Skip to main content

“Go It, Washoe!”

July 2024
18min read

Granddaddy of all desert mining discoveries was the Comstock Lode, which sent the Far West on a silver stampede to Nevada’s Washoe country a century ago.

Into the mountain-bound mining camp of Grass Valley, California, rode a weary traveler late in June, 1859. He had jogged more than 150 miles over the massive Sierra Nevada from the Washoe country in western Utah Territory. With him, mostly as a curiosity, he carried some odd-looking chunks of gold-bearing ore.

Next day Melville Atwood, the local assayer, tested the rock. What he discovered made him doubt his own calculations. For besides the gold content, which ran about $1,000 to the ton, the specimens contained a much higher value in silver—over $3,000 per ton!

What was more, the stranger confided, over in Washoe the discoverers were extracting the gold and throwing the rest away! Since California’s big strike more than a decade earlier, prospectors had not even thought of looking for anything but gold!

Those queer-looking rock samples launched a human stampede that created the state of Nevada, transformed the financial structure of the Far West, and set the pattern of settlement for the vast basin between Great Salt Lake and the Sierra.

Within hours of Atwood’s assay, the neighboring towns of Grass Valley and Nevada City were boiling with excitement. First to learn the news was Judge James Walsh, an old hand in California mining and a friend of the ore-bearing stranger from Washoe. Near midnight he banged frantically on the door of another friend. Quickly they piled provisions on a mule, mounted their horses, and spurred out of Grass Valley. Not far behind them clambered a desperate party in pursuit, some traveling on borrowed money, others on borrowed horses. Within two days a clattering column was surging through the pine-forested Sierra, some on horseback, some afoot, all bent forward like hounds on the scent. Riding in the van was the tall, muscular figure of George Hearst, then a rising young mining man of Nevada City. With him was Atwood the assayer, who had confided the news and joined the rush.

When this vanguard arrived in the barren hills of Washoe, the original miners still knew nothing of their ore’s silver content. The two discoverers, Peter O’Riley and Pat McLaughlin, were washing out the gold with their “rocker,” letting the rest of the rock roll down the side of Sun Mountain. One of them sold his share for $3,500 to George Hearst, who was so anxious to buy that he rode his mule back over the mountains to Nevada City to raise the money. Judge James Walsh paid $11,000 for the interests of one Henry Comstock, a local prospector who had fast-talked the two discoverers into giving him a share. To seal his bargain with Walsh, Comstock took ten dollars as a down payment for what would later be worth millions. Then he bragged to his fellow miners that he had fooled “the California rock shark!”

He thought enough of the discovery, however, to call it Comstock’s Lode wherever he went. And so talkative was he that his name became permanently attached to the greatest single deposit of precious metal ever discovered in the United States.

By the summer of 1859 Walsh and Hearst were shipping ore over the Sierra—ore so rich that it could be carried 160 miles by muleback and another 80 by steamer, and could still be smelted in San Francisco at a fantastic profit. By October the growing shipments were attracting attention as they passed through California’s mining region. Early arrivals in Washoe were writing back that the mines were the richest in the country. California newspapers were quoting assay figures of thousands of dollars per ton. Before long, bars of Washoe silver were hauled through the streets of San Francisco and displayed in bank windows before the eyes of gathering crowds. All at once California rang with a new cry: Silver in Washoe!

In fact, only silver could have excited the Californians in 1859. For too long they had followed the call of gold. As the placers had declined in the mid-fifties, they had been quick to heed each rumored strike. Only the previous year some 20,000 had swarmed aboard ship for Fraser River in British Columbia, only to find the gold excitement fading: the glittering prize lay out of reach beneath flood waters. California had sent money to help them return, and they vowed never to be stampeded again by that golden call.

But against the cry of silver these stalwarts had no immunity. When it burst upon them in the fall of 1859, they were especially vulnerable. It had been a long summer, and in Sierra canyons the placer and hydraulic mines were idle for lack of water. At the end of September one Sacramento man estimated that a thousand unemployed men were roaming the town. “Never before,” he wrote, “have I seen so many people looking for work and can’t get it.”

