Nevada Part III: Twain, Trains, & The Pony Express
January – February 2014
BY RON SOODALTER
During the mid-to-late-1800s, Nevada passed in record time from unsettled wilderness, to the nation’s premier gold and silver mecca, to its 36th state. In the process, it underwent a number of improvements designed to bring it up to par with its sister states and to ease its passage into the modern world. These changes occurred largely in the crucial areas of communication, transportation, and education.
Bombastic journalists such as Mark Twain, the rise of the railroads, and the birth of Nevada’s university system all merged to make Nevada prosperous in its early years of statehood. However, a depression overwhelmed the state at the end of the century, leaving its once-hopeful future in doubt.
TWAIN AND THE TERRITORIAL ENTERPRISE
Since our earliest colonial days, Americans have relied on the local newspaper for the accurate and timely delivery of current events. It has kept us connected to our community and the world around us.
Arguably, never in the history of America has the reporting of the news been as loosely interpreted and presented as during the settlement of the West, where everyday stories were deliberately “growed” to match the scope of the vast country in which the events occurred.
And nowhere was this trend more religiously observed than in Nevada, specifically in boisterous and booming Virginia City. A combination of a reading public both desperate for news and willing to take some playful ribbing, and a gaggle of gifted, irreverent journalists more than willing to customize—and sometimes, simply invent—local events, combined to create a unique approach to journalism that strayed far from objectivity.
The Territorial Enterprise was founded in 1858 as Nevada’s first newspaper. After a brief life in Genoa, it was moved to Virginia City, where for decades it pumped out the news, colored with the strong views, verses, and wit of its editors and writers— and a salty lot they were. So unique were the journalists of the Comstock that they earned for themselves a unique sobriquet; they were called the “Sagebrushers.” From 1860 to the turn of the 20th century, they lived large, drank to excess, and wrote uninhibited prose, poetry, and outright lies.
One of the most notorious—and gifted—of the Sagebrushers was William Wright, who wrote under the pen name Dan DeQuille. He began work as local editor of the Territorial Enterprise in 1862—two years before Nevada achieved statehood—and remained, off and on, for the next 30 years. Not content with simply reporting the news, DeQuille manufactured a number of “hoaxes” that he foisted on his reading public. The two most famous relate the story of the Traveling Stones of Pahranagat Valley and the tragic account of the Solar Armor.
According to DeQuille’s pseudoscientific treatise, which was published on October 26, 1867, the small stones in question—which a prospector had recently discovered in the Tonopah Basin’s Pahranagat Valley—possessed an unusual property: “When scattered about on the floor, on a table, or other level surface, within two or three feet of each other, they immediately began traveling toward a common center, and then huddled up in a bunch like a lot of eggs in a nest. A single stone removed to a distance of a yard, upon being released, at once started off with wonderful and somewhat comical celerity to rejoin its fellows; but if taken away four or five feet, it remained motionless.”
Soon the story was picked up by newspapers in countries around the globe, including Germany, where the bemused author was referred to as “Herr Dan DeQuille, the eminent physicist of Virginiastadt, Nevada.” Try though he might, he could not convince his international readership that the story was pure fiction, and for years to come he continued to receive letters of inquiry from readers, some with impressive scientific credentials.
Six years after the article first appeared, DeQuille responded to a reader’s request for five pounds of the miraculous stones: “We have none of said rolling stones in this city at present but would refer our Colorado speculator to Mark Twain, who probably has still on hand fifteen or twenty bushels of assorted sizes.”
Finally, in November 1879—15 years after he first imagined the stones—DeQuille published a heartfelt plea to his readers, begging them to drop the “rolling stones” story: “We have stood this thing about 15 years, and it is becoming a little monotonous. We are now growing old, and we want peace. We desire to throw up the sponge…Therefore we solemnly affirm that we never saw or heard of any such diabolical cobbles as the traveling stones of Pahranagat—though we still think there ought to be something of the kind somewhere in the world.”
His Solar Armor tale enjoyed a similarly long life. On July 2, 1874, under the heading, “Sad Fate of an Inventor,” DeQuille reported the story of the Solar Armor, a self-cooling system made up of sponges soaked in chemicals. As DeQuille told it, the suit of sponges would deflect the rays of the sun, leaving the wearer cool and comfortable. The problem was, the device worked so well that the inventor—a “Mr. Jonathan Newhouse”—froze to death while wearing it, 20 miles within the Nevada desert in the middle of the summer.
