by Sevenstars

By the time the Comstock Lode was discovered in 1859, when Darcy was six, the California lodes had passed their peak, with surface and near-surface gold worked out and the independent miner giving way before the huge mining corporations with the capital and equipment to tunnel deep into the hills, often pushing their own claims to promising properties through the courts with little regard for those of the discoverers. Two-year-old Bonnie had died of pneumonia the previous winter--it was a prodigious killer of young children in the wetter climate of the mountains--and Mattie had perished that spring while struggling to bring forth a stillborn son. Like many bereaved husbands, John Henry felt a need to get away from scenes associated with his loss, and he joined the new rush to the Washoe, taking with him his four surviving children--John Henry Jr., usually called "Dutch" (because he was the only one of the boys who had taken after his grandfather's blond German side), who was sixteen; Vandy, twelve; Del, nine; and Darcy. The girl passed her formative years roving from one Nevada camp to another, raised chiefly by her brothers, since John Henry tended to be gone, ramrodding one mule string or another, for much of the travel season. To make their job easier, the boys treated her much like a little brother, even shearing her hair under a soup bowl and passing their outgrown britches down to her. The experience taught her, early on, how to stand up on her own two feet and resist well-meant but stifling overprotectiveness--especially that of Dutch, who, being the oldest, seemed to consider it his privilege to take on the role of a substitute father to the younger ones.

Those who missed out on great wealth in California naturally fanned out to seek it elsewhere, and from Sutter's Mill the strikes moved north in a series of leaps into British Columbia, then south into southeastern Oregon, where major gold discoveries were made from 1860 to 1862, eastward into central and southern Idaho, which offered more of the same beginning in '61, northeastern Oregon, and finally into Montana. A secondary stream of hopefuls began the "Pike's Peak" rush of '59, and prospectors curved northward from there heading for the Salmon River mines, or they came up by water to Fort Benton, then overland by the rough Mullan Road, laid out to Fort Walla Walla by Lieutenant John Mullan and the Army Engineers and built between 1859 and 1863. In the latter year a new gold rush was in full flood, this time to Aspen, Cripple Creek, and Boulder in Colorado, and later Virginia City, Montana (discovered in May) and Elizabethtown near Cimarron, New Mexico. Through all the turmoil and disruption that the Civil War brought to the East, the mining frontiers of the West, from the eastern foothills of the Rockies to the Pacific coast, continued their development almost unchecked. Richest of all was Nevada. Gold was discovered there almost at the same time as in California, and it proved to be even more productive, though not immediately. The boom town of Silver City was founded not long after 1849, and some Mormon farmers in the southwest, having established the Territory's first community at Genoa, abandoned an irrigation project to try gold mining, bringing the little towns of Dayton and Johntown into being. Carson City started as a trading post in 1851 and grew rapidly. But for the most part, for a full decade, a handful of impoverished miners--perhaps a hundred in winter and spring, and about half that in summer when water became scarce--made a modest income as they worked their way up the five sage-grown miles of Gold Canyon, a ravine on the southern flank of Mount Davidson, to the future site of Gold Hill. When they finally got there they made a discovery that changed the entire history of the West, financed the Union cause in the Civil War, and made the name of the Comstock one of consequence in every bourse, mining exchange, and chancellory in the world. Forty-niners who had neglected the California gold rush in the hope of finding more gold in Nevada awakened in 1859 to learn that the "blue stuff" which had been considered a hindrance to gold mining turned out to be largely silver, and that their fabulously rich Comstock Lode assayed over $1500 in gold and $3200 in silver per ton.

