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2: THE fiRST BOOM Building the Community The discovery ofthe silver-mines in Nevada gave all an excellent opportunity of gratifying their migratory instincts, and miners and men ofall classes and all trades and professionsflocked over the Sierras, in the spring ofI 860. -William Wright, The Big Bonanza {Virginia City/ is expected to grow more rapidly this spring, though the entire absence ofwood, and waterfit ftr drinking, in the neighborhood, will operate as a great drawback on its prosperity. -Hutchings' California Magazine, April 1860 California emigrants, each hoping for a fortune, poured over the Sierra in 1860 at the first sign of winter's cessation, long before prudent travelers would have thought the trails passable. After slogging through mountain mud and snow, the would-be millionaires descended into valleys at the eastern foot of the Sierra that were lush with the first spring runoff. Still, it was a narrow band of green, and the travelers found a more characteristic Great Basin landscape ofbrowns and grays as they ascended the foothills of the next mountain range to the east on the way to the new diggings. From valley floor to Virginia City, they climbed nearly 2,500 feet in a little more than a dozen miles. The wagon road led through spectacular, stark scenery. After following the Carson River to Chinatown, the oldest mining camp in the area, they took the trail north through Johntown and into Silver City, founded only a few months before at the mouth of the rock-bordered pass known as Devil's Gate.! From there the road grew steeper until it reached Gold Hill, and with each step, the travelers saw imposing Mount Davidson grow taller as their perspectives shifted. On an early spring evening, the sun sets far enough north for its rays to slide between Mount Davidson and Mount Butler, just to the south. Huge, ragged rock outcroppings surrounded by patches ofsnow rise from Davidson's southern slope, looming over Bullion Ravine below. Brooding clouds often hover over the mountain late in the day, a sign that winter's storms could still unleash their fury even in April or May. At the same time, piercing rays ofsunlight, bright in the thin air of almost 8,000 feet, catch the mountain and make the rock buttresses and snow gleam against the dark sky. Even the most insensitive is awestruck. Certainly this image greeted many emigrants traversing the last few miles before journey's end as they neared Virginia City in the spring of 1860. ]. Ross Browne, writer, artist, and sometime government official, was among those who set out for the Comstock early that year, only a few months after the call of the strike had sounded in the West and echoed throughout the world. The trip he describes was full of hardship, yet he was led on by his dreams of the riches to be won. He found a community that had clung to the mountainside through the previous winter, and it had not been easy. Snow fell incessantly, making warmth and supplies rare commodities. The few crudely built, drafty saloons became town centers, where miners collected more to spend the day by a well-tended stove than for companionship or drink. The local pinon and juniper trees, twisted and full of pitch, served poorly as firewood, but there was little else. Ancient groves fell to the ax that winter, forever changing the delicate ecosystem of the high, cold desert.2 Construction had halted as snow blocked supply routes. With the ground frozen, miners could not open new diggings. A few continued excavation on existing adits, but in general there was "not much doing, owing to the extremely cold weather," as reported in the Enterprise. At the first hint of spring, the community set to work and began its remarkable metamorphosis. Wright records something of this: "At first there was not sufficient shelter for the newcomers, and they crowded to overflowing every building of whatever kind in all the towns along the Comstock range. But houses were rapidly being built in all directions, and the weather soon became warm enough to allow camping out in comfort almost everywhere; men who had rolled up their blankets and slept on the snow, high up on the frosty Sierras, did not mind much sleeping in the open air on the lower hills."3 22 The Roar and the Silence It was in the midst of this excitement, occasionally dampened by a late winter storm, that Browne and a...


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