When Newhouse was found by an Indian the next day, “his beard was covered with frost and—though the noonday sun poured down its fiercest rays—an icicle over a foot in length hung from his nose.” The story grew legs and was soon run in the San Francisco Examiner and New York Times. The following month, it was published in the London Daily Telegraph, touted at the time as having the world’s largest circulation. When the British journal had the temerity to doubt the story’s veracity, the author merely wrote a follow-up article that was even funnier— and more “scientifically” credible—than the original.
Sadly, DeQuille was a hopeless alcoholic. Year upon year, his fellow writer and drinker, Alfred Doten, repeatedly wrote in his diary, “Dan is in the station house very sick with the delirium tremens.” At various times, he was fired for drinking, but always rehired for his remarkable talent. DeQuille’s roommate, understudy, and fellow journalist was a former Missourian named Samuel L. Clemens. Starting work at the Enterprise a year after DeQuille, Clemens first used the pen name “Josh,” but quickly chose a more lyrical nom de plume: Mark Twain. In his classic, Roughing It, Twain recalls how he came to work for the paper:
“Now in pleasanter days I had amused myself with writing letters to the chief paper of the Territory, the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, and had always been surprised when they appeared in print. My good opinion of the editors has steadily declined; for it seemed to me that they might have found something better to fill up with than my literature. I had found a letter in the post office as I came home from the hillside, and finally I opened it. Eureka! (I never did know what Eureka meant, but it seems to be as proper a word to heave in as any when no other that sounds pretty offers.) It was a deliberate offer to me of $25 a week to come up to Virginia City and be city editor of the Enterprise.”
He developed his own brand of “hoaxing,” famously reporting on a petrified man who turned to stone while winking and thumbing his nose. Twain could be caustic in his humor, however, and at one point he nearly fought a duel with a member of a rival paper over an offensive editorial he had reportedly written while intoxicated. Although no blood was drawn, the altercation caused him to leave his position—and Virginia City—for safer climes.
Other local Nevada newspapers adopted a less-than-reverent approach to the news as well. Not surprisingly, some of the papers’ most colorful work was political in nature. In March 1877, Governor L.R. Bradley vetoed a bill that had the support of some of Nevada’s newspaper editors. The journalists went on the attack, and they made it uncomfortably personal. The Enterprise zeroed in on the governor’s age, stating, “He is old and decrepit, and it would be cowardice to abuse or insult him…But would to God he was a young man that we might publish how much we wish that he was dead.”
The Virginia Evening Chronicle settled for merely calling Bradley “our boss lunatic,” suggesting that a commission be assembled to assess his sanity, and adding, “[P]ending the inquiry, pen and paper [should] be kept out of his way. In his hands they are as dangerous as a razor in the hands of a maniac.” Bradley lost his bid for reelection the following year.
Despite the frequent liberties taken with the truth, the newspapers of Nevada managed to keep their readers informed of the more important local and national events. If writers such as DeQuille, Twain, Doten, Rollin Daggett, and “Lyin’ Jim” Townsend digressed from time to time, it was in the interest of what for want of a better term might be called “creative journalism.” And for all its bombast and irreverence, it was well suited to the booming, wide-open territory and state that fostered it.
THE SHORT-LIVED PONY EXPRESS
The challenge of delivering the mail to Nevada’s citizenry in a timely manner had been so since the time of the earliest settlers. With the fantastic gold and silver booms taking place in Nevada and California, the population on the West Coast swelled dramatically—and with the growing population came an increased demand for efficient and reliable communication with the East.
National and regional newspapers, however dated by the time of arrival, were treasured, as were letters and packages from home. Nonetheless, the tremendous gap between sending and receiving letters, newspapers, and parcels was a constant frustration—especially with the looming threat of a civil war—and inspired innovative thinkers to create bold and daring systems of delivery that defied distance, danger, and hardship.
In 1860, at the time Nevada was preparing itself for statehood, the process of sending a letter or package to or from the East Coast was time-consuming and uncertain. One option was to send the mail via steamship around Cape Horn to Panama, thence to Nicaragua and Mexico, and finally to San Francisco. From there, it would be transported overland to Sacramento, Nevada, and eventually points north and east. The other choice was to send mail cross-country via stagecoach.
Since 1857, the Overland Mail Company’s six-horse Concord coaches had been hauling mail, parcels, and passengers on a month-long journey from St. Louis south through Texas, and up into San Francisco.
