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1 1. Gold and Silver! In 1990 Don Hardesty and Bill White led an archaeological team underground where miners from an earlier century had left their tools. The dozen heavy, iron drill bits were the sort of artifact commonly found scattered throughout antique stores of the Intermountain West, but here was something more: this was a miner’s entire kit including hand drills of graduated length for work as the hole deepened. A long metal shaft with a handmade flattened end leaned against the stone wall. Miners called it a spoon, and they had used it to coax debris out of a drill hole. There were also two yard-long wooden sticks—tamping rods— used to push dynamite back into the hole. These things, both the common and the unusual, were made all the more remarkable by the fact that they waited together for the next crew to resume the work.1 Earlier that year the Gold Eagle Mining Company had followed the clue of a tuft of dirt on Middle Hill at the north end of Virginia City. The company was using material culture to conduct its business. The mound suggested that there had once been a mine in the area, and geologists hoped to follow the evidence to an older excavation so they could probe the interior of the mountain with minimal expense. Workers cut into the hillside until they uncovered a pristine historic mine extending into the Virginia Range roughly one thousand feet. After timbering what had been the collapsed mouth of the mine, the modern workers had an opportunity to conduct assays of mineral wealth throughout the subsurface part of their claim. But they had discovered a great deal more. Earlier miners had left their tools behind, presenting an opportunity to examine an excavation just as it was abandoned roughly a century earlier. To stand at the old work station was to transport oneself back in time. As archeologists collected artifacts and mapped the old works, the emerging image of industry in Virginia City challenged the cliché shaped by the written record. Material culture offered a new way to consider the history of the great Comstock Lode, a story that has become legendary in the world of mining. 2 Gold and Silver! In 1859 prospectors exploring at the head of Gold Canyon in the western Great Basin found one of the richest deposits of gold and silver the world has ever known. Placer digging—working gold-filled sandy river deposits—had dominated the mining West since the California gold rush began in 1849. Throughout the 1850s small groups of placer miners had operated in Gold Canyon, along its feeble creek tumbling southeast toward the Carson River. They earned a decent living, but the precious metal was becoming scarce by the end of the decade. It was time to find other deposits in the area or leave. Most left.2 Several who remained ascended the steep canyons looking for better prospects on the southern and eastern slopes of what would be called Mount Davidson. Local miners certainly suspected that a larger deposit existed higher on the mountain, sloughing off gold in small bits for thousands of years. But they had reason to avoid this proverbial “mother lode,” a vast ore body encased in rock beneath the ground. Placer miners knew how to shovel surface sands, wash the dirt in wooden rockers, and retrieve gold. They did not know how to penetrate solid rock, timber and ventilate a mine, pump water out of a shaft, hoist workers and ore from the great depths, and then crush rock to extract the precious metal. A hard-rock, underground excavation is an expensive, dangerous challenge that requires a great deal of investment and technical knowledge . Unable to tackle these obstacles, placer miners had labored for a decade in the shadow of the mountain without climbing its distant heights to look for underground ore bodies. It would be a mixed blessing to find the mother lode. In spite of the challenge presented by finding subsurface ore, a few people started looking in early 1859. And the rest, as they say, is history. In fact, it is a well-documented history. In January and June of 1859, prospectors discovered easy-to-work rich outcroppings that were different from the placer sands along Gold Canyon Creek. A few, including Henry “Pancake” Comstock, James “Old Virginny” Finney, Patrick McLaughlin, Peter O’Riley, and James Penrod, became icons of local lore. Because the vein protruded to...


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MARC Record
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