When the Comstock was discovered, there were only a thousand white people in all of Nevada. But with the word of the strike, once-prosperous diggings in the Mother Lode were depopulated overnight, and Virginia City became in a space of weeks a bursting community of five, ten, and finally fifteen thousand people, though it was not to reach its zenith of 25,000 until 1875. Stores, hotels, fire stations, brothels, and private residences rose in florid profusion; by the fall of 1860, there were no less than 202 businesses. This boom helped create the millionaires of San Francisco's Nob Hill and made that California city more powerful than ever; it transformed Nevada--"Washoe," as it was called in those early days--from a neglected part of Utah Territory to territorial status of its own and early statehood in 1864; it enriched an impoverished Union treasury in the Civil War. Everyone who lived there, even the miners underground, and every visitor passing through was a speculator in mining stock or in claims; more millions were probably made in the market than out of the earth, with men founding fortunes and charwomen buying the hotels they'd worked in, and if a prospector found a promising ledge he could immediately sell a few feet of it for a large price, without a single proof of its worth. Everyone knew how the great Gould & Curry had leaped from $4 to $800 a foot in two months; how the Ophir, worth only a trifle in 1860, was a year later selling at nearly $4000 a foot; how one man, who hadn't a cent when he took up the Amanda Smith, sold out of it six months later for $40,000, and how a widow sold her ten feet of the Golden Fleece for $18,000. Every man in town owned feet in at least fifty different claims, and considered his fortune made. It was customary, whenever a new claim was staked (which happened every day), for the owner to go straight to the newspaper office, give a reporter forty or fifty feet, and get him to go out and look at the property and print something favorable about it, since this would attract investors. The reporter in turn would hold this mining stock and sell it off piecemeal whenever he needed a hundred dollars or so, but keep as much as he could against the hoped-for day when it would be worth a thousand dollars a foot. The Belcher Mine's stock, to take one example, zoomed from $1.50 a share in 1870 to $1525 nineteen months later, as discovery of a new vein in '72 sent speculation in 'Frisco soaring--Consolidated Virginia from $160 to $710, California from $90 to $170. In the twenty-one years beginning in 1859, some $306,000,000 in bullion--ninety-seven per cent of it silver--was extracted from the Comstock, and the population shot from 7000 in 1860 to 42,000 ten years later. The yield was $16,000,000 in 1864 alone, $7,000,000 even in 1869; in '76, the peak year, the figure hit $38,000,000--Virginia City had burned almost flat the year before, but so much in the ascendancy were its fortunes that it was rebuilt in a few months, this time in brick and stone.