Then came the brilliant, if shortlived, system that captured the popular imagination, while shaving weeks off the conventional mail routes. In early 1860, three enterprising partners in the freight company—Russell, Majors, and Waddell— launched an enterprise for the fast transcontinental delivery of the mail. It was officially known as the Central Overland and Pike’s Peak Express Company, but hardly anyone could handle such a mouthful, so the company was simply called the Pony Express.
The founders’ plan was to send relays of courageous and durable young men mounted on fast horses across some 2,000 miles of mostly trackless wilderness, carrying letters, news, and small packages. Each rider would stay in the saddle for 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles. 175 way stations were built at intervals along the route and stocked with 400 good horses; it was here the relief riders waited to pick up the next leg of the journey. They rode round the clock, and if Indians destroyed a station—a rather common occurrence—the rider would simply have to continue on until he found a fresh horse.
One rider, discovering that station after station had been compromised, reportedly covered the staggering distance of 300 miles on the same horse. No matter how many miles each carrier rode, the trip was perilous, as reflected in the ad the partners placed in various newspapers. It read, in part, “WANTED: Young, skinny, wiry fellows…Must be expert riders. Willing to risk death daily.” One poster was said to have further narrowed the qualifications by adding, “Orphans preferred.”
The operation was launched on April 3, 1860. As one rider galloped out of St. Joseph, Missouri toward California, another spurred east from Sacramento. Their cargo was locked inside four small pouches on their saddles, and they were told to sacrifice their mounts—and themselves— before losing the mail. Weight was minimized, beginning with the size of the rider, and including his saddle and equipment.
During the course of what was advertised as a 10-day trip, they would follow the routes established earlier by surveyors and westering immigrants, including the Central Nevada Route (roughly the route of present-day U.S. Highway 50) blazed by the Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859. The “pony riders” galloped across the heart of country, bisecting the Great Basin and the Utah-Nevada Desert to Carson City; and from there crossing the Sierra Nevada to California. It was an impossible ride, only made possible by the men in the saddle.
The nation was captivated by the image of courageous, buckskin-clad young centaurs, defying distance, terrain, elements, and the prospect of a terrible death in order to deliver the mail. Some of the station agents and superintendents were legends in their own right. One superintendent, Joseph A. “Jack” Slade, reputedly shot and killed an agent for stealing stock, cut off the man’s ears, and wore them on his watch chain as a keepsake.
Legends and romance aside, sending mail via the Pony Express was a costly proposition. For a letter weighing half an ounce or less, the going rate was $5—an amount equivalent to roughly $130 in today’s currency. Still, in the end, the venture was far from profitable. The Pony Express lasted only 18 months and lost a staggering $110,000 in the process. On October 24, 1861, the Transcontinental Telegraph—one of a number of the new telegraph lines stretching across America— reached Salt Lake City, connecting Sacramento and Omaha. Messages could now be sent across the continent in minutes, rather than days and weeks. Two days later, the Pony Express closed.
That same year, with the coming of the Civil War, the Overland Mail Company shifted to a more central route, to avoid the newly formed Confederacy. Its stagecoaches followed the old Pony Express trail through the Great Plains, across the Rockies and Nevada’s Great Basin, then over the Sierras to California. Laden with mail and passengers, they made the rugged cross-country trip in 25 days. The company also offered a network of coaches that ran from San Francisco to Virginia City, and from there to Salt Lake City and Denver and east to the Mississippi. Nevada was now connected to both the east and west coasts, just in time for statehood.
By 1866, Wells, Fargo & Co. had bought up all the other major stage lines, to become the largest stagecoach empire in the world. But within a short time, another more modern form of transportation would render the horse-drawn transcontinental coaches obsolete. To anyone who watched and listened, the clang of nine-pound hammers on spike heads, the tamping down of roadbeds, the alignment of steel rails over countless miles of track, and the piercing wail of an engine’s whistle—trains—announced the death of the cross-country stagecoach.
Wells Fargo would continue to provide service from the points where the trains stopped, and they would contract to haul treasure boxes and express packages for decades to come; but the driving of that golden spike at Promontory, Utah in 1869 made coast-to-coast train travel in only eight days a reality and ushered in the new era of the railroad—an era of which Nevada would take full advantage.
HEAR THAT LONESOME WHISTLE
Of all the technological developments to grace Nevada during its early-statehood days, none was more dramatic or significant than the coming of the rails. It pertained as much, if not more, to commerce as it did to basic transportation. Nearly from the beginning of the first major gold and silver boom, there had been a demand for a rail system to convey ore from the Comstock to the Carson Valley mills. Initially, the Comstock had been using a freighting system that at times required up to 2,000 men and between 12,000 and 15,000 animals. It was costly and unwieldy at best, and by the 1860s the building of a railroad from the mines to Carson City became inevitable.
