- Historic Sites
“Go It, Washoe!”
Granddaddy of all desert mining discoveries was the Comstock Lode, which sent the Far West on a silver stampede to Nevada’s Washoe country a century ago.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
Others tramped over the mountain passes with even less visible means of support—the thieves and cut-throats who customarily joined new stampedes. Of this ilk was “Fighting” Sam Brown—he of the bull voice and the clanking Spanish spurs. Sam was a “bad man,” glorying in the name, working hard to keep it. Before his Washoe debut he had spilled the blood of several Californians. On his way he shot a man in Carson City; arriving at the Comstock, he got into a fight with a monte dealer and wounded two bystanders. He would become “chief” of the new camp, or stretch his bones at the feet of a better man.
But the backbone of the stampeders was the common miner—the same who for ten years had been pouring into California from the East, and had been rushing to every new strike on the coast. Honest, hard-working, hail-fellow, he was the sinew of frontier society. Shovel on shoulder, he walked or rode over icy Sierra passes to Washoe, eager to possess a new country. At the least he would gain a better wage as a miner there than in the declining California fields. At most he would strike his own vein of silver and return to the States a millionaire.
One of these was young John W. Mackay, Irish immigrant and hardrock miner. In California’s Yuba diggings he heard the news of Washoe and loaded his back-pack. With another young Irishman for a companion, he trudged up through the timber, past shimmering Lake Tahoe, and descended on Washoe. As they stood at the gates of the Comstock, his sidekick took the last half dollar they had between them and threw it far down the canyon.
“What are you doing?’ cried Mackay. “That’s my last.”
His pal had a reasonable answer: “Let us inter the city loike gintlemen.”
When the first Californians reached Washoe they found only a handful of disreputable shacks, inhabited by an equally disreputable collection of sourdoughs. The center of society was the boarding house of Eilley Orrum, first woman on the Comstock. Having already shed two husbands, this stouthearted female had her eyes on a third in the person of her most eligible boarder, Sandy Bowers. Still another guest, in addition to Henry Comstock and the discoverers of the Lode, was a whiskey-soaked character named “Old Virginny” Fennimore. The grizzled old-timer had held a small interest in the discovery claim, but Comstock had bought him out for a bobtailed, half-blind horse.
Cheated of his chance for fortune, Old Virginny got back at Comstock in his own way. During a drunken spree on the site of the Lode, he solemnly christened the new community—with appropriate drops from a broken whiskey bottle—“Virginia Town.” And so it immediately became, overshadowing in popular use the name of Comstock’s Lode. Within a few months, after the grotesque humor of the miners insisted on a grander title, it became Virginia City—goal of every Washoe-bound traveler and eventually the most famous mining town in the West.
By the fall of ’59 tents and shanties were sprawling up the sterile slope of Sun Mountain. There was only one miserable restaurant, and hotels were practically nonexistent. Newcomers were invited to find a soft spot for their blankets on the hillside, while the more fastidious slept in the beds of wagons. The drinking water was abominable, being strongly impregnated with arsenic. But the boys found a way of “correcting” it by diluting each teaspoon with half a glass of whiskey.
When winter settled upon Washoe it covered the hills with snow and sent the thermometer below zero. What was worse, it virtually cut off supplies from California. But whiskey always seemed to make its way through Sierra passes when nothing else could. With scarcely enough food to maintain body heat, the resourceful Walshoeites were said to “draw largely on the resources of the bar.”
As the main body of stampeders arrived in early spring, they found Washoe the most dismal place on earth. One newcomer thus described it: “Imagine a flood in hell, succeeded by a snow-storm …” Another wayfarer drew a more detailed picture of Virginia Town:
Frame shanties, pitched together as if by accident; tents of canvas, of blankets, of brush, of potato sacks and old shirts, with empty whisky-barrels for chimneys: smoky hovels of mud and stone: coyote holes in the mountain side forcibly seized and held by men: pits and shafts with smoke issuing from every crevice …
Night and day the saloons and gambling houses filled the air with a constant din of oaths and laughter, rattling dice, and clinking coins. Inside these foul dens, as one witness put it, “clouds of tobacco smoke filled the air and blackened the roof timbers, modifying the stench rising from the stained and greasy floors, soiled clothes, and hot flesh of the unwashed company.” A San Francisco author and correspondent, Frank Soulé, wrote: “I have been through one hundred degrees of latitude, north and south, but never before have found so inhospitable, miserable, God-forsaken a spot as this same Virginia City …”