They prospered during the Comstock’s flush times. By 1897, after nearly starving to death, the Daughters of Charity welcomed permission to vacate a town that could no longer support them. They abandoned their buildings to answer new callings elsewhere.

As the fortunes of the Comstock and its residents faded, many of the unemployed settled in the hills above Virginia City, taking over primitive abandoned cabins, relics of the early boom period. Households with girls were most likely to succumb to this destitution. Boys could contribute to their family’s income by scrounging around town for odd jobs, an unseemly undertaking for a young lady of the Victorian era. While modest ore bodies sustained the economy throughout the rest of the 19th century, hard times forced many businesses to close. The once congested main streets of Virginia City and Gold Hill fell silent. Stagecoaches no longer brought fortune seekers. Mining operations ceased to pull immense riches from the earth.

During the Comstock’s golden days, Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City was a required stop for famous actors and touring companies making the circuit from the East coast to San Francisco. In between performances, its grand auditorium served as a community center for the lively town. The hall was rarely dark. As Virginia City’s population declined, bookings at the opera house dwindled. By the 1930s, the building had fallen into ruin.

Depression hit Gold Hill first as its few diehards retreated to Virginia City. Once a highly respected institution of learning, the Gold Hill School, like so many of the town’s buildings, became a decaying derelict. Like Piper’s Opera House and the Gold Hill School, legendary mining operations sputtered out of existence. The remnants of the once massive Savage Mining Company chimney recalled the glory days of the Comstock Lode.

As the Comstock slumped after the 1880s, hopeful miners probed the district, certain they would discover the next Big Bonanza. Without corporate support or stocks for investments, small operators employed a pragmatic, simple technology patterned after el system del rato, literally “the system of the moment,” a centuries-old approach to mining. Adherents to modern nineteenth-century technology ridiculed these “rathole” mines as primitive undertakings. Rathole mines, evidenced by small mounds of dirt, are scattered by the hundreds around the Comstock’s hills and mountains. By the 1930s, many of Virginia City’s homes, churches, and businesses had succumbed to harsh weather, neglect, or fire. Residents closer to the center of town purchased abandoned neighboring houses for back taxes. The family would then spend the winter harvesting wood from the dilapidated structure next door to feed their own stoves. By spring, they had a side yard where a home once sheltered people who dreamed of riches, or at least, a better life.

In a former time, Virginia City was a tightly packed urbanized metropolis until the mines played out. With houses consumed for firewood, the aging dowager’s smile glimmered with every other tooth missing. Many residents still hoped that miners would find the next bonanza. Stock sales still attempted to exploit the Comstock name, but the old flush times were gone.

Virginia City, however, was not finished. It would shed its rags one more time, but its new garments were fashioned for television. The series Bonanza premiered in 1959, honoring the centennial of the first Comstock strike. High ratings inspired millions of tourists to come to the aged mining district. The riches had returned, but in a way unfamiliar to the town. Bonanza kept Virginia City at center stage for fifteen years. Today, the community has learned to rely on careful restoration and interpretation to greet an increasingly sophisticated heritage tourist. The mines may be silent, but the Comstock is not ready to don its rags again.

In the final years of the twentieth century, another frenzy gripped investors world wide as dot-comers discovered a bonanza in a new industry that promised riches with little effort. For several years, corporations exploited opportunities on the Internet, promising extravagant products. Investors poured money into the stock market, and the dotcomers rode the rising tide profiting on the dreams of others. But ore was rare in the dot-comer’s mine. Stocks fell, and many shareholders were left to contemplate the reward for greed. While some looked to investments, others have placed their hopes on chance. Lotteries, an illegal form of gambling in Nevada, entice residents of other states who hope a winning lottery ticket will make them wealthy. The rags to riches theme has also found a home in modern popular culture with television programs such as the 1950s The Millionaire, and the 1960s Beverly Hillbillies. Today’s reality-TV programs such as Who Wants to be a Super Millionaire, Survivor, Joe Millionaire, and The Apprentice play to people worldwide who wonder what they would do if they struck the next Big Bonanza.

Developed by the Historic Fourth Ward School Museum, Summer 2004. This project was funded in part by Nevada Humanities, the state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.