The strikes at Virginia also encouraged further exploration, with prospectors quickly venturing out into western Nevada, particularly Humboldt County and the Bodie and Esmeralda districts along the California border--the first was found in 1860, and the second's Aurora achived considerable if temporary significance--and into the central and eastern regions as well. Within two years after Virginia's establishment, Unionville and Star City, in the Humboldt Valley, were producing silver, though they lasted only nine and seven years respectively. In 1862 the Reese River mines were discovered and their principal town, Austin, was founded; squarely in the middle of the future state, it became an important interior distributing center from which pack trains (John Henry Cullin's among them), wagons, and stagecoaches ran to dozens of isolated camps. The next year Cortez, which provided both gold and silver, came into being midway between Pine Creek and the Reese River. Pioche was also prospected in 1863 and organized as the Meadow Valley District the following year; its success dated from 1868, with a brief boom in 1870-3 (unchecked by bad fires in '71 and '72 and a flood in '73) boosting its population to 6000 and producing over $12,000,000 in silver in 1871-3; but production peaked at $5,363,997 in '72, declined rapidly to '75, and continued to dwindle, albeit more slowly, from that time onward. Eureka, a silver-and-lead site, began in 1864, became prosperous about 1870-1 (with a yield of over $2,000,000 in the latter year), survived two floods, two devastating fires, and an epidemic of smallpox, and was still going strong, the second-largest mining district in the state. Silver Peak was another major camp of '64, almost due southeast of Virginia City; it attracted many former residents of Aurora, which faded away that same year. In 1868-70 thousands stampeded to White Pine County, and millions of dollars poured out; the towns of this region included Treasure City, Hamilton, and Ward. Other sudden booms and busts in remote areas resulted in the founding of Grantsville, Rawhide, Fairview, Wahmonie, and south of Austin Belmont, Manhattan, Ione, and Berlin. Though actually located in Mono County, California, near the Yosemite Valley, Bodie lay so close to the state line that it was considered part of the Comstock. Gold was first produced there in 1852, but not till ten years later were substantial deposits found. New discoveries kept it in operation for many years, and its dissolute reputation was such that the "bad man from Bodie" became a part of Western legend. Another California location that attracted its share of Comstockers was the Cerro Gordo gold and silver mines near Owens Lake (which, its name notwithstanding, was as dry as a bone); they were put into profitable operation after the Paiutes were driven out early in '65, and soon boomed under the management of an Anglo mining syndicate, so that within seven years there were eleven of them in operation. Virginia at first was an unsightly hodgepodge of frame shanties and tents of brush, blankets, old shirts and potato sacks as often as of canvas, with empty whiskey barrels piled up for chimneys and crates and boxes on rocks, in the mud, in the snow. After a disorderly preliminary boom, through which it was carried chiefly on momentum, its grand "flush times" began in 1861, and continued with unabated splendor for three years thereafter. By 1863, after only four years, it was a proven camp on the way to becoming a metropolis: the California mining camps were in decay, lost in the underbrush and inhabited only by a few die-hard miners, grizzled and old at forty, who were left to their regrets and their baffled pride while Virginia roared and flared, flushed with silver fever and swarming with bankers, editors, lecturers and actors. It was still a tough town, where every fifth building was a saloon and every tenth one a gambling hall, and it had more than its quota of loose women, outlaws, and guerrillas in a local extension of the Civil War that ended only after the secessionists were expelled. It was also a teeming center for mining supplies and adventurous social life. It had the great advantage of being no more than a hundred miles from well-established California towns--a very severe hundred miles to be sure, especially when snow was on the trails, but still a journey that could be made in a few days; hence trade with Washoe fitted with relative ease into the established pattern of transportation already radiating from San Francisco. Supplies and equipment could be sent by river steamer as far as Sacramento, thence over existing roads to Placerville or Nevada City, and from there by way of the new toll roads for which contractors had been quick to secure franchises as soon as the true worth of the Comstock became evident. The most important of these, the "Placerville Road," ran from Placerville to Virginia City, a well-graded, macadamized highway over which plodded every day an unbroken line of struggling, sweating mule teams hauling huge covered wagons, while past them raced the rattling, swaying stagecoaches, carrying passengers, mail, and express. Nevada was a semi-barren place, and Placerville supplied most of the edibles demanded by its miners.

Virginia was the most fantastically extravagant of the mining towns. Nobody was poor and silver dollars were tossed around like popcorn. Fancy foods such as oysters, fresh fish and game, and foreign delicacies were surprisingly common in the markets, and the consumption of whiskey and beer was impressive; men bought champagne at ten dollars a bottle, tongue and sardines, and tin canisters of turtle soup and lobster salad, to be warmed over a campfire. As in every mining town, the saloons, gambling houses, and billiard halls were the favored resorts of those enjoying their idle hours. An almost exclusively male population worked and played on that barren mountainside with an intensity hardly paralleled in any other community of the West. Over a hundred saloons stood ready to aid the miner in relaxing after a hard day's digging. The more pretentious "two-bit" houses (so called because every kind of drink cost a quarter) were the most sumptuous establishments in town--long mahogany bars, glistening chandeliers, a bright façade of mirrors, showy pictures in heavy gilded frames. Faro, roulette, monte, poker, chuck-a-luck, and keno were widely popular, and many female croupiers and dealers could be found, pretty, modest-looking, in close-fitting black silk dresses. The hurdy-gurdies, or dance halls, were a favorite resort, some frequented even by such respectable women as the town could boast, who were invariably treated with deep respect. More generally the establishment consisted of little more than four girls, about fifty men, an Irish fiddler, a bartender and a bar; the men were charged fifty cents each for a dance, and afterward were required to pay a like sum at the bar for drinks for themselves and their partners. The more expensive of these places had the most luxurious fittings, including highly polished dance floors, full orchestras of skilled musicians, and lines of dancing girls to rival that of any Eastern dance-hall, dressed discreetly in crinoline ball gowns, who also sang--chiefly those popular regrets for bygone days and vanished joys which often dissolved homesick miners in tears.