The Virginia and Truckee (V&T) Railroad was granted a charter in 1865, but lacked the money to start construction. It took another four years, but the crews finally broke ground in February 1869. Nearly a year later, the last spike on the 21-mile-long road from Virginia City to Carson City was driven. Freighting rates dropped immediately, reaching a reduction of 27 percent by year’s end. Coincidental with the completion of the V&T, the U.S. Mint opened a branch in Carson City, and the combination of the two effectively eliminated the need to ship ore to San Francisco, which for years had been a costly but unavoidable facet of Nevada’s mining business. Carson City remained a hub for the V&T until well into the 1950s.
Meanwhile, in 1871, the raw-edged railroad town of Reno, which went from a bridge and hotel on the south bank of the Truckee River to a major station on the Central Pacific line in only eight years, clamored for an extension of the Virginia and Truckee to facilitate sending freight to and from Virginia City. The Carson City-toReno line was finished the following year.
While many towns dependent on the mining and processing of ore eventually dried up and blew away, Reno continued to thrive. By the beginning of the next century, it had become a gambling mecca and was known as the “divorce capital” of the nation. Today, the city’s reputation for fast action is overshadowed by its status as an attractive cultural center, with 21st-century ratings by Fortune 500 magazine as one of America’s three “Top Booming Towns” and by Cities Ranked and Rated as one of the country’s 10 best places to live.
Although vital to the economy of the Comstock, the V&T was only one of the pioneer railroads laid out in Nevada’s early-statehood days. The narrow-gauge Carson and Colorado, from the time its first engine steamed down the track in the summer of 1883, ran 300 miles from Mound House to the silver-, leadand zinc-rich mines around Keeler, California. It continued to operate for the next 77 years.
The most notable and impressive of Nevada’s early-day railroads, however, was the behemoth Central Pacific itself, which had crossed the continent from California to Utah, meeting the westbound Union Pacific and forever joining the nation’s distant coasts. And as the CP moved East toward Utah one tie at a time, roughly laying out the route for what would one day become I-80, towns such as Battle Mountain, Carlin, Elko, Wells, and Winnemucca grew along the tracks.
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY
The Central Pacific also had the distinction of being the victim of the West’s first train robbery. It was referred to in the Territorial Enterprise as the “Great Railroad Robbery”—and this time the story was not a hoax.
Just after midnight on November 5, 1870, in a scene right out of a western movie, eight masked and heavily armed men boarded a Central Pacific Overland Express train as it steamed out of the tiny station at Verdi, 11 miles west of Reno. It had left San Francisco the previous day, transporting gold in the care of Wells, Fargo & Co., for Virginia City’s miners.
According to the news report: “Six stepped on the express car, which they detached from the main train by cutting signal rope, etc.; two jumped on the engine, placing pistols to the engineer’s head, commanding him to move on, which he did. Two brakemen endeavored to keep the masked men off the express car, but pistols, placed at their heads, compelled their retreat. The conductor rushed forward, but pistols stopped him; finding a hatchet, he came forward again, in time to see the engine and express car separated from the train and flying down the track. The robbers then placed the fireman, express and mail messengers in a mail room and locked them up; when within six miles of this city [Reno], they stopped their train, broke open the express boxes, and robbed them of $41,600 in gold coin.”
The robbers, under the leadership of Jack Davis, crammed the gold coins— worth nearly $750,000 in today’s money— into old boot tops, cut the Western Union telegraph wires to the west, and fled to the mountains. Rewards totaling $30,000 for the recovery of the gold and the capture of the bandits were immediately offered by Wells Fargo, Washoe County, the Central Pacific, and the State of Nevada. The Enterprise reported on November 6, “All the talk upon the streets today is of the great robbery on the railroad, between Reno and Verdi…”
For nearly a week, readers followed the events of the robbery in their local papers. Finally, on November 11, the Nevada Transcript reported that all eight outlaws had been captured. Apparently, the gang had escaped into California, but diligent law officers spotted and arrested them, a few at a time. Undersheriff James H. Kinkead of Washoe County crossed into California and arrested two of the perpetrators, one of whom he had skillfully tracked for miles by the narrow heels of the outlaw’s “gambler’s boots.”
