By Mark McLaughlin ·
All aboard! Arguably the most famous short line railroad in the American West, the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, is back on track this summer with weekend excursions from Carson City to Virginia City, Nev.
Built during the heyday of the roaring Comstock Bonanza in the 1870s, this legendary ride into history travels the original route hacked out of the slopes of Mount Davidson. The historic railroad has appeared in nearly 90 major motion pictures, but rail fans don’t have to rely on old movies to see the Yankee Princess. Thanks to years of community fundraising efforts to reconstitute the line, the venerable V&T once again chugs along in the rarefied air of the Comstock where it delights children, tourists and railroad aficionados with nostalgic rides into history.
In its heyday during the 1870s, Virginia City equaled cosmopolitan San Francisco as the most exciting and wildly indulgent city in the Far West. An important key to Virginia City’s reputation as a bustling metropolis teeming with millionaires and high society was the glamorous, but hard-working Virginia & Truckee Railroad. The versatile railroad could muscle around tons of ore, lumber and silver bullion, and then caress in comfort the rich and famous that came to see what all the fuss was about. Powered by hissing, smoking steam locomotives and decked out with bright red and yellow coaches, the V&T’s fancy, rolling stock exuded so much style and romance that she later became the darling of Hollywood filmmakers.
Built, owned and operated by some of the most powerful men in 19th-century America, the story behind the Virginia and Truckee Railroad Company is rooted in the legacy of the Comstock Lode. It was 155 years ago, in the spring of 1859, when two prospectors working their way up a narrow ravine in the Virginia Range of Utah Territory uncovered “odd-looking black dirt” that yielded impressive amounts of gold and silver.
When word got out that some men were making $1,000 per day, the rush was on. In the summer of 1860, thousands of irrepressible miners and gamblers, thieves and storekeepers, prostitutes and speculators, invaded Virginia City. Perched 6,200 feet above sea level, this small hamlet of canvas tents and wooden shacks blossomed in the shadow of Mount Davidson, or Sun Mountain, as locals called it.
Rich or poor, scoundrel or saint, the men and women hurrying to the new diggings represented every stripe of society. They came by stagecoach, horse or by foot, but they all shared the same symptoms of gold fever – the fervent desire to make their bundle quick and go home rich. Virginia City’s population soared from about 300 in 1859 to 10,000 in 1860, although half of the newcomers left by summer’s end. Those that stayed built houses, banks, shops and saloons, and the mining communities of Gold Hill and Silver City sprouted just over the divide from Virginia City. Despite the newfound prosperity, it would take another 10 years before the shrill whistle of a steam locomotive pierced the desert stillness.
When the vanguard of the get-rich-quick crowd arrived, they were doomed to disappointment. California miners who had heard the good news raced to the scene, but there weren’t many surface placers in the Virginia Range accessible to a poor prospector equipped with only a pick and shovel. In fact, miners fortunate enough to find a shallow deposit were only scratching the surface lead of a much deeper and less accessible lode. The bulk of the Comstock’s mineral wealth was buried below the surface.
Large-scale, hard rock mining required extensive capitalization, armies of men, and expensive equipment and infrastructure. Extracting tons of silver and gold-infused quartz from underground tunnels and then crushing and treating the ore with expensive mercury to extract precious metals was something altogether different than panning for virtually pure gold in a California streambed.
Since 1850, prospectors had scratched bits of gold dust out of the stark arid desert landscape, but unlike California, much of Nevada’s silver and gold came mired in a heavy blue-black matrix. The first miners in Six-Mile Canyon had cursed the “blasted blue stuff” that contaminated the gold they were seeking and clogged the riffles in their rockers. Familiar with panning placer gold in California, but unaware that Washoe was silver country, the complaining miners had no use for this worthless junk rock. When the material was finally assayed as an exceptionally rich ore valued at more than $3000 per ton in gold and silver, the miners quickly changed their tune about the mysterious “blue stuff.”
By 1860, Virginia City had 20 stamp mills, nine restaurants, eight hotels or boardinghouses, 25 saloons, 30 stores and 37 corporations with capital stocks totaling $30 million. The slopes near Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City bristled with mining equipment and timbered head frames – miners, engineers and superintendents worked rotating shifts to keep ore production going nonstop.
Snorting teams of mules or horses hauled massive ore wagons piled high with mined rock to Six Mile Canyon or the Carson River, where powerful stamp mills pulverized the ore with heavy metal posts that were repeatedly lifted and let fall by rotating steam-driven cams. Comstock ore was not pure silver, but what miners called black sulphurets of silver – “a decomposed ore of silver filled with spangles of native gold” that needed to be amalgamated with mercury to extract the valuable base metals. There were 10,000 ore crushing stamps in the reducing mills of Six Mile Canyon alone, and the thunderous racket they produced can only be imagined. During the first six years, the region produced more than $50 million in gold and silver.
By 1864, however, trouble appeared on the Comstock. Despite five years of extensive probing, only 16 significant ore bodies were located in a lode that ran for nearly 3 miles along the base of the Virginia Range. The ore was beginning to peter out as was the timber needed for shoring up the shaft and tunnel systems. To make matters worse, tunnels in the lower levels were filling with superheated water and poisonous gases.
As word spread that the Comstock leads were pinching out, the value of mining stock plummeted and an economic and emotional depression settled in over the inhabitants of Virginia City. Despite the obstacles, the heavily invested Bank of California decided it was time to modernize the Comstock operations with a train. Stay tuned for Part II.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog at tahoenuggets.com.