Every mine within the mountain was worked night and day by shifts of highly paid laborers: hundreds of feet below the houses and streets, blasting and shovelling went on without cease. Every day tons of ore were hauled by windlass to the surface and carried down to the reducing mills in mule-drawn quartz wagons. The narrow streets were always crowded with these, and with huge freight wagons, drawn by twelve-up horse hitches and laden with supplies that had been brought over the long mountain road from California, whose teamsters earned high pay and swaggered when they entered a saloon or restaurant. Stagecoaches set off or arrived almost hourly in front of the hotels; Pony Express riders dashed madly through the tangled traffic during the brief life of the service; and sometimes a string of camels might be seen laboriously packing salt up the steep trails. Businesses and dissipations flourished alike, and the city was early burdened with a full assortment of municipal officials, policemen, and firemen such as would have sufficed for New York City. There were military companies, fire companies, brass bands, theaters, hurdy-gurdy houses, wide-open gambling palaces, political powwows, civic processions, street fights, murders, riots, inquests, a whiskey mill every fifteen steps, and even some talk of building a church. There was always some excuse for a parade, with brass bands blaring and a military company marching before the town officials. On February 27, 1864, Adah Isaacs Menken arrived in town, accompanied by her third husband, Robert H. Newell (better known as the humorist Orpheus C. Kerr), and the poet, novelist, actress, and famous beauty Ada Clare. Menken and Newell had at this time been married less than eighteen months, but already he was in disfavor, and in May they separated. A banner across the main street saluted them with: WELCOME TO THE MENKEN AND ORPHEUS!

The ranking theatrical impresario of the West at that time was Tom Maguire, whose large D Street Opera, opened in 1863, was one of the notable playhouses of the frontier tradition; it offered almost nightly performance of dramas, operas, or "musical entertainments." It was here that Menken had come to play the Prince of Tartary in the old romantic melodrama Mazeppa. In it, clad in flesh-colored tights and bound to the back of a white horse, she rode up a series of perilous inclined planes to the flies above the stage. Her beautiful body, exquisite face, and lovely auburn-gold hair made this sensational "ride of death" a thrilling spectacle. To the delight of the miners, she also played faro with equal skill and success, and after each performance joined them in a saloon, where she sat out the night happily smoking cigarettes and gambling. In the city's flush days five legitimate theaters and six variety houses all ran at the same time. At Maguire's, the Alhambra, and later at Piper's Opera House, the best road companies of the day appeared in plays representative of everything being staged in the East: Shakespearean revivals and other serious dramas, Irish farces, Italian light operas, sentimental comedies, Victoria Loftus's British Blondes, Haverly's Mastodon Minstrels, Tom shows with double quartettes of educated hounds, French dancers in the wicked can-can, and lectures by everyone from Horace Greeley on the state of the nation to Artemus Ward on "Babes in the Wood." Celebrities such as Lotta Crabtree and Edwin Booth trod sloping stages to entertain new-made millionaires in red-velvet boxes and roughly-garbed miners packed into the cheap seats. Various other resorts offered minstrel shows, tent shows, raree shows and dog-and-pony shows past counting. D Street was also lined with bordellos. The business section of the city, made up of stores, hotels, boardinghouses, saloons, and gambling parlors, had a reckless gaiety and color all its own.

