Revitalizing Sutro Tunnel
February – April 2022
A 19th century wonder finds new life thanks to devoted volunteers.
BY NEVADA MAGAZINE STAFF
The Sutro Tunnel in northern Nevada is an engineering marvel. Along with other sites within the Comstock Historic District, it served to put Nevada at the center of mining technology, politics, and finance in the mid 1800s. New ideas that had their inception in the rich soil of The Comstock reverberated across the state, the nation, and the world. Today, thanks to the hard work of local volunteers, the historic site at the Sutro Tunnel is now open to the public.
Adolph Sutro, a Prussian immigrant, was passionate, intelligent, and unafraid. Upon noticing the flooding that plaguedthe lower levels of the Virginia City mines, he conceived of a nearly 4-mile-long adit (or tunnel) to address the issue. Additionally, the tunnel would bring fresh air to the hard-working miners struggling to breathe in the depths. It could also be used as a direct conduit for bringing supplies, people, and ore to and from Virginia City.
Sutro rallied support both locally and in Washington DC for this massive undertaking. His inspired project commenced on Oct. 19, 1869, situated at the base of mountains adjacent to Dayton. At that time the mines of The Comstock Lode were hauling out gold and silver like it would never end.
“I find the engineering feats of the time, such as the V&T and narrow-gauge railroads, square-set timbering, the Marlette water system, V-flumes, and most particularly the Sutro Tunnel, inspirational,” says Pam Abercrombie, volunteer and restoration coordinator with the Friends of Sutro Tunnel Charity. “It was a unique time in Nevada’s history and is significant to what we are today.”
Pam graduated with a degree in history from UNR and a masters in public administration. In 2017, she created a plan for developing the Sutro Tunnel site and opening it for visitors. Through private donations, countless volunteer hours, and finally the formation of the Friends of Sutro Tunnel Charity in 2020, this vision has started to manifest.
RESTORING THE PAST
The land, buildings, and machinery still in existence were donated to the charity by the still–active Sutro Tunnel Company. This is a legacy gift, ensuring that the state’s heritage will not be forgotten, overlooked, or destroyed.
It is the mission of Friends of Sutro Tunnel to preserve and protect the historical significance of the site for the local community, visitors, and future generations. While a mill and many houses were lost to fire—including Sutro Mansion—many structures are still standing and in the process of restoration. Today, visitors can see the original warehouse, tunnel portal, candle house, wood shop, carriage house, and mule barn. The machine shop is a small rendition of the original that has been transformed into a museum.
Water still drains from the adit, flowing into a breathtaking desert pond surrounded by cottonwood trees. Sutro imported frogs, carp, and bass to satisfy his gourmet palate, and they still thrive in the strikingly blue-green waters.
Raised in a sequence of small towns no larger than Sutro is now, Historic Site Manager Chris Pattison feels at home in his position to protect this unique slice of our past.
“I have traveled extensively, but my roots go deep in this region. My family is here, and I am intensely dedicated to having Sutro preserved, stabilized, and available to be shared. It is exciting to see it become accessible to the public,” says Chris.
Having run a variety of different businesses, his acumen at public relations and fundraising has allowed for quick progress. Chris arranged to have a drone flown into the current collapsed tunnel to assess conditions in hopes of re-opening it.
“It is important to preserve history accurately so the same mistakes will not be repeated in the future, and so we can also build on the true successes of the past. Sutro Tunnel is one of those victories,” says Chris.
Chris is filled with a positive and contagious enthusiasm. This sort of intensity is a common trait shared by every individual involved. Retired engineer Paul Westbrook was instrumental in getting things started in 2019-20. Currently, the large group of volunteers includes both historians and authors Dan Webster and Julie Michler. Pat Neylan, curator of Saint Mary’s Museum in Virginia City, and former Curator of Dayton Museum, also acts as a tour docent. Jim Coe, admirer of Nevada history, oversees current projects and reports he is humbled by the talents exhibited by the volunteer staff. Retired engineer Steve Hibbs comes all the way from Markleeville to offer his expertise.
These are just a few of the individuals involved, but many more businesses and people have contributed to the restoration.
SUPPORTING FRIENDS OF SUTRO TUNNEL
Traveling up the old dirt road, surrounded by wild clouds in a deep turquoise, windswept Nevada sky, it is easy to feel the past mingling with the present. The ardor and human strength it took to realize Sutro’s vision is palpable.
It takes only a little imagination to visualize the mule teams and wagons, the long-abandoned town of Sutro with neatly laid out homes and gardens, the sweat-streaked workmen, the inventors and early engineers, as well as small pioneer families with children, all filled with hopes and dreams possible only in the newly emerging West.
Lisa Gavon contributed to this story.
To schedule your tour, donate to the project, or volunteer, contact the Friends through their website at the sutrotunnel.org.
View of the site from the foundation of the Sutro Mansion. ©Jeremy Spilker