Kinkead subsequently wrote a full account of the affair, modestly referring to himself in the third person. As it turned out, the gang had built a notorious reputation as successful robbers of Wells Fargo stagecoaches; but when Wells Fargo, out of desperation, put an extra guard on each coach, along with “guards who traveled behind the coaches on horseback,” the gang was “forced to change their base of operations.” Without intending it, they had established train robbery as a future standard among western outlaws, with some states creating new laws to fit the crime, citing it as a capital offense.
Two of the band turned informers, and eventually, most of the gold was retrieved from the various mountain hideaways where the robbers had cached it. With the exception of the two who had “peached” on their comrades, and who were subsequently released from custody, the gang members received sentences ranging from five to 23 years. In the end, two facts were unavoidable: Trains had now become likely targets for bandits—a fact of which such bad men as Jesse James, “Black Jack” Ketchum, and Butch Cassidy would take full advantage— and Nevada had hosted, albeit unwillingly, one of the earliest forays into the period that would come to be known to history as the Wild West.
HALLOWED HALLS OF ACADEME
In July 1862, with the Civil War raging around him, President Abraham Lincoln took time out to sign the Land-Grant College (or Morrill) Act. Its title gives a clear indication of its purpose: It was “An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” And what better state than Nevada for the establishment of a college dedicated to farming and the “mechanic arts”—i.e., mining?
In 1873, Nevada Governor Lewis R. Bradley and his nine-year-old legislature took advantage of the Morrill Act to establish a new state university. They selected Elko, a bustling Central Pacific-built railroad town that had grown to become the seat of newly formed Elko County. They also decided, however, that the new institution was not yet ready to serve as a full-fledged university, and instead mandated that it would act merely as a training center, teaching courses “required for admission into the freshman class in colleges.” It would serve as the handmaiden to other, “real” universities. Officially designated the “University Preparatory School,” it opened its doors in 1874—to a total enrollment of seven students.
Not surprisingly, the response to the new school over the next several years was less than overwhelming. In 1885, with enrollments and public opinion disappointingly low, the governor signed a bill relocating the school to another thriving railroad town—Reno. It would have been difficult to find a city that had enjoyed a more meteoric rise. In 1871, the Nevada Legislature named Reno the Washoe County seat—the same year the city requested and received its own Central Pacific line from Carson City. In short order, Reno had become a major commercial center, as well as what the official city website describes as a “transfer point for the immense wealth coming out of the Comstock Lode.” After voting to move the school to Reno, the Board of Regents purchased 10 acres north of the city and broke ground. On March 31, 1886, although the physical structure had not yet been completed, the first school term commenced, with a 75-student population and a new principal and professor of mining. The university substantially expanded its list of subjects to include metallurgy, surveying, chemistry, French, assaying, and mechanics, among others. Five years later, the school’s first mining laboratory was built. As a result, it would never again be defined as a “preparatory school.”
True to the original mandate established by the Land-Grant Act, the university also focused its coursework on agricultural education.
Instruction was given that addressed improvements in all aspects of farming and animal husbandry. In 1887, the Hatch Act provided federal funds for the creation of agricultural “experiment stations,” and the University of Nevada proceeded to build its own experiment station.
The same year that marked the passage of the Hatch Act, a third school was created within the university, for the training of teachers, and by 1902, it offered a full three-year program of courses, with a teaching certificate at the end. By so doing, the school gave women in the state the opportunity to acquire a higher education and apply it in a viable working environment. In the interest of providing a well-rounded education, students in all three schools were required to take a variety of courses in addition to those related to their majors. In addition to coursework, all “able-bodied” male students were obligated by both the Morrill Act and the State of Nevada to receive military training and instruction in tactics, as members of the school’s Cadet Corps. The three top members of each class would receive a recommendation to the War Department for the awarding of a commission. The three students in the university’s first graduating class received their Bachelor of Arts degrees in May 1891. By 1899, the student body swelled to an impressive 400. The school that started off as a struggling training center had come into its own as a respected, degree-granting university.
INDIAN RELATIONS & EDUCATION
There was a stark contrast between the burgeoning state university and Nevada’s attempt to educate, and assimilate, its Native Americans via Indian boarding schools. Since the first hopeful miners moved into the territory, the history of white relations with the Indians was checkered at best. It reflected a pattern that began with the Pilgrims in Massachusetts more than 200 years before and repeated itself throughout the settlement of the West.
When the settlers were too few in number to object to the prior rights of the original occupants, tolerance prevailed, albeit uncomfortably at times. However, once the white population grew suficiently, and there was an objective to be gained—a mining claim, potentially rich farm land—the local tribes were faced with the inevitable choices: move or be moved. In Nevada, things came to a head in what has come to be known as the Pyramid Lake War.