Prizefights were followed with keen interest by the miners, and the heavy betting they engendered could result in guns being drawn over disputed decisions. Sunday horseraces were held on the one level spot on the mountainside; rifle- and pistol-shooting contests sometimes took place; and members of the Virginia Alkali & Sagebrush Sporting Club chased coyotes with greyhounds on Forty-Mile Desert. There were cockfights and bulldog-and-wildcat fights. It was a dangerous place, too. In saloons and gambling dens a deadly fight was likely to start at any moment. Every man carried at least one revolver and quarrels frequently ended in death. And in the eyes of many miners, merchants, and barkeepers, desperate characters had immense prestige. They were greeted and served like princes, and the phrase "He got his man" was murmured admiringly as they passed by. Representatives of this class included Tom Peasley, who owned the sumptuous Sazerac Saloon and was fire chief of the Young America Engine Company No. 2, and Sam Brown, the "chief" of the Washoe, with his "private graveyard." The first Territorial Legislature, in 1861, passed a law making duelling or the sending of a challenge a criminal offense, but it was seldom enforced. Murder trials were burlesques of justice, for most defendants were acquitted. Violence and thievery, too, went virtually unpunished, and whatever existed of judicial procedure was a farce. Corruption became the order of the day, and few were the jury verdicts that had not been purchased in hard coin.

The robbery of outgoing bullion coaches early became almost a ritual, engendered in part by an almost universal dislike for Wells Fargo's exorbitant travel and shipping rates. At some turn on a lonely road, the stage driver would be confronted with an obstacle such as a small tree or a boulder lying across the path, and behind it masked men armed with shotguns. Since the driver considered it no part of his job to fight off bandits, he would throw down the strongbox and go his way. Few tears were shed over such incidents in a community that regarded the holdup as a dispute between masked robbers and corporate ones. It was an open secret that the highwaymen had spies in the express offices who alerted them to when bullion would be shipped. One driver was held up so often that he was widely suspected of being on the bandits' payroll. But the robbers weren't murderers as were those of Montana: rarely was anyone even injured during their forays. And, after all, the shipments were insured, so no "real person" suffered: all were paid the full worth of what they had entrusted.

A prominent landmark was Chauvel's fine French restaurant, noted for its midnight oyster suppers. Its owner, O. V. Chauvel, was also a proficient swordsman, and gave lessons in fencing and broadsword at his gymnasium on North C, besides keeping a supply of boxing gloves on hand. The Bow Windows and The Brick were first-class bordellos. The industrious Celestials swarmed in Chinatown. Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, Welsh, Spaniards, Mexicans, and other nationalities thronged the streets, each of which was a terrace, with a drop of forty or fifty feet to the one below; since cross-streets were infrequent, a man afoot and in a hurry would simply make his way down over the housetops, saving a half-mile detour.

A well-known inhabitant of the camp was Julia Bulette, a daughter of the oldest profession who refuted the undeserved defamations hurled at her class. She was twenty-seven when the lode was discovered, tall, slender, dark-eyed, and lovely to look at. Her nature was even lovelier: generous, impulsive, and rich with human kindness. She possessed all the deeper feminine characteristics that endeared her to men: generosity, compassion, sympathy, and understanding. She acted the lady in dress and manners, and no roughhousing was permitted in the house at the corner of Union and D Streets, where she lived alone. She offered the men good conversation, taught them to recognize fine wines and champagnes, and not infrequently served dinners distinguished by rare and unusual delicacies. She drove about the town in her own lacquered brougham, its doors decorated with a crest of four aces. She had her own loge at the Opera House, and sat in it accompanied by her favored lover. The men worshipped her, and the "good" women detested her, looking upon her as a menace to their family way of life and a rival for their husbands' affections. And yet she was never too preoccupied with her own affairs or the acquisition of money to lend a hand when someone was in need. She saw that poor families received anonymous gifts of food and that ragged children were clothed. When men died in the mines, she was the first to contribute money and food for the widows. She turned her house into a hospital and herself into a nurse when the town suffered a severe epidemic; she habitually straightened disordered rooms and cooked tasty meals for her friends; her hands never hesitated at sewing on a few buttons or mending a pair of socks for one of the boys forced to depend on his own efforts. When fires threatened the town, she was on hand with food and coffee for the firefighters, and on occasion even assisted at the pumps herself. When funds were being raised for the Sanitary Commission during the War, she bid as spiritedly for Gridley's symbolic sack of flour as any mineowner. When Nevada became a state in 1864 and Governor Nye visited the town, she proposed and helped to build a huge floral arch over the main street. No holiday or parade was complete without her riding enthroned on the gleaming brass and silver engine of Company No. 1, of which she was an honorary member--no mean feat, as the fire department constituted one of the most select social groups in the town. No thought of repayment ever clouded any of her kindnesses. Yet Virginia City did not forget. When she was killed by a thieving hoodlum in January of 1867, the citizens, led by the volunteer fire department, gave her one of the most impressive funerals Nevada was ever to know. Her fellow firefighters took up a collection for an elaborate casket and a finely engraved tombstone; services were held in one of the engine houses, attended by an overflow crowd of men from all walks of life; the funeral procession to Flowery Hill Cemetery included carriages filled with men in their Sunday best and prostitutes in black, members of the fire department marching in full uniform, and a brass band. The "proper" women pulled down their shades as it passed.

The Territorial Enterprise, edited by Joseph Goodman, had begun in December of 1858 in the village of Genoa, whose chief claim to fame was that it became a Pony Express stop later on. A year later it moved to Carson City, and within another year it settled in Virginia. In less than eighteen months after that move it had acquired a national reputation: it was the biggest daily between Chicago and San Francisco, and the New York Herald, which refused to exchange with country editors, subscribed to it yearly. It soon moved into more spacious quarters on North C Street, and later into its own fireproof brick building at 24 South C, opposite the International Hotel, which was the city's finest, its dining and smoking rooms, ladies' parlor, bar, and billiard room furnished with rare, costly mirrors, pictures, and crystal chandeliers. By this time the paper was known as a first-rate daily; it cleared $1000 a day and had five editors, twenty-three compositors, a corps of talented reporters (including William Wright, who wrote as Dan DeQuille, and young Samuel Clemens, who in January of 1863 first signed himself "Mark Twain," and who wrote everything from skits, jokes, satirical hoax stories, and lampoons of famous figures to serious exposés of graft and injustice in territorial politics), and presses run by steam.

By the end of the war, Nevada produced $43,000,000 in precious metals--a substantial gift to the Union cause. Yet, throughout the early days, Virginia City was a hotbed of secessionist sympathizers, who met in the barroom of Jacob Wimmer's Virginia Hotel and actually organized military companies who were to rise to the support of Jefferson Davis and overwhelm Lincoln's Nevada friends when the time was ripe. There were many tense moments on the Comstock when a sudden turn of Confederate fortunes might actually have precipitated open bloodshed; at one point secessionist recruits even attempted to take over the town by arming three buildings as forts. This attempt failed mostly from lack of citizen support, though strong feelings remained on either side of the issue; but the firm loyalist editorial policies of the Enterprise and the President's clear evaluation of Nevada's assets stemmed the tide of Southern advantage, and after its elevation to statehood treason became too dangerous to flourish. And despite the early partisanship, most citizens were not only self-centered but strangely detached from their own nation. The task of exploring and exploiting the Western territories was so absorbing that small attention was paid to events east of the Rocky Mountains. The mighty Civil War, which was to decide the nation's fate, was rarely discussed. The latest discovery of a silver lode, the latest murder, even the best joke, won more general attention than Lee's brilliant strategy or Grant's tightening grip on the Mississippi.


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