Panamint: Suburb Of Hell

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Surprise Canyon rises abruptly from the desert floor. It is five miles long and in that five miles it rises a total of 5,000 feet, which a slight business with a slide rule will indicate is a grade of twenty per cent. At times Surprise Canyon is less than ten feet in width, with cliffs on either side towering an absolute and vertical 500 feet or more. Down this slot in the side of the world’s gloomiest and most forbidding mountains there sometimes rush flash floods in a wall of water forty feet high that carry along fifty ton boulders like corks. In the Twentieth Century only a powerful truck or vehicle with four-wheel drive can successfully essay the grade in Surprise Canyon. It is understandable that the pilgrims who have penetrated to the ruins of Panamint City should comprise one of the most exclusive groups in the world, comparable in its way to the explorers who have visited Tibet’s Forbidden City.

The year was 1873. The presence of silver in potentially recoverable form and substantial quantities in the Panamints had been fairly established for a full decade. But the region’s inaccessibility, the absence of any roads or communications whatsoever, and its population of eminently hostile Indians, augmented by a scattering of recluses who had experienced “Wells Fargo trouble” in the outer world, were not conducive to optimism in mining circles. San Francisco had heard vaguely about Panamint, but San Francisco had its own private bonanza just below C Street in Virginia City where, according to the conservative estimate of Dan De Quille, $360,000,000 in easily recoverable ore was visible to the naked eye in the stopes of Con-Virginia alone. Panamint was a fortnight away, across deserts compared to which a stove lid was comfortably cool. Virginia City was just overnight aboard the Palace cars of clever George Mortimer Pullman. The hell with Panamint.

But in 1873 several events synthesized to change all that. A group of shady characters foregathered in the hills and organized in proper legal style the Panamint Mining District. Their claims in Surprise Valley were all properly monumented and recorded, and an assay of Panamint ore conducted by a reliable and conscientious chemist ran from $1,000 to $2,500 a ton. Los Angeles, a sprawling Spanish mission of fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, was interested if San Francisco was not. The banking firm of Temple & Workman, the Southland’s equivalent of San Francisco’s puissant Bank of California, was interested.

And most important of all, shortly thereafter there became interested in Panamint’s possibilities Nevada’s two senators of great wealth and even greater influence, William Morris Stewart and John Percival Jones. These potent solons, patriarchal in beards and Prince Alberts, possessed of prestige in Washington and almost fanatical devotion at home, were the archetype of what became known as the “Silver Senators.”

Senator Stewart was already a legendary figure both on the Comstock and in the halls of state. A Yale man who had taken part in the initial commotions of the Mother Lode across the Sierras in California, he had himself practically single-handed written the body of mining law which obtained throughout the West at the time and, through his own assiduous practice of law during the $10,000,000 worth of litigation which characterized the Comstock’s first decade, had become Nevada’s first millionaire senator and millionaire legal light.

Senator Jones had arrived in Weaverville, California, in 1850. Robust, full-blooded and with an eye to the main chance, he had already had minor skirmishes with the informal politics of the Mother Lode and had been sheriff and justice of the peace when he arrived in Washoe in the middle Sixties with a friend, Alvinza Heyward. They were to take charge of the affairs of Crown Point, a mine of fiery destinies which was eventually to elevate him to the status of the Comstock’s first millionaire mine superintendent and eventually to the toga itself. In 1869 catastrophe had struck Crown Point in the form of fire in the lower levels. In the ensuing holocaust Jones had proved himself a man of heroic stature and, amidst the general carnage, had salvaged, at incredible personal risk, the lives of scores of his workmen. Already rich, he was now almost godlike and obviously one of the favored sons of Fortune herself.

A third potentate of the age who associated himself with the gaudy destinies of Surprise Valley was Trenor W. Park, one of the first archmillionaires of the gold rush boom in San Francisco, a banker of respected abilities, director of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company and president of the Panama Railroad, probably the richest short line in the world until the Comstock’s Virginia & Truckee came along to give it pointers.