By 1860, word of the rich strikes at the Comstock had attracted thousands of silverand gold-hungry settlers to Washoe County. Inevitably, there were incidents between them and the local Paiutes, Bannocks, and Shoshones. The spark that ignited the powder keg was struck when two brothers, owners of a stagecoach station, kidnapped and raped two Paiute girls— children, really. When they heard about it, the warriors of the tribe—the girls’ father among them—brought their fury down upon the station, killing between three and five white men and burning the buildings to the ground.
Word soon spread among the mining camps, and in short order a vigilante band of more than 100 men from Genoa and Carson, Virginia, and Silver cities rode out, seeking revenge. The Paiutes trapped them on the banks of the Truckee River, southeast of Pyramid Lake. Before the whites could flee, 76 were killed outright— including their nominal leader, Major William Ormsby—and most of the others were wounded.
Panic ensued, as all mining activity ceased, towns forted up, and a number of settlers fled. Cries were raised for the extermination of the Paiutes, as nearly 550 well-organized volunteers marched from California to Washoe County, commanded by the legendary former Texas Ranger captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays.
More than 200 army regulars joined Hays’ party, and on June 2, 1860, a second engagement took place near Pyramid Lake, resulting in few casualties on either side, but the withdrawal of the outnumbered Indians. The regulars built a temporary post, dubbed Fort Haven, on Pyramid Lake. Henceforth, the area—and the treasure to be found therein—remained in the hands of the whites, although the Indians continued to raid stations and threaten the settlements and travel routes well into the 1870s, despite the construction of more than two dozen military posts throughout the state.
It was not surprising, therefore, when the time came to provide education to the state’s Indians, that the approach would be less than benign. The federal government opened some 100 Indian boarding schools from California to Pennsylvania, both off and on reservations. The first such institution in Nevada—the Stewart Indian School—was established south of Carson City in 1890. The boarding schools provided vocational training, with required uninterrupted attendance ranging from four to eight years.
Underlying the curriculum was an organized program specifically designed to eradicate all Indian cultural traces. Countless children were taken from their families, sometimes forcibly by armed police, and lodged in the schools. Often the treatment was brutal, and native names were erased and replaced with Anglo names. Indians were not allowed to attend public schools in Nevada until the 1930s.
A DEPRESSING FINISH TO THE CENTURY
As Nevada entered the last quarter of the 19th century, there was no reason to suspect that the future held anything but continued growth and prosperity. The mining industry that was the state’s mainstay appeared healthy. In a matter of a few decades, Nevada had emerged from the mud and dust of the shafts and ore seams to take her place among the other states of the nation.
Then, in 1875, Nevadans received a foreshadowing of what was to come, as disaster struck. Virginia City, arguably the most important mining community in the state, caught fire. The town had suffered fires before, but this time winds from the west drove the fire out of control in a matter of minutes. The devastation to the central business district was complete. For the most part, the shafts themselves were spared; however, the fire claimed a number of the actual mine buildings. Damage to Virginia City was estimated at between $5 million and $10 million. Most costly of all, however, the California, Ophir, and Consolidated-Virginia—the district’s three most productive mines— temporarily closed.
Despite the scope of the damage, the city’s businessmen and mine owners immediately set about rebuilding. After months of effort and expense, Virginia City was back on line—with a more efficient water system—and ready for business. Then, the unthinkable happened. Production at the Comstock began to fall rapidly, and it remained that way into the next century. In 1880, just five years into the Comstock’s downward slide, Nevada’s boomandbust economy—which had been the defining characteristic first of the territory, then the state—failed, plummeting the state into a genuine depression. There had been dips in the economy before, but, as Nevada chronicler Russell R. Elliott points out, ” the Comstock…gave Nevadans a false sense of security, for each successive depression was followed by a bonanza greater than the previous one.” This time, however, the desperate efforts to find new and bigger bonanzas brought only frustration, as the bill for a near-total statewide reliance on the mining industry for its wellbeing finally came due.
Read the Entire 8-Part Series
Part I: The Unknown Territory
Part II: From Strikes to Statehood
Part III: Twain, Trains, & The Pony Express
Part IV: Into the New Century
Part V: War, Whiskey, and Wild Times!
Part VI: Gambling, Gold and Government Projects
Part VII: To War and Beyond
Part VIII: Looking Forward, Looking Back