About denniscassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli, avid outdoorsman, history buff and archaeology enthusiast, is the author of four books about the Great Basin region. Raised in Sparks, Nevada, Cassinelli developed an interest in Indian artifacts as a young boy working on his family’s ranch. In the early 1990s, he painstakingly identified hundreds of projectile points to create the Cassinelli-Perino Artifact Collection, now located at the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center in Gardnerville, Nevada.

Comstock-era artifacts not always what they seem

A few readers of my column have asked me to re-tell the story of some Comstock-era artifacts I found in 1999 at the former United States Mint in Carson City. The old mint building is now the home of the Nevada State Museum. In 1999 the Nevada State Public Works Department contracted with Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction to abandon a portion of Carolyn Street and construct a park and other improvements on the property adjacent to the museum.

I was appointed the project superintendent and was onsite all during construction of the project. Having worked on many other projects in Carson and Virginia City, I was not at all surprised when we began to uncover remnants of the old days in the form of horseshoes, bricks, bottles and some rusty tools and parts of machinery that had been used when the mint was in operation.

The specifications for working on state projects require that any artifacts found during construction to be turned over to the state if they are of archaeological importance. My crew was not aware of these requirements and inadvertently threw some of the bottles and rusty metal parts in their truck. It was not long before employees of the museum came out and asked us to return the artifacts, which my crew had thought was nothing more than trash.

With a renewed awareness of the requirements, the crew was more diligent when they reported to me that they had uncovered what they thought was “a bunch of old rusty bearings.” When I went over to see what they had uncovered with the backhoe, I immediately recognized them as some of the original coin dies from the Carson City Mint. Coin dies are the metal stamps that are mounted in the coin press to strike the coins in the mint. A silver or gold disc is sandwiched between the dies in the minting process to stamp the heads and tails images on the coins.

After careful contemplation of the consequences, I notified the curator of exhibits at the museum, Doug Southerland, of what I had discovered. These coin dies were in denominations of dimes, quarters, half dollar, silver dollar, trade dollar, five dollar gold, ten dollar gold and twenty dollar gold. Doug told me I could keep a few of them since I had reported the discovery to the museum staff. The archaeologists were called out to investigate the discovery and in the process, we helped them to recover over 900 of the valuable artifacts. Prior to that time, the museum had just two or three of them on display.

Most of the dies were very rusty and pitted. The archaeologists found some that had not been in contact with the soil and were not very corroded. Some had nearly complete images including dates and the CC mint marks were visible on them. All the dies had either a slash or an X cut across the face to prevent them from ever being used to strike coins again. Even so, the museum staff mounted some of them in the coin press and struck a few coins to be used as tokens. This practice was halted forever when one of the old iron dies cracked under the extreme pressure of the coin press.

The coin-die discovery was considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made at the old mint building. Museum employees began making a daily ritual of coming out at the end of each day to see what other discoveries had been made. Within a few days, maintenance worker, Mark Falconer, came out and discovered a silver bar about 14” long partially buried in the soil being excavated for an underground conduit. The bar had markings stamped on it that read “U.S. Mint Carson City, Nevada 1876.” There were some other markings that the staff at the museum could not decipher, so they called in a team of experts to help break the code and to find out more about the mysterious silver bar.

Experts from the Nevada Historical Society, the Historic Preservation Office, The Smithsonian Institution and the United States Mint in San Francisco attempted to read the message stamped in small letters on one corner of the silver bar. An archaeological consultant was contacted to determine if any other significant artifacts were buried on the property. A small sample of the silver bar was drilled out to send to the University of Nevada Bureau of Mines for an assay to determine the purity of the silver. State Public Works was notified so they could shut the project down until the studies could be completed. I was told that National Geographic wanted to do an article about the treasures being uncovered.

The message on the bar went something like this: “9991-1 NOITCURTSNOC ILLENISSAC, FFATS MSN OT.” After hundreds of man hours of highly paid public employees trying to decipher the secret message, It was finally Cindy Southerland who decided to read the message backwards. When she wrote it down, it read “TO NSM STAFF, CASSINELLI CONSTRUCTION, 1-1999.” When my little prank was discovered, I was called in and handed a written letter of reprimand scolding me for the hoax and the embarrassment to all the “experts” who had worked so diligently to break the code.

The “silver” bar turned out to be a bar of lead I had lying around the shop. I had used some letter stamping dies for the secret message to make it look like a bar of silver bullion and planted it in the excavation area for someone to find. Privately, some of the museum staff told me this was the funniest thing that ever happened at the museum.

A dictionary of Comstock mining terms

As I write my articles each week for the Comstock Chronicle in Virginia City, Nev., I often wonder if tourists to the area and sometimes even local residents know the meaning of some of the terminology we use to describe things related to mining and the Comstock.

With this article, I have compiled a short list of a few words used locally with definitions for those who may be unfamiliar with them.

Amalgamation: The process of using mercury to collect fine particles of gold or silver from pulverized ore. These precious metals dissolve in the silvery liquid, while rock does not. The mixture is later heated and the mercury evaporates off leaving the gold or silver.

Arrastra: A crude drag-stone mill for pulverizing ores containing gold or silver.

Bonanza: The discovery of an exceptionally rich vein of gold or silver.

Borrasca: An unproductive mine or claim; the opposite of bonanza.

Claim: A parcel of land that a person has staked out and legally recorded title for mining purposes.

Claim Jumping: Stealing someone else’s mining property – often after it has been staked out but not yet recorded.

Colors: The particles of gold gleaming in a placer miner’s pan after washing. Sometimes called “values.”

Cornish pumps: Large steam powered pumps used to remove water from the deep Comstock mines.

Crevicing: Removing gold from cracks and fissures of rocks, often in a stream bed, by prying it out with a knife.

Cross-cut: A mine tunnel running across an ore vein, used for ventilation, access and communication between work areas.

Drift: A mine tunnel following the direction or “drift” of a vein; opposite of a cross-cut.

Gallows Frame: A wooden or steel scaffold at the top of a mine shaft carrying the hoisting rope and machinery. Also called “the works.”

Gangue: Worthless minerals mixed in with valuable ore.

Giant Powder: This is what miners called dynamite.

Gumbo: A wet, sticky clay that is a nuisance to mining operations

Hard rock: Ore that could be removed only by blasting, as opposed to being worked with hand tools.

High grading: The theft of the more valuable high-grade nuggets and pieces of ore by mine workers.

Lode: A clearly defined deposit of rich ore. The principal vein in a region is called the “mother lode.”

Muck: The debris left after blasting hard rock. Miners shoveling this ore-bearing material were called muckers.

Placer: A deposit of sand, dirt or clay usually in a stream bed that contains fine particles or nuggets of gold or silver. These particles are washed out of the soil with a pan, sluice or other separating device.

Pyrite: Fool’s gold; a mineral of iron or silicon and oxygen that has color similar to gold.

Quartz: A crystalline mineral often white or semi-transparent in which gold and silver veins are sometimes found.

Salting a mine: The act of planting rich ore samples in an unprofitable mine to attract unwary buyers.

Shaft: A deep vertical or inclined excavation: usually the main entrance of a mine where hoisting works provide access to tunnels below.

Sluice: A wooden trough or box used for washing placer gold. These were sometimes called “long toms.” Ore was shoveled in and a steady stream of water washed away the lighter material while heaver metals settled into cleats known as riffles. Sometimes these were made to rock back and forth to speed up the action and these were known as rockers.

Sourdough: An experienced prospector; usually one who had the foresight to save a wad of fermenting dough to use for making bread.

Square sets: A method of timbering large underground excavations and tunnels to prevent cave-ins. The method used cubical frames of timbers to fill any shape of underground excavation. It was developed by Philip Deidesheimer for the Comstock Mines in the 1860s.

Stamp mill: A steam or water powered device used to pulverize ores into a fine powder by the use of heavy iron stamps rising and falling with the action of a cam. Capacity of mills was determined by the number of stamps they contained.

Toplander: A mine worker who worked above ground.

V-Flume: A device used to transport logs down from the Sierra Nevada forests to be cut into lumber. It consisted of two large planks nailed together in a V shape and supported on trestles or on the ground. A small stream of water floated the logs down the flume to the sawmill below.

Windlass: A horizontal drum with a cable or rope used as a hoist in a mine. Sometimes called a whim.

Widow-maker: A compressed air-drill, used to bore holes for dynamite in hard rock. Prolonged inhalation of the fine dust created by early models caused a deadly lung disease called silicosis.

Winze: A passageway usually connecting two tunnels at different levels.

Dayton’s Rock Point Mill

Rock Point Mill_1

Once the amazing discovery of silver bearing ore had been made on the Comstock Lode, the miners were faced with the problem of how to get the many tons of rich ore processed to recover the valuable silver and gold. Several arrastras were built to crush the material in a circular pit using a heavy revolving stone wheel. This primitive method proved too inefficient for the large volume of material being taken from the Virginia City and Gold Hill mines. Several small scale stamp mills sprang up but there was not enough water in the intermittent springs to operate them on a continuous basis.

The earliest prospectors and miners on the Comstock knew that there were mills in California, so they sent horse or mule drawn wagon loads of ore across the Sierras to be processed. This was at great expense but the ores were so rich, the investment paid off. As the volume of material being removed from the mines increased, it became evident that large scale local mills must be built to handle the demand. The problem was, there was not yet a water system in the Virginia City area that could supply the volume of water required to operate a mill of the size needed.

Rock Point Mill_2

A large number of small stamp mills sprang up along Gold Canyon, Six mile Canyon and around Virginia City and Dayton. These were relatively low production operations and usually processed not much more than one ton of ore per day.

The nearest place where there was sufficient water to operate a large quartz mill was along the Carson Rock Point Mill_3River. The placer miners who had been working along Gold Canyon for several years had constructed a ditch near Dayton to bring water from the carson River to the lower end of Gold Canyon. This same source of water was destined to be the source of water for a thriving new milling operation.

In 1861, the first large scale quartz mill in the region was constructed at Rock Point in the town of Dayton. Water from the Douglas Ditch was diverted to serve the Rock Point Mill and the ore from the Comstock mines could then be hauled down Gold Canyon for processing rather than the expensive journey over the mountains to California. The mill was also used to process much of the ore from the mines at Como and other nearby areas.

The original Rock Point Mill was owned by Hugh and J.R. Logan, James Holmes and John Black. The main building was ninety by one hundred feet with forty-two stamps and could reduce fifty tons of rock per day. It was powered by a waterwheel of one hundred horsepower. During its many years of operation, the mill was remodeled, refurbished and rebuilt several times. For those of you who have never witnessed the operation of a stamp mill, the one thing that everyone who has seen one in operation comments on is the noise the machinery makes as it crushes the ore to a fine powder under the clattering steel stamps.

The mill ran until 1882 when it burned down and was quickly rebuilt. The mill then began receiving ore from the Comstock on the new Carson and Colorado Railroad. It burned again in 1909 and was rebuilt in 1910 as the Nevada Reduction and Power Co. At that time, a new aerial tramway was constructed that carried ore to the mill site from Silver City and Gold Hill.

The 1910 reincarnation of the Rock Point mill was updated with steel and concrete construction. Due to decreased demand for milling in the early 1920s, the mill was dismantled and the machinery was taken to Silver City. Today, the site of the Rock Point Mill is a part of the Dayton State Park. There are extensive ruins that visitors are encouraged to visit and explore on a self-guided tour over well marked trails. It is located on the west side of U.S. Highway 50 across from the park. There is a concrete lined tunnel under Highway 50 for access between the park and the mill site.

The ruins that remain today are massive concrete foundations where the stamping machinery was mounted, stone walls and masonry built by Italian stonemasons, a massive concrete water tower and remnants of roadbeds and water storage areas. The ruins are located in and around a large grove of old cottonwood trees and although the area was used for years as the Dayton town dump, there is no trace of this unless you know where to look. There are two interesting rooms or rock tunnels carved into a hillside that were probably used for storage of explosives or flasks of mercury. These are safe to enter since they are carved in solid rock with no danger of cave-in.

After construction of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad through the Carson River Canyon between Moundhouse and Empire City in 1869, there were many more large mills constructed in that area. With the reincarnation of the V & T to Carson City, visitors can view the sites of these mills from the train as it passes through this extremely scenic canyon.

Related: The Remains of the Rock Point Mill 

‘Making Arrows’ Part 11

The hunting season was about to come to an end before winter set in around the mountain hunting camp. As the two arrow makers watched the people from the valley help fill the baskets fun of dried meats for the journey back to the winter camp, they came to a sobering realization. The entire summer had been spent in the mountain hunting camp, but neither of them had so much as fired an arrow since they had been there.

Autumn in the high country was a stunning spectacle for anyone to experience. The short days caused the scattered groves of quaking aspen in the canyons to light up with a luminescent yellow brilliance trimmed with flaming patches of red and orange. All this was set against a backdrop of emerald and dark green conifers that pointed toward the sky. The native shrubbery added to the display with clumps of every imaginable color.

Women who had made the steep journey to the camp from the valley were making preparations for a feast of thanksgiving that evening. Choice cