Slike strani

their place and examined their mine. His attention was attracted by the dark gray stone which he suspected was silver ore, and as an assay of it he sent a ton and a half of it to San Francisco, where it was sold for $3,000 per ton. He and some friends then bought out four of the five partners, paying $22,000 for four-fifths of 1,800 feet, or at the rate of $14 per foot.

Some shafts sunk on the vein showed that the gray stone, a rich sulphuret of silver, could be obtained in large quantities. The lode was soon claimed as far as it could be traced, and the market value of the shares rose so rapidly that before the end of the year $1,000 a foot had been offered for a portion of the lode.


The excitement about the silver mines spread throughout California in the spring of 1860, and thousands of miners crossed the mountains to work in the newly-discovered mines or to seek for others.

In every towu companies were formed to equip and send out prospectors, and the work was continued on a large scale for three years. Thousands of square miles, never before visited by white men, were explored and examined, and many thousands of metalliferous lodes were found and claimed.

It was in 1860 that the silver districts of Esmeralda, Bodie, Potosi, Coso, and Humboldt were discovered, besides many others of less note. The chief silver mining town grew up at the Comstock lode, and was soon the home of a large and excited population. Every man owned thousands of feet of argentiferous lodes, and considered himself either possessed of a fortune or certain of soon acquiring one.

The confidence in the almost boundless wealth of the country was universal, but many were bothered to convert their ore into ready cash. Men who considered themselves millionaires had sometimes not enough money to pay for a dinner, and in their dress they looked like beggars.*

* The following extract from a letter written at Virginia, in April, 1860, gives a vivid picture of the condition of society there at that time:

Of a certainty, right here, is Bedlam broke loose. One cannot help thinking, as he passes through the streets, that all the insane geologists extant have been corraled at this place. Most vehement is the excitement. I have never seen men act thus elsewhere. Not even in the earlier stages of the California gold movement were they so delirious about the business of metalliferous discovery. Hundreds and thousands are now here, who, feeling that they may never have another chance to inake a speedy fortune, are resolved this shall not pass unimproved. They act with all the concentrated energy of those having the issues of life and death before them. They demean themselves not like rational beings any more. Even the common modes of salutation are changed. Men, on meeting, do not inquire after each other's health, but after their claims: They do not

remark about the weather, bad as it is, but about out-croppings, assays, sulphurets, &c. They do not extend their hands in token of friendship on approaching, but pluck from their well filled pockets a bit of rock, and, presenting it, mutually inquire what they think of its looks. During the day they stand apart, talking in couples, pointing mysteriously hither and yon; and during the night mutter in their sleep of claims and dips and strikes, showing that their broken thoughts are still occupied with the all-absorbing subject. I shall be able to convey to your readers some idea of the intensity of this mining mania, when I assure them that this portion of the American people do not even ask after newspapers, nor engage in the discussion of politics. Little care they whom you choose President; conventions and elections, wars and rumors of wars, are nothing to them. They have their own world here. Here, bounded by the Sierra and the mountains of Utah, spread over the foot-hills and the deserts, is a theatre beyond which their thoughts are not permitted to roam ; to this their aspirations and aims are all confined. Whatever of energy, ambition, and desire are elsewhere expended on love, war, politics, and religion, are here all devoted to this single pursuit of finding, buying, selling, and trading in mines of silver and gold. Everybody makes haste to be rich; and so great is the mental tension in this direction, that it may well be questioned whether, if a sweeping disappointment should overtake them, many will not be reduced to a condition of absolute lunacy. What guarantee this wildly-excited multitude have against the happening of this fearful contingency, I am not fully prepared to say, having, as yet, not been able to give the subject much examination since my return. To attempt eliciting information from those now here, only tends to confuse and complicate what is already incomprehensible. If you talk with one man, he is only concerned lest the argentiferous metal be rendered worthless by the superabundance here met with; while another, with equal opportunities, and perhaps better ability for forming a correct judgment, derides the idea of there being any silver apart from the Comstock vein, telling you that the whole thing is an in verted pyramid, having that truly wonderful lead for a base.'


There was much difficulty in extracting the metal even from the richest ore. There were no mills to crush the rock, no skilful metallurgists to reduce the ore, and no confident opinion in regard to the best means of extraction. The simple processes used for reducing auriferous quartz would not suffice. The gold exists in the metallic form, and so soon as the rock is pulverized can be obtained by washing or amalgamation. But silver is in chemical combination with baser substances, and must be separated from them by chemical influences before the metal will submit to unite with quicksilver, by which it must usually be caught.

All the silver produced in civilized countries was obtained by two processes, the Frieberg German barrel, and the Mexican yard or patio. In the German process three hundred pounds of the ore, finely pulverized, are mixed with water to the thickness of cream, and after the addition of some salt, iron pyrites, scraps of iron, and quicksilver are put into a strong barrel, and kept revolving rapidly for fourteen hours, at the end of which time the silver and quicksilver have united, and they can easily be separated from the mud by washing. The barrels are rapidly worn out, the amount of work done is little, and the labor required is much. In the Mexican process the pulverized ore is mixed with water, salt, iron pyrites, and quicksilver, and left out in an open yard for three weeks, the mass being stirred or trodden with mules occasionally. This mode of reducing is very slow, and is unsuited to the cool climate of Nevada, in latitude 38°, and at an elevation of 5,000 or 6,000 feet above the sea.



There was a general belief that some mode of amalgamation better than either of these could and would be devised, so while one set of men were engaged in hunting and opening mines, another set were busy in studying a mode for reducing the ores. A satisfactory result was not reached for several years, but it came at last in the invention of the pan process, as distinguished from the barrel and yard processes.

The pan is of cast-iron, about five feet in diameter and eighteen inches deep.

Five hundred or a thousand pounds of ore are put in with salt, iron pyrites, quicksilver, and enough water to make a thin mud. A muller revolves on the bottom of the pan, and serves to grind the matter, which is not fine enough, and also brings all the particles of the ore into contact with the chemicals and the quicksilver. Besides the motion of the muller, various devices are used to keep up a regular current, so that all portions of the mixture are successively brought to the bottom, and exposed to the action of the quicksilver. In some pans heat is applied. The American process extracts silver from the common sulphuret ore as thoroughly as any other process, with much more rapidity, and with less expense. It is, therefore, in almost universal use in the American silver mines of the Pacific slope, and has been introduced into Mexico, where it will probably in time supersede the yard process. While the metallurgists were working away at their pans, the miners generally were afraid to erect mills lest buildings and machinery might be unsuited to the new modes of working:

The mills that were built charged $50 and $60 per ton for crushing and amalgamating, though the same work was done at Grass Valley, only one hundred miles distant, for less than $5 a ton.

The amalgamation was so conducted that only the free gold was saved. All the silver and much of the gold were lost. Ore that contained $500 to the ton was sent to the mill if it yielded $70 or $80, leaving about $10 profit, and a loss of $400 of silver.

The value of the ore and the amount of silver lost were precisely understood, but there was no remedy. It was necessary to take some silver from the mines at any sacrifice to keep up the confidence of the shareholders. Although the ore in sight was worth millions, the bullion sent across the mountains from Nevada amounted to only $90,897 in 1860.

The next year, however, the export rose to $2,275,256; in 1862 to $6,247,074, and in 1863 to $12,486,23%. This increased rate might well astonish the world, • and dazzle people in the vicinity.

31.-GROWTH OF THE WASHOE EXCITEMENT. The silver excitement which pervaded California in the spring of 1860 continued to increase steadily for three years.

Washoe, by which name the mining region near the Comstock lode was generally known, was the main topic of conversation, and the main basis of speculation. Everybody owned shares in some silver mine. High prices were paid to strangers for mines at places of which the purchaser had never heard until a day or two before the purchase. Men seemed to have discarded all the dictates of prudence. Their judgment was overwhelmed by the suddenly acquired wealth of a few and by the general anxiety of the many to buy any kind of silver shares. People acted as though there were so many rich silver mines that men who had been searching for them would not be so mean as to offer a poor one for sale. Three thousand silver mining companies were incorporated in San Francisco, and 30,000 persons purchased stock in them. The nominal capital was $1,000,000,000, but their actual market value never exceeded $60,000,000, and not one in fifty owned a claim of the least value. And yet the organization of each company cost $100 on an average, and that money had to be paid by somebody. Although the mines were in western Utah, which was organized afterwards into the Territory and then into the State of Nevada, the shares were mostly owned in San Francisco, and that place was the centre of speculation and excitement, of profit and loss. On every side were to be seen men who had made independent fortunes in stocks within a few months.

The share in the leading mines on the Comstock lode were the preferred security for loans by money lenders and banks.

The shares, or feet, as they were more commonly called, (for in most of the companies a share represented a lineal foot lengthwise on the vein,) of the Comstock claims advanced with great rapidity, in some cases as much as $1,000 per month.

A foot of the Gould and Curry mine, worth $500 on the 1st of March, 1862, was sold for $1,000 in June; for $1,550 in August; for $2,500 in September; for $3,200 in February, 1863; for $3,700 in May; for $4,400 in June, and for $5,600 in July. Other claims advanced with a rapidity less rapid but scarcely less startling. In the middle of 1863, Savage was worth $3,600 per foot; Central $2,850; Ophir $2,550 ; Hale and Norcross $1,850; California $1,500 ; Yellow Jacket $1,150; Crown Point $750; Chollar $900, and Potosi $600.


Virginia City, the centre of the mining industry, rose to be the second town west of the Rocky mountains. It had a population of 15,000, and the assessed value of its taxable property was $11,000,000. The amount of business done was twice as great as in any other town of equal size in the United States. And well might the town be large and busy. It produced more silver within a year than any other one mining district of equal size ever did. Neither Potosi nor Guanajuato could equal it. The former town yielded $10,000,000 annually for a time, but with that yield supported a population of 160,000. Indeed,

ay be doubted whether any town of 15,000 persons ever before produced an average of $12,000,000 annually, or an average of $800 to the person. Well might excitement run high, and money be flush.


[blocks in formation]

But though the silver yield kept up, distrust set in, and prices of stocks commenced to fall in the summer of 1863. The people began to count up how many millions they had paid as assessments on claims that had been worked for years and had never yielded a cent. Experts from other silver mining countries said that no rich and permanent deposits of silver had been opened, save on the Comstock lode, and that the management of the mines there was grossly wasteful.

It was a notorious fact that many companies had been organized for the purpose of swindling the ignorant by selling worthless stock to them.

Prices declined slowly until the middle of the next year, and then they were attacked by a panic which smote hundreds of the Washoe speculators with terror and bankruptcy. Gould & Curry fell from $5,600 to $900 per foot; Savage, from $3,600 to $750 ; Ophir, from $2,550 to $425 ; California, from $1,500 to $21; Hale & Norcross, froin $1,850 to $310, and others in like proportion.

The wild-cat or baseless speculations were swept away to destruction by the thousand, and never heard of more.

The dray-men, the hod-carriers, the mechanics, the clerks, the seamstresses, the servant girls, who had cheerfully paid assessments for years, in the confidence that they would soon have a handsome income from their silver mines, were disenchanted.

The name of Washoe, which had once been blessed, was now accursed by the multitude, though still a source of profit to a few.

People wondered how they could have been so blind. It was found on examination that the most deliberate and most dishonest deception had been systematically practiced in many cases. Most of the mines had been managed not with the object of taking silver from the ore, but for the purpose of making a profit by the sale and purchase of stocks.

The officers, or some of them, combined to raise or depress the shares as suited their schemes. It was an easy matter to instruct the miners to take out the richest or the poorest of the ore, and the returns of the mill could be published as a fair indication of the value of all the ore within sight.*

In theserection of buildings the financial management of the companies was grossly extravagant. Money was thrown about almost as if it had no value. It was presumed that the rich and extensive deposits found near the surface, instead of being exhausted, would become still richer as the works advanced in depth. The ignorance of metallurgy and lack of experience in silver mining led to many costly mistakes.

Wages much higher than those of California were paid. * We find the following paragraph in the report of S. H. Marlette, the surveyor general of Nevada, for 1865 :

When a bulling operation was in progress the superintendent would write glowing letters; rich rock, selected from a large mass of poorer material, would be sent to mill; debts would be iucurred to be paid in the future, and large dividends would be declared.

“If a 'bearing' operation was in contemplation, the rich deposits would be avoided; the rock sent to mill would prove to be very poor ; assessments would be levied to pay off the debts of the company; suits would be commenced against it, and every device that could discourage stockholders would be adopted.”

34.-LITIGATION ABOUT THE COMSTOCK MINES. The overestimate of the value of the mines was one of the causes of a great litigation, for which opportunities were given by the careless manner in which claims were located, recorded, and transferred in early times. The lawyers charged fees high almost beyond example. Witnesses who found that their testimony was necessary in important suits suddenly had business in the eastern States, or in some other remote place, and could not be persuaded to remain till the trial unless some large sums of money were paid to them.

Subornaiion of perjury became a profession in which many engaged. So much money was spent in a law suit that it materially affected business.

When the trial of the suit between the Ophir and the Burning Moscow was transferred from Virginia City to Aurora, property in certain parts of the latter town rose fifty per cent., so confident were the residents there that the attendants at the court would be numerous and flush of money. In several cases more money was spent in litigation than the entire mine is now worth. The surveyor general of the State, in his report for the year 1865, says:

“I have understood that $1,300,000 have been expended in litigation between the Chollar and Potosi companies, and $1,000,000 more have been expended in the Ophir-Moscow trials.

I believe one-fifth of the proceeds of the Comstock would not more than pay the expenses of litigating the title thereto.”

The yield of the Comstock lode, up to the date of that report, had been about $45,000,000; so Mr. Marlette’s estimate of the amount spent in litigation would be $9,000,000, and four-fifths of this was expended within a period of three years.

The sum paid as dividends to stockholders in many permanent mines was less than that expended in litigation.

[ocr errors]



One of the main sources of the lawsuits was the doubt whether the Comstock lode had at its side a number of branches, or whether it was one of a series of independent and parallel lodes within a distance of two hundred yards. At the surface several seams of ore were perceptible, and the first claimants had taken the seam which was largest and lowest on the hill, and they asserted that the seams above were mere branches. This assertion, however, did not prevent others from claiming the upper seams, and thus arose the suits between the Ophir and the Burning Moscow, that between the Gould & Curry and the North Potosi, and that between the Potosi and the Bajazet, which were all cases of much importance in their day. The people were divided between the one-lode and the many-lode parties, and elections turned more than once on that question. Most of the stock of the one-lode companies was held in San Francisco, while a larger proportion of the stockholders of the many-lode companies were residents of Virginia City, so it was argued that it was the interest of Nevada that the old companies should be defeated. But the latter had the evidence of geology, and what was, perhaps, still more important, the money on their side, and the manylode theory was at last completely overthrown, but not until after a struggle that cost years of time and millions of money. The Comstock vein has a dip of 45° to the horizon, and while it was in the process of formation large bodies of porphyry split off from the hanging wall, fell down into the vein stone and were there suspended, leaving a seam of quartz above as well as one below. These pieces of hanging wall are usually long, narrow, and deep, but not large enough in any direction to make two lodes out of one.


Another source of disappointment to the mining companies was that as the works advanced in depth expenses increased in an unexpected manner. The immense excavations for the extraction of ore required vast quantities of timber; as the forests are distant and transportation dear, the mines now pay three-quarters of a million dollars annually for timbering alone.

« PrejšnjaNaprej »