Mining the Comstock

By Jack Harpster · 

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Virginia City, in Utah Territory, was just getting established when Duane Bliss and Philipp Deidesheimer arrived in 1860. The two men would have a profound affect on the success of the Comstock Lode in coming years. | Drawing by J. Ross Browne from his 1860 book, “A Peep at Washoe.”

Today, far beneath the homes and stores of Virginia City, Gold Hill and other Comstock communities on Nevada’s Virginia Range, a labyrinth of roughly 700 miles of tunnels, shafts and dark places lie undisturbed at depths of up to 3,200 feet below ground. For this extraordinary monument to man’s resolve to find riches wherever they may hide, we owe a debt to two men who looked at the impossible and understood that it could be done.

The first man was 28-year-old German mining engineer Philip Deidesheimer, who in 1860 was hired to work on the Comstock’s first mine, the Ophir, to solve a nagging problem. The then-prevailing system of supporting an underground mine was to sheathe the sides of the shaft with upright pine pillars, then shore up the ceiling with poles that stretched atop these pillars. But miners had discovered that the Comstock’s rich vein of silver and gold was much wider, and plunged much deeper into the earth, than any they had ever worked before. When the Ophir shaft reached a depth of 215 feet, the ore body was 65-feet wide, and miners, fearing cave-ins, refused to go back into the shaft.

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The square-set timbering system for supporting underground mines was developed on the Comstock in late 1860 by German-born engineer Philipp Deidesheimer. | Courtesy Library of Congress · 

Inspired by a honeybee’s comb that he discovered in the mine, Deidesheimer developed the square-set timbering system that is still used to this day. A square-set is a crib-like box made up of 4- to 6-foot long timbers, interlocked at the ends by mortises and tenons. Individual cribs can be added inside a mine, set by set, in any direction and to any height, width or length, creating an endless number of configurations. Think of it as a set of toddler’s wooden blocks, but hollow inside. Once a square-set was placed in a shaft, the open sides of the crib could be covered with wooden slats and the crib filled with waste rock or dirt, making the whole as firm as the original mountain.

Once Deidesheimer had solved the Comstock’s biggest problem, a new market for sturdy timbers developed overnight. For the next decade, timberlands in the Washoe and Carson valleys and on the eastern slopes of the Sierra would be completely denuded, leaving the mines without their most important asset – lumber. Thus, it was at this critical juncture in 1870 that the second man came into the picture.

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Duane Bliss, shown here in this early 1860s portrait, came to Virginia City in Utah Territory as a failed California gold seeker in the earliest days of the famous Comstock Lode. | Courtesy Bliss family · 

Duane L. Bliss was a native of Massachusetts, and had been mining in the West for 20 years. Along with two partners, he established the Carson and Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company, and began buying timberlands on the western slope of the Sierra in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The company would eventually own and work between 50,000 and 80,000 acres of timberland to feed the voracious appetite of the Comstock’s 135+ mines.

Comstock Historian Eliot Lord called the Comstock mines, “the tombs of the Sierran forests,” and naturalist John Muir decried the damage being done to the magnificent, old-growth trees. But the work would go on until the Comstock Lode was eventually used up by the mid to late1890s.

Despite the controversy, and but for these two men, the Comstock Lode would have been a financial failure, like dozens of other Nevada and California mining regions.

 

“Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode: The Life and Times of Duane L. Bliss,” published by American History Press, is available at bookstores and online. For more information, visit jackharpster.com.

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Editor’s Note: Author Jack Harpster shared this excerpt from his new book, “Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode: The Life and Times of Duane L. Bliss.”

Book readings & signings

April 12
11 a.m.-1 p.m. | Incline Village & Crystal Bay Historical Society

April 16
6 p.m. | Nevada Westerners Corral | Reno

April 20
2 p.m. | Osher Life Long Learning Institute | Reno

May 2
1-3 p.m. | Sundance Books | Reno

May 9
1-3 p.m. | Barnes & Noble Books | Reno

May 16
2:30 p.m. | Gatekeeper’s Museum | Tahoe City

May 23
11 a.m. | Nevada State Railroad Museum | Carson City

June 3
3 p.m. | Washoe County South Valleys Library | Reno

June 10
5 p.m. | Lodge Restaurant | Tahoe Donner

July 15
TBA | Carson City Library

 

 

 

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