“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
Undeceived and disgusted, the Bulletin editor returned to San Francisco and hurled thundering editorials against the Washoe fever. It was the beginning of the end of the first Comstock stampede. Stock prices tumbled in San Francisco; Washoe suddenly lost its magic name. Of an estimated 4,000 claims located in Washoe by 1860, only 300 had been opened, and only 20 were considered by experts to be sound investments. As one observer in Washoe told the San Franciscans, “fools at your end of the telegraph were deceived by knaves at our end …”
Early in May a savage Indian uprising in the Washoe country knocked the remaining steam out of the first rush. But such setbacks could not down the Lode, which was basically sound to the extent of an estimated one-third of a billion dollars. The tide to the Comstock rose again in the summer of 1860 and ran heavily until ’63. Its riches helped to finance the Union side of the Civil War. Through the sixties and early seventies its wealth was the first fact of economics on the Pacific Coast. For the rest of the century its legend inspired the countless prospectors who scoured the Great Basin for “another Comstock.”
Among them were many of the same wild army that had populated Washoe in its dawning hour. Peter O’Riley, one of the two discoverers, had sold out for $40,000, which he had then lost in mining speculation. For years he pursued silver with pick and shovel, driven by an obsession that finally conquered his mind. Bitter fortune also dogged Henry Comstock, who wandered through Idaho and Montana in search of another treasure, and finally committed suicide.
Violence overtook others of that original band. While on one of his sprees, “Old Virginny” was killed when he fell from his horse—possibly the same half-blind nag for which he had traded his share of the Lode. Julia Bulette, the tarnished queen of Washoe, was murdered for her jewels; the Comstock showed its heart by giving her its greatest funeral and her slayer its most elegant hanging. As for the cutthroat Sam Brown, he met his fate by bullying the wrong man: an inoffensive innkeeper pursued him through Washoe and brought him down with a double blast of a shotgun. And the frontier coroner’s jury gave a verdict that has become classic: “It served him right.”
But to others, Washoe dealt fantastic cards. George Hearst won a vast fortune that became the foundation for the career of his son, William Randolph Hearst. John Mackay, the honest miner from the Yuba diggings, bent all his energies to the study of mining. He rose from mucker to superintendent, then to mine owner. In the early 1870s Mackay and three partners gained control of the Big Bonanza, a glittering new underground treasure that gave Virginia City its second tumultuous boom, threw the Pacific Coast into a new frenzy of stock speculation, and made its owners the lords of the Comstock.
Still others were unable to play the hands they were dealt. Judge James Walsh sold out his interests too soon and missed his chance for great fortune. Eilley Orrum had married her star boarder, Sandy Bowers, and the two held on to their mining shares long enough to become the only original owners to reap millions. Part of it they poured into Washoe Hall, a sumptuous Victorian mansion in Washoe Valley. They spent more of it on a grandiose tour of Europe, scandalizing the Continent with their extravagance. But there came a time when they scraped the bottom of their mine. After Sandy died, Eilley became the lone proprietress of Washoe Hall, sitting amidst its decayed splendor, living on the admission fees of curiosity-seekers.