To this restless crew the silver call was like a trumpet blast. All at once mules, horses, flour, picks, and shovels were in fevered demand. “From the crack of day to the shades of night,” exclaimed one San Franciscan, “nothing is heard but Washoe.” It made no difference that the new strike was located in the very desert through which most of them had suffered on their way west to California. All they knew was that it was “Forty-nine all over again!”

With “Washoe!” thundering like a battle cry, the rabble army converged on Sierra passes. From San Francisco they swarmed onto the decks of river steamboats, sprawling wherever they could find room between bales and boxes, jabbering about Washoe in a dozen tongues. At Sacramento they took the puffing Iron Horse—first on the West Coast—a few miles farther, then staged onward in six-horse wagons. With a dozen people crammed into each stage, they were so tightly packed that when one overturned nobody was hurt. The passengers crawled bravely out, helped to right the wagon, and lurched merrily onward.

At Placerville, snugly tucked in the Sierra foothills, they came to an abrupt halt. This depot for the Washoe mines had suddenly been so overwhelmed with business that there were not enough wagons or mules in the countryside to keep the stampede moving. The hills above town were piled with boxes of merchandise while their owners vainly offered fantastic freight fees for hauling them over the Sierra. Stagecoaches and mule trains were booked up days in advance. Streets and hotels, saloons and restaurants, were thronged with a noisy crowd of expectant millionaires. One of them was a writer named J. Ross Browne, who later described his attempt to get a night’s sleep in a hotel room. People were rushing through the corridors all night, he wrote, “in and out of every room, banging the doors after them, calling for boots, carpet-sacks, cards, cock-tails, and toddies; while amidst the ceaseless din arose ever and anon that potent cry of ‘Washoe! …” In the midst of the pandemonium his door burst open.

“I say, Cap!” cried a disheveled intruder wearing a wide-brimmed hat and long underwear. “Are you the man that can’t get an animal for Washoe?”

“Yes, have you got one to sell or hire?”

“No I hain’t got one myself, but me and my pardner is going to walk there, and if you like you can jine our party.”

When Browne agreed, the door was closed, only to be opened again.

“I say, Cap!”

“What now?”

“Do you believe in Washoe?”

“Of course; why not?”

In this breathless spirit California marched to the Comstock Lode. And as the line of glory-hunters moved through Placerville’s streets each morning, clattering along with shovels, picks, and washpans, there rose from the throats of bystanders the inevitable shout, “Go it, Washoe!”

Up into the pines the adventurers thronged, making an unbroken line of men, mules, and wagons from Sacramento Valley over the mountains to Carson Valley. As the stagecoaches whirled around blind bends, the passengers found themselves looking hundreds of feet downward to the churning American River while the wheels dusted the brink. In the steepest stretches they walked and sometimes pushed as the teams struggled upward. Those who hiked or rode muleback suffered worse—slogging in the ruts of freight wagons, jumping out of the trail to avoid being knocked down when a pack train brushed relentlessly past.

Among the worst hazards on the trail were the wayside taverns, where the travelers piled in on one another in frantic quest for board and bed. Typical was Dirty Mike’s, where one paid for the privilege of sleeping on the floor in company with numerous other flea-bitten vagabonds, in a room whose only fixtures were a piece of looking glass fastened to the window casing and a common comb and toothbrush dangling by strings nearby. The best stopping place on the route was Strawberry Flat, where hundreds of travelers congregated each night, flooding the bar-room and jostling each other for a place near the dining-room door. J. Ross Browne thus described the evening meal:

At the first tinkle of the bell the door was burst open with a tremendous crash, and for a moment no battle-scene in Waterloo … could have equalled the terrific onslaught of the gallant troops of Strawberry. The whole house actually tottered and trembled at the concussion, as if shaken by an earthquake. Long before the main body had assaulted the table the din of arms was heard above the general uproar; the deafening clatter of plates, knives, and forks, and the dreadful battle-cry of “Waiter! Waiter! Pork and beans! Coffee, waiter! Beefsteak! … quick, waiter, for God’s sake!”

Next morning, after a night’s sleep in a room with 250 companions and a bracing wash at the horse trough, the silver-hunter was on his way. At Genoa, first settlement reached on the east side of the Sierra, accommodations were even more formidable. Lodgers were packed like stowaways—two and three in a bunk, the unfortunate ones curling up on saloon floors, behind store counters, between packing boxes, and even on the tops of nail kegs. At the booming new town of Carson City, last stop before the mines, one weary arrival ate a hearty meal and then told the hotel-keeper he was ready to be shown to his room. “Just imagine my surprise,” he wrote, “when the landlord informed me that he had no place for me to sleep but on the floor, that is, if I had blankets …”

Early in November a storm struck the Sierra, covering it with snow and ice such as had already brought tragedy to many California-bound emigrants in previous years. But this deterred only the faint-hearted and the sane. While commercial traffic was halted, the most frantic rainbow-hunters floundered upward in the snow, resting at the highest outposts until the weather cleared enough for them to push over the summit. One storm after another raked the Sierra in one of the fiercest winters on record. Snow drifted as deep as sixty feet in the upper canyons. Numberless animals and a few men met death in blizzards and avalanches, but still the most daring pressed on, driven by visions of Washoe silver.

As the spring thaw approached, all of California seemed to rally at the foot of the Sierra. The winter’s isolation had left the Comstock so short of supplies that prices were soaring, and between rival freight-packers there was a breakneck race to be first across with whiskey and other “necessities.” As early as February they were laying blankets in the snow for their animals to walk on, taking them up behind the train as it advanced and spreading them on the path ahead. Imaginative freighters tried sleighs, but these were stalled at the frequent patches of wind-swept granite. Mule trains were the only resort—taking not only merchandise, but offering to deliver passengers in Washoe at thirty dollars per head. By early March even the stages were running again, but passengers had to walk much of the way, holding the coach to keep it from rolling down the mountainside. Above Strawberry Flat they trudged onward on foot, braving fierce winds and shoveling a path before them across the summit.

With the first days of spring the Washoe trail was a continuous scar of slush and mud through the Sierra snow. A traveler called it “nothing but one trough of mire from two to three feet deep …” Adding further obstructions were the broken wagons, abandoned boxes, and dead animals that literally lined the trail for the entire hundred miles across the mountains.

Worse hazards stalked the other Sierra routes opened to accommodate the tide. From California’s Northern Mines the adventurers stormed up the tempestuous Yuba River, joined a mule train at Downieville, and bent onward along narrow trails that hung hundreds of feet above the foaming river. From the Southern Mines they ventured through giant redwood groves, over Ebbet Pass, to the Carson River. Near the summit of this remote passage the stampeders encountered more than rough trail. Two of them stayed up all night waving firebrands to protect a load of bacon from three grizzly bears that, as one man recalled, “were grumbling and gnashing their teeth.”

By April, 1860, some 150 Californians were arriving in the Washoe country every day. Estimates of its population reached as high as 10,000 that spring, with thousands more on the way. Those remaining in California were investing every spare cent in Washoe mining stocks. “The Washoe mania has operated very much against us here,” wrote one San Francisco merchant, “diverting men and money from the legitimate channels.”

The Mormon settlement at Salt Lake sent its own contingent, despite an apparent effort by the church elders to silence the news from Washoe lest their colonists go packing off in quest of silver. The city’s Deseret News ran scarcely a line on the subject through the height of the frenzy. But there were others in the Great Basin who were unprotected from Washoe’s call. In 1859 the gold rush to Pike's Peak, in what was then western Kansas, proved a disappointment to many stampeders. Swinging farther westward. they swelled the annual tide of emigration to California. But having arrived in Carson Valley by late summer of ’59, many families were caught in the rising silver fever. Forgetting California, they cast their lot with Washoe.

But most of the rush came from California—not only its drifters and schemers, who were ready to join each new excitement, but the very flower of its population. Nevada would soon boast that the best of America came to California, and the best of California came to Washoe.

First to arrive were the mining men—the Walshes and the Hearsts—who knew ore and who hoped to buy promising leads with their own or someone else’s money. Marching after them was the whole lusty crew that made up frontier society: promoters and speculators, traders and gamblers. Among them were followers of the oldest profession, for not even Sierra snowstorms could bar Washoe to the fair but frail. Usually dressed in men’s clothing, they suffered exposure and hunger with the rest. One was Julia Bulette, said to be the second woman to reach the Comstock. She brought to the Lode a subtle refinement compounded of French descent and a New Orleans past. In her parlor the rough manners of the mining camp were taboo. And when an epidemic of influenza struck the Lode, Julia ministered to the stricken. No wonder the boys would soon be toasting her as queen of Washoe.

Others tramped over the mountain passes with even less visible means of support—the thieves and cut-throats who customarily joined new stampedes. Of this ilk was “Fighting” Sam Brown—he of the bull voice and the clanking Spanish spurs. Sam was a “bad man,” glorying in the name, working hard to keep it. Before his Washoe debut he had spilled the blood of several Californians. On his way he shot a man in Carson City; arriving at the Comstock, he got into a fight with a monte dealer and wounded two bystanders. He would become “chief” of the new camp, or stretch his bones at the feet of a better man.

But the backbone of the stampeders was the common miner—the same who for ten years had been pouring into California from the East, and had been rushing to every new strike on the coast. Honest, hard-working, hail-fellow, he was the sinew of frontier society. Shovel on shoulder, he walked or rode over icy Sierra passes to Washoe, eager to possess a new country. At the least he would gain a better wage as a miner there than in the declining California fields. At most he would strike his own vein of silver and return to the States a millionaire.

One of these was young John W. Mackay, Irish immigrant and hardrock miner. In California’s Yuba diggings he heard the news of Washoe and loaded his back-pack. With another young Irishman for a companion, he trudged up through the timber, past shimmering Lake Tahoe, and descended on Washoe. As they stood at the gates of the Comstock, his sidekick took the last half dollar they had between them and threw it far down the canyon.

“What are you doing?’ cried Mackay. “That’s my last.”

His pal had a reasonable answer: “Let us inter the city loike gintlemen.”

When the first Californians reached Washoe they found only a handful of disreputable shacks, inhabited by an equally disreputable collection of sourdoughs. The center of society was the boarding house of Eilley Orrum, first woman on the Comstock. Having already shed two husbands, this stouthearted female had her eyes on a third in the person of her most eligible boarder, Sandy Bowers. Still another guest, in addition to Henry Comstock and the discoverers of the Lode, was a whiskey-soaked character named “Old Virginny” Fennimore. The grizzled old-timer had held a small interest in the discovery claim, but Comstock had bought him out for a bobtailed, half-blind horse.

Cheated of his chance for fortune, Old Virginny got back at Comstock in his own way. During a drunken spree on the site of the Lode, he solemnly christened the new community—with appropriate drops from a broken whiskey bottle—“Virginia Town.” And so it immediately became, overshadowing in popular use the name of Comstock’s Lode. Within a few months, after the grotesque humor of the miners insisted on a grander title, it became Virginia City—goal of every Washoe-bound traveler and eventually the most famous mining town in the West.

By the fall of ’59 tents and shanties were sprawling up the sterile slope of Sun Mountain. There was only one miserable restaurant, and hotels were practically nonexistent. Newcomers were invited to find a soft spot for their blankets on the hillside, while the more fastidious slept in the beds of wagons. The drinking water was abominable, being strongly impregnated with arsenic. But the boys found a way of “correcting” it by diluting each teaspoon with half a glass of whiskey.

When winter settled upon Washoe it covered the hills with snow and sent the thermometer below zero. What was worse, it virtually cut off supplies from California. But whiskey always seemed to make its way through Sierra passes when nothing else could. With scarcely enough food to maintain body heat, the resourceful Walshoeites were said to “draw largely on the resources of the bar.”

As the main body of stampeders arrived in early spring, they found Washoe the most dismal place on earth. One newcomer thus described it: “Imagine a flood in hell, succeeded by a snow-storm …” Another wayfarer drew a more detailed picture of Virginia Town:

Frame shanties, pitched together as if by accident; tents of canvas, of blankets, of brush, of potato sacks and old shirts, with empty whisky-barrels for chimneys: smoky hovels of mud and stone: coyote holes in the mountain side forcibly seized and held by men: pits and shafts with smoke issuing from every crevice …

Night and day the saloons and gambling houses filled the air with a constant din of oaths and laughter, rattling dice, and clinking coins. Inside these foul dens, as one witness put it, “clouds of tobacco smoke filled the air and blackened the roof timbers, modifying the stench rising from the stained and greasy floors, soiled clothes, and hot flesh of the unwashed company.” A San Francisco author and correspondent, Frank Soulé, wrote: “I have been through one hundred degrees of latitude, north and south, but never before have found so inhospitable, miserable, God-forsaken a spot as this same Virginia City …”

Washoe’s redeeming feature was that it was never dull. Through the spring of 1860 it was teeming with would-be tycoons—all talking “lodes,” “dips,” “angles,” “indications,” and trying to sell one another shares in a claim. New arrivals first encountered the frenzy at Carson City, where, as one of them warned, “Every man you meet has, or expects to have, something to sell, and can in no wise be trusted.” It increased in fury at Silver City, in the canyon approaching the Comstock; there, according to another traveler, nobody estimated himself to be worth less than $50,000. It reached its zenith in Virginia City, where the riches of Monte Cristo were apparently changing hands by the minute.

“Nobody had any money,” observed a newcomer, “yet everybody was a millionaire in silver claims. Nobody had any credit, yet everybody bought thousands of feet of glittering ore.”

Adding fuel to this blaze of excitement were new mining discoveries in the very streets. One man digging a cellar discovered mineral “indications, claimed a whole streetful of houses for his lead, and set hundreds to turning up the earth under their tents. Title disputes over such valuable lots were usually settled on the spot, the parties using empty bottles or other instruments to emphasize the justice of their case.

Still greater panic was caused by frequent announcements that a new strike had been made in a nearby canyon. At first those who knew the secret would disappear, quietly packing a mule and making off. By the time their absence was noticed the rumor was on every tongue and the stampede began. For a day or two Virginia City would be nearly deserted while every able-bodied man scurried over the new ground staking claims. To get around local mining laws he would hang notices on the sagebrush in the name of every friend he had left behind in California, until the landscape fairly fluttered with the claims of strangers who would never see Washoe and never know of the lodes and ledges taken up in their names. After a few days the new ground would be found far less promising than the main Comstock lead. The rushers would straggle back into Virginia City, waving ore samples and offering their fabulous bonanzas to every stranger they met.

By April, 1860, the Comstock mania reached its height. One visitor estimated that only one inhabitant in fifty was actually mining the earth. A few more were out prospecting for new leads, while the largest proportion was engaged in buying and selling shares. When two friends met on the street the customary salutation, rather than a handshake, was to thrust ore samples at each other; and instead of asking after one’s health, they would inquire about assays, claims, and outcroppings. One man bunking with twenty roommates in a crowded Virginia City hotel complained that the others spent most of the night trading claims and displaying rock samples, all the while chattering wildly: “Struck it rich!”—“Miller on the rise!”—“A thousand feet more!”

Providing a real basis for the excitement was the actual discovery of rich new extensions in the Lode. The main deposit ran lengthwise along the mountainside, each mine owner tunneling inward to strike it. As a mine approached the lead, its stock took on new interest. The whole population kept alert to its progress, achieving new heights of hysteria whenever a messenger would come hurrying down the street with a handful of promising “indications.” This was the signal for a flourish of magnifying glasses, which every Washoeite carried in his pocket; the verdict would be heatedly discussed with wild flailing of arms, and the price of the stock would rise $10 to $20 per running foot. Finally, with the whole town on edge, word would come that the mine in question had reached the Lode! In one moment its chief owners were fantastically rich, and its shares were valued at $500 to $1,000 per foot.

So intense was the furor that as a tunnel approached the vein, speculators would keep a list of the owners, retaining messengers at the mine to report instantly upon its success. With his advance information, the operator would then scurry through town to buy up shares before the news was generally known. Many sent wires via the new telegraph line over the mountains to their San Francisco agents, who would then seek out every uninformed owner and buy his stock.

As early as April such speculation was getting out of hand. Claims situated miles away from Virginia City were readily sold on both sides of the mountains. Clerks, washerwomen, teamsters, laundrymen were dealing in mining stock. One young easterner who had just arrived in San Francisco was swept up in the excitement, bought two Washoe claims for $1,000 from the first promoter he encountered, sold out a few months later for $20,000, and took steamer passage home. When telegrams giving the status of various claims were delayed en route to San Francisco, the telegraph operators were accused of holding the information for their own advantage. And when the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin visited Virginia City, one brokerage house staged a fake demonstration for his benefit—and that of his readers. While the newspaperman remained in the office, a perfect bedlam was manufactured by those supposed to be buying and selling stocks, the “buyers” almost begging for the chance to put down their money.

Undeceived and disgusted, the Bulletin editor returned to San Francisco and hurled thundering editorials against the Washoe fever. It was the beginning of the end of the first Comstock stampede. Stock prices tumbled in San Francisco; Washoe suddenly lost its magic name. Of an estimated 4,000 claims located in Washoe by 1860, only 300 had been opened, and only 20 were considered by experts to be sound investments. As one observer in Washoe told the San Franciscans, “fools at your end of the telegraph were deceived by knaves at our end …”

Early in May a savage Indian uprising in the Washoe country knocked the remaining steam out of the first rush. But such setbacks could not down the Lode, which was basically sound to the extent of an estimated one-third of a billion dollars. The tide to the Comstock rose again in the summer of 1860 and ran heavily until ’63. Its riches helped to finance the Union side of the Civil War. Through the sixties and early seventies its wealth was the first fact of economics on the Pacific Coast. For the rest of the century its legend inspired the countless prospectors who scoured the Great Basin for “another Comstock.”

Among them were many of the same wild army that had populated Washoe in its dawning hour. Peter O’Riley, one of the two discoverers, had sold out for $40,000, which he had then lost in mining speculation. For years he pursued silver with pick and shovel, driven by an obsession that finally conquered his mind. Bitter fortune also dogged Henry Comstock, who wandered through Idaho and Montana in search of another treasure, and finally committed suicide.

Violence overtook others of that original band. While on one of his sprees, “Old Virginny” was killed when he fell from his horse—possibly the same half-blind nag for which he had traded his share of the Lode. Julia Bulette, the tarnished queen of Washoe, was murdered for her jewels; the Comstock showed its heart by giving her its greatest funeral and her slayer its most elegant hanging. As for the cutthroat Sam Brown, he met his fate by bullying the wrong man: an inoffensive innkeeper pursued him through Washoe and brought him down with a double blast of a shotgun. And the frontier coroner’s jury gave a verdict that has become classic: “It served him right.”

But to others, Washoe dealt fantastic cards. George Hearst won a vast fortune that became the foundation for the career of his son, William Randolph Hearst. John Mackay, the honest miner from the Yuba diggings, bent all his energies to the study of mining. He rose from mucker to superintendent, then to mine owner. In the early 1870s Mackay and three partners gained control of the Big Bonanza, a glittering new underground treasure that gave Virginia City its second tumultuous boom, threw the Pacific Coast into a new frenzy of stock speculation, and made its owners the lords of the Comstock.

Still others were unable to play the hands they were dealt. Judge James Walsh sold out his interests too soon and missed his chance for great fortune. Eilley Orrum had married her star boarder, Sandy Bowers, and the two held on to their mining shares long enough to become the only original owners to reap millions. Part of it they poured into Washoe Hall, a sumptuous Victorian mansion in Washoe Valley. They spent more of it on a grandiose tour of Europe, scandalizing the Continent with their extravagance. But there came a time when they scraped the bottom of their mine. After Sandy died, Eilley became the lone proprietress of Washoe Hall, sitting amidst its decayed splendor, living on the admission fees of curiosity-seekers.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.