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Nevada Silver Mining & the Comstock Lode

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  • 0:02 Comstock Lode
  • 0:48 Discovery
  • 1:48 Virginia City
  • 2:39 Dangers & Decline
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the mining history of Nevada. It will specifically highlight the Comstock Lode, the thriving area of Virginia City and the development of the Washoe Pan Process.

Comstock Lode

When discussing the fantastic mining stories of the West, we usually think 'gold!' However, when exploring the mining history of Nevada, silver gets to be the star of the show. To see what I mean, let's take a look at mining in Nevada and the Comstock Lode.

For starters, we need to know what a lode is. Stated simply, a lode is a vein of metal ore in the earth. Now for some Nevada history!

Nevada is home to the most profitable silver deposit in U.S. history, known as the Comstock Lode. Unearthed in the late 1850s by the Grosh Brothers, it forever changed the face of Nevada.

Discovery

Unfortunately for the Grosh boys, they died before seeing the fruits of their find. Adding insult to injury, a guy named Henry Comstock came along and claimed ownership of the land on which the lode was found. Although the validity of his claim has been hotly contested, the lode still carries his name.

Interestingly, the discovery of the Comstock Lode came about almost by accident. While hunting for gold, miners complained of bluish clay that kept clogging up their panning tools. Lo and behold, this blue stuff turned out to be silver. With this, complaint turned to excitement, and thousands of fortune seekers descended on the area.

Now, these miners (and their families) needed something to do besides mining. Rest assured, they didn't have to wait long! Within a short time, the railroad made its way to the area. With the railroad came restaurants, schools and entertainment of all sorts.

Virginia City

Virginia City became the most important city along the Comstock. From the early 1860s to the mid-1870s, its population soared from less than 5,000 to about 25,000. It had a massive 6-story hotel, over 100 saloons, theaters, music halls and plenty of places of. . . let's just say, ill repute.

On an interesting note, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) got his start at the Virginia City newspaper. And the popular show Bonanza depicted life in the Comstock.

Due to its huge population and cosmopolitan scene, many give Virginia City credit for Nevada gaining statehood in 1864. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Comstock Lode helped fund the North during the Civil War.

Dangers & Decline

Although life in the Comstock was exciting, it also carried danger. The risks of mines collapsing, underground fires,and even flooding were all too real. Apart from risk in the mines, city life also proved rather precarious. The threat of theft and even murder abounded. Just listen to this excerpt from a letter by Samuel Clemens (or Mark Twain): 'I have just heard five pistol shots down the street. . . The pistol did its work well. . . two of my friends were shot. Both died within three minutes.'

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