Comstock Lode – so much silver, so little time

August 11, 1860

On this day the nation’s first silver mill in Virginia City, Nevada, began processing ore from the Comstock Lode, the landmark silver mine that made millionaires out of many and paupers of others. 

News of the strike became public in 1859.  Credit for the discovery gets passed around.  It actually all started with gold.  A group of Mormon emigrants on their way to California found placer nuggets in the Carson River in 1850.  But when the snow melted in the mountain pass across the Sierras they left, gambling on greater riches at Sutter’s Mill.

A pair of trained mineralogists, brothers from Pennsylvania named Ethan and Hosea Grosh, (left) may have been the first to detect silver.  But  Hosea got injured and died of septicemia.  Brother Ethan then headed for California to raise money with a companion named Richard Maurice Bucke.  

Armed with claim maps and ore samples Grosh and Bucke left itinerant miner Henry “Pancake” Comstock to mind the store.  The pair never reached the Golden State.  Ethan Grosh soon followed his brother to the grave, dying of complications from frostbite crossing the Sierras.  The lone survivor of the trio, Richard  Bucke, walked out of the mountains also suffering from frostbite and decided to forsake the possible riches of the West, returning to his native Canada.

When “Pancake” Comstock (right) learned that both brothers were dead, he quickly filed a claim on an area adjacent to the Grosh brothers’ site. 

Enter two Irishmen.  Peter O’Riley and Patrick McLaughlin, prospecting at the head of the same canyon struck silver while drilling for water to operate their rockers.

Learning of their success, Comstock insisted he already had laid claim to the area for “grazing purposes,” managing to wangle himself and a partner, Immanuel “Manny” Penrod, into a deal with O’Riley and McLaughlin.  


Early Virginia City

Comstock couldn’t even have imagined how much silver there was.  The  amount taken from the mines in and around Virginia City was spectacular.  Having little experience with anything but placer gold, the Nevada prospectors sought help from Mexican miners familiar with the amal-gamation technique known as the patio method. 

The impatient Americans, however, found the Mexican process much too slow for the massive amounts of ore coming out of the mines.  They developed instead, the quicker stamp mill process which added copper and mercury to the crushed ore.  The mercury dissolves out the silver when its distilled, recovering millions in ore that had been previously just washed away.                        Silver mill recovered millions in ore.

Whatever silver had been lost, there was a lot left.  The total amount of  extracted and milled in the Comstock District between 1860 and 1880 was nearly seven million tons.   It was a fortune then, $270 million in gold and $400 million in silver; its worth today somewhere in the neighborhood of $45 to $90 billion.  But even Comstock seemed to play out.  The  pumps were finally shut down in 1922, ending more than six decades of mining. 

The original four owners,  O’Riley, McLaughlin, Comstock and Penrod all cashed out for a pittance of the mine’s true worth.  Patrick McLaughlin sold his share for $3,500 and Immanuel Penrod sold his one sixth share for just $8,500.  Peter O’Riley did better for a time, selling his interest for a more respectable $40,000.  He opened a hotel in Virginia City and became a dealer in mining stocks.  After having visions of even bigger strikes, however, he began tunneling into the Sierras near Genoa.  Finally ruled insane, he died in an asylum in California.  

The lode’s namesake, Henry Comstock who reportedly traded O’Riley and McLaughlin a blind horse and a bottle of whiskey for his original one tenth share, eventually sold  out for $11,000.  

He invested the money in general stores in Carson City and Silver City, both of which failed.  He returned to prospecting and allegedly committed suicide in 1870 looking for gold near Bozman, Montana.

There were some real winners, of course, generally money men who never raised a shovel and got rich buying out men like Comstock and Penrod.  There were two young writers who did well for themselves, as well.  They didn’t make their fortunes in the mines but became famous telling the tales of  those who did.  Samuel Clemens and William Wright are better known by their  pen names, Mark Twain and Dan DeQuille. 

Young writers, Mark Twain, left and Dan DeQuille

And then there’s Ethan Grosh’s frostbitten buddy, Richard Maurice Bucke.  After returning to Canada he entered McGill University. becoming one of the country’s leading psychiatrists and medical reformers.  Ironically, it was winter that finally did him in.  On Feb 19, 1902, at age 65 the eminent doctor slipped on the ice in front of his house, striking his head.  He died several hours later without regaining consciousness.  

Apparently the Comstock had not breathed its last back in ‘22.  Comstock Mining, Inc. was formed in 2008, promising to be ecologically sensitive, to work with the local community and be mindful of the area’s rich history. In 2016, the company received Nevada’s mine safety award for small mines given by the Nevada Mining Association.  

The Way It Was Museum, 113 North C Street, Virginia City, Nevada, is considered a virtual “gold mine” of Comstock memorabilia featuring artifacts, maps and rare photographs of the Virginia City’s boom town era. 

Open daily (weather permitting) 10:30 to 4:30  all year except Christmas. Admission $2.50 for adults, children under 12 free when accompanied by an adult.  For information on this and more than a dozen other Virginia City mining era museums and historic sites go to, call (775) 847-0766 , fax (775) 847-9613 or write P.O. Box 158, Virginia City, NV 89440.

© Text Only – 2018- Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.