Many others also prospered during Nevada’s big silver strike.
The 1859 discovery of almost pure silver ore amid the gold of the Comstock Lode began a scramble for the promised wealth and gave rise to Virginia City, which drew some 25,000 residents at its peak and was for a time among the largest and wealthiest cities in the West. It was truly a gateway to riches. Fortunes varied, however, and by the time the mines played out, some folks had lost out completely, some had grown moderately wealthy and some had won big.
Firmly atop the winners’ list were John William Mackay, James Graham Fair, James Clair Flood and William S. O’Brien, known alternately as the “Silver Kings” or “Bonanza Kings” of the Comstock. The four made their fortunes after risking no more than $100,000 in 1872 to wrest control of a half-dozen waning claims bundled together as the Consolidated Virginia Mining Co. The partners’ gamble paid off big the following year when their miners struck a large body of silver ore deep in the company’s mines. By mid-1875 the partners’ holdings were estimated at about $1 billion—in 1875 dollars—and shares in the company’s mines were selling for as much as $710. From 1873 to 1882 Consolidated Virginia’s mines yielded ore worth more than $105 million (nearly $2.3 billion in today’s dollars).
But that was only the beginning. The Silver Kings went on to dominate the Comstock, establishing the Pacific Mill and Mining Co. to monopolize milling of ore; financing operations through their Nevada Bank of San Francisco, at one time the largest bank in America; buying the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Co., which supplied the camps and mines with water from the Sierras; and forming the Pacific Wood, Lumber, and Fluming Co. to ensure supplies of timber for use in their mines. “These acquisitions,” one historian wrote, “gave the owners control of the whole mining process, excluding transportation via the Virginia & Truckee Railroad.”
The four original partners remain among the 100 richest Americans of all time—with one ranked as high as 15th. But they weren’t the only ones who struck it rich off the Comstock.
Among a number of other fortunate men—and at least one woman—was Adolph Sutro, who engineered a namesake tunnel beneath the Comstock diggings to drain water from the mines, at a cost to mine owners of some $10,000 a day. Other entrepreneurs competed with Pacific Wood, Lumber and Fluming by floating timber directly to the mines along their own flume lines—in the process denuding much of the eastern Sierra. George Hearst, father of future newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, parlayed his prospecting success into Hearst, Haggin, Tevis and Co., the largest private mining firm in the United States, with mines in Nevada, Utah, South Dakota, Montana and Peru. When the surviving partners sold their interest in Montana’s Anaconda copper mines in 1899, Lloyd Tevis alone was reported to have made $8 million. Mining investor Alvinza Hayward diversified his earnings from the Comstock and other holdings into timber, coal, railroads, real estate and banking and became one of the original investors in the City Gas Co. of San Francisco, a predecessor of present-day Pacific Gas and Electric.
And there were others, many of whom never picked up a shovel or swung a pick. Among them was William Sharon, who started as the Bank of California’s agent on the Comstock but rose to become a business partner of bank founder William Ralston. He was also a principal member of what came to be known as the “Bank Crowd,” an investment group centered on Ralston and associates, men who had persisted through the original scurry for and litigation over Comstock claims. The Bank Crowd made much of its wealth by loaning money to ascendant mining and milling operations and then foreclosing on those operations when the mines lagged and their owners defaulted.
The Bank Crowd also funded construction of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad in 1869. As the cost of transporting ore from the mines rose, many operations were forced to close. Sharon, who by now had earned the moniker “King of the Comstock,” proposed a railroad to resolve the situation. The Virginia & Truckee connected the mines and mills with Virginia City and Carson City and later extended north to Reno to link with the Central Pacific. The trains soon supplanted the mule trains long used to carry Comstock ore from the valley. From the driving of the first spike on Sept. 28, 1869, work crews took just over a month to complete the railroad, at a cost of $1.75 million. At its peak the V&T ran 40 trains a day and carried 40,000 tons of freight per month.
In 1875 Ralston’s financial house of cards collapsed, and Sharon acquired many of his former employer’s assets. The day after the collapse Ralston turned up dead in San Francisco Bay, the apparent victim of a stroke while swimming. The rumor mill soon swirled with talk of suicide, while others speculated Sharon may have hastened the collapse.
Ethical integrity aside, there was no questioning Sharon’s entrepreneurial vision. Back in 1862 he had also helped found the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Co., the first non-mining incorporation on the Comstock Lode, to control the district water supply. At the time Virginia City drew its water supply from springs, wells or directly from the mine tunnels, and in Sharon’s hands it would remain far from drinkable. But in 1871 a group of investors led by Silver Kings Mackay and Fair bought out Sharon. The company’s new owners hatched plans to pipe in water from the Sierra Nevada, some 30 miles to the west. Those plans called for crossing the Washoe Valley, which lay more than 1,000 feet below Virginia City.
The company hired German engineer Hermann Schussler, who devised a system of flumes, tunnels and reservoirs in the Sierras that fed a pipeline down into the valley and back up to Virginia City. The system featured an innovative inverted siphon that enabled the line pressure itself to push water uphill without the use of pumps. After completing that project, Schussler worked as chief engineer on the Sutro Tunnel.
Another entrepreneur who capitalized on the uptick in Washoe Valley’s fortunes was Duane Bliss, founder of the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Co., which grew to control all facets of its lumbering business—owning the land on which the timber grew as well as the flumes, railroads, barges and ships that moved it. Bliss had earlier been a partner in a bank acquired by Ralston’s Bank of California in 1865, and he later stepped into the tourism business, leveraging his timber profits to buy Lake Tahoe real estate and link its shores with boat and train service. He even enticed Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes to visit the area, further boosting tourism.
Also making the national political scene was William Morris Stewart, a onetime California and Nevada prospector who dropped mining to become an attorney. Moving to Virginia City in 1860, he made a fortune in legal fees through his ruthless approach to mining litigation, ultimately gaining control of the Comstock Lode for his clients. He parlayed his reputation into a successful political career, serving two terms as a U.S. senator from Nevada.
Another dabbler in politics, albeit local, was Henry Piper, who settled in Nevada shortly after the discovery of the Comstock Lode and partnered with older brother John in a Virginia City saloon. The brothers later bought a local opera house and brought in nationally known celebrities—including the young humorist Mark Twain. A social climber, Henry went on to serve as a city alderman and treasurer and as a state assemblyman.
Among the notable women to benefit (legally) from the Comstock boom was Alison “Eilley” Oram Bowers, who started out running a boardinghouse, telling fortunes and doing miners’ laundry in Gold City, Nev. She moved up to buying and selling mining claims and became one of the richest women in the United States. She and husband Lemuel Sanford “Sandy” Bowers—referred to as “simple, unlettered folks” by one historian—were worth more than $4 million at the peak. But after Sandy died in 1868, and the mines played out, Eilley’s fortunes took a downturn. Widow Bowers survived for a while by turning her mansion into a resort and party spot, but she eventually went bankrupt and died penniless in Oakland, Calif.
The big winners, of course, were the Silver Kings and the Bank Crowd. But there was enough left over for others to get by, and in some cases get rich, by recognizing and meeting the needs of the burgeoning industry and the simple human needs of the thousands of other hopefuls drawn to the area.
Some just got richer than others.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.