“Go It, Washoe!”


Washoe’s redeeming feature was that it was never dull. Through the spring of 1860 it was teeming with would-be tycoons—all talking “lodes,” “dips,” “angles,” “indications,” and trying to sell one another shares in a claim. New arrivals first encountered the frenzy at Carson City, where, as one of them warned, “Every man you meet has, or expects to have, something to sell, and can in no wise be trusted.” It increased in fury at Silver City, in the canyon approaching the Comstock; there, according to another traveler, nobody estimated himself to be worth less than $50,000. It reached its zenith in Virginia City, where the riches of Monte Cristo were apparently changing hands by the minute.

“Nobody had any money,” observed a newcomer, “yet everybody was a millionaire in silver claims. Nobody had any credit, yet everybody bought thousands of feet of glittering ore.”

Adding fuel to this blaze of excitement were new mining discoveries in the very streets. One man digging a cellar discovered mineral “indications, claimed a whole streetful of houses for his lead, and set hundreds to turning up the earth under their tents. Title disputes over such valuable lots were usually settled on the spot, the parties using empty bottles or other instruments to emphasize the justice of their case.

Still greater panic was caused by frequent announcements that a new strike had been made in a nearby canyon. At first those who knew the secret would disappear, quietly packing a mule and making off. By the time their absence was noticed the rumor was on every tongue and the stampede began. For a day or two Virginia City would be nearly deserted while every able-bodied man scurried over the new ground staking claims. To get around local mining laws he would hang notices on the sagebrush in the name of every friend he had left behind in California, until the landscape fairly fluttered with the claims of strangers who would never see Washoe and never know of the lodes and ledges taken up in their names. After a few days the new ground would be found far less promising than the main Comstock lead. The rushers would straggle back into Virginia City, waving ore samples and offering their fabulous bonanzas to every stranger they met.

By April, 1860, the Comstock mania reached its height. One visitor estimated that only one inhabitant in fifty was actually mining the earth. A few more were out prospecting for new leads, while the largest proportion was engaged in buying and selling shares. When two friends met on the street the customary salutation, rather than a handshake, was to thrust ore samples at each other; and instead of asking after one’s health, they would inquire about assays, claims, and outcroppings. One man bunking with twenty roommates in a crowded Virginia City hotel complained that the others spent most of the night trading claims and displaying rock samples, all the while chattering wildly: “Struck it rich!”—“Miller on the rise!”—“A thousand feet more!”

Providing a real basis for the excitement was the actual discovery of rich new extensions in the Lode. The main deposit ran lengthwise along the mountainside, each mine owner tunneling inward to strike it. As a mine approached the lead, its stock took on new interest. The whole population kept alert to its progress, achieving new heights of hysteria whenever a messenger would come hurrying down the street with a handful of promising “indications.” This was the signal for a flourish of magnifying glasses, which every Washoeite carried in his pocket; the verdict would be heatedly discussed with wild flailing of arms, and the price of the stock would rise $10 to $20 per running foot. Finally, with the whole town on edge, word would come that the mine in question had reached the Lode! In one moment its chief owners were fantastically rich, and its shares were valued at $500 to $1,000 per foot.

So intense was the furor that as a tunnel approached the vein, speculators would keep a list of the owners, retaining messengers at the mine to report instantly upon its success. With his advance information, the operator would then scurry through town to buy up shares before the news was generally known. Many sent wires via the new telegraph line over the mountains to their San Francisco agents, who would then seek out every uninformed owner and buy his stock.

As early as April such speculation was getting out of hand. Claims situated miles away from Virginia City were readily sold on both sides of the mountains. Clerks, washerwomen, teamsters, laundrymen were dealing in mining stock. One young easterner who had just arrived in San Francisco was swept up in the excitement, bought two Washoe claims for $1,000 from the first promoter he encountered, sold out a few months later for $20,000, and took steamer passage home. When telegrams giving the status of various claims were delayed en route to San Francisco, the telegraph operators were accused of holding the information for their own advantage. And when the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin visited Virginia City, one brokerage house staged a fake demonstration for his benefit—and that of his readers. While the newspaperman remained in the office, a perfect bedlam was manufactured by those supposed to be buying and selling stocks, the “buyers” almost begging for the chance to put down their money.