“Go It, Washoe!”

Into the mountain-bound mining camp of Grass Valley, California, rode a weary traveler late in June, 1859. He had jogged more than 150 miles over the massive Sierra Nevada from the Washoe country in western Utah Territory. With him, mostly as a curiosity, he carried some odd-looking chunks of gold-bearing ore.

Next day Melville Atwood, the local assayer, tested the rock. What he discovered made him doubt his own calculations. For besides the gold content, which ran about $1,000 to the ton, the specimens contained a much higher value in silver—over $3,000 per ton!

What was more, the stranger confided, over in Washoe the discoverers were extracting the gold and throwing the rest away! Since California’s big strike more than a decade earlier, prospectors had not even thought of looking for anything but gold!

Those queer-looking rock samples launched a human stampede that created the state of Nevada, transformed the financial structure of the Far West, and set the pattern of settlement for the vast basin between Great Salt Lake and the Sierra.

Within hours of Atwood’s assay, the neighboring towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City were boiling with excitement. First to learn the news was Judge James Walsh, an old hand in California mining and a friend of the ore-bearing stranger from Washoe. Near midnight he banged frantically on the door of another friend. Quickly they piled provisions on a mule, mounted their horses, and spurred out of Grass Valley. Not far behind them clambered a desperate party in pursuit, some traveling on borrowed money, others on borrowed horses. Within two days a clattering column was surging through the pine-forested Sierra, some on horseback, some afoot, all bent forward like hounds on the scent. Riding in the van was the tall, muscular figure of George Hearst, then a rising young mining man of Nevada City. With him was Atwood the assayer, who had confided the news and joined the rush.

When this vanguard arrived in the barren hills of Washoe, the original miners still knew nothing of their ore’s silver content. The two discoverers, Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin, were washing out the gold with their “rocker,” letting the rest of the rock roll down the side of Sun Mountain. One of them sold his share for $3,500 to George Hearst, who was so anxious to buy that he rode his mule back over the mountains to Nevada City to raise the money. Judge James Walsh paid $11,000 for the interests of one Henry Comstock, a local prospector who had fast-talked the two discoverers into giving him a share. To seal his bargain with Walsh, Comstock took ten dollars as a down payment for what would later be worth millions. Then he bragged to his fellow miners that he had fooled “the California rock shark!”

He thought enough of the discovery, however, to call it Comstock’s Lode wherever he went. And so talkative was he that his name became permanently attached to the greatest single deposit of precious metal ever discovered in the United States.

By the summer of 1859 Walsh and Hearst were shipping ore over the Sierra—ore so rich that it could be carried 160 miles by muleback and another 80 by steamer, and could still be smelted in San Francisco at a fantastic profit. By October the growing shipments were attracting attention as they passed through California’s mining region. Early arrivals in Washoe were writing back that the mines were the richest in the country. California newspapers were quoting assay figures of thousands of dollars per ton. Before long, bars of Washoe silver were hauled through the streets of San Francisco and displayed in bank windows before the eyes of gathering crowds. All at once California rang with a new cry: Silver in Washoe!

In fact, only silver could have excited the Californians in 1859. For too long they had followed the call of gold. As the placers had declined in the mid-fifties, they had been quick to heed each rumored strike. Only the previous year some 20,000 had swarmed aboard ship for Fraser River in British Columbia, only to find the gold excitement fading: the glittering prize lay out of reach beneath flood waters. California had sent money to help them return, and they vowed never to be stampeded again by that golden call.

But against the cry of silver these stalwarts had no immunity. When it burst upon them in the fall of 1859, they were especially vulnerable. It had been a long summer, and in Sierra canyons the placer and hydraulic mines were idle for lack of water. At the end of September one Sacramento man estimated that a thousand unemployed men were roaming the town. “Never before,” he wrote, “have I seen so many people looking for work and can’t get it.”

To this restless crew the silver call was like a trumpet blast. All at once mules, horses, flour, picks, and shovels were in fevered demand. “From the crack of day to the shades of night,” exclaimed one San Franciscan, “nothing is heard but Washoe.” It made no difference that the new strike was located in the very desert through which most of them had suffered on their way west to California. All they knew was that it was “Forty-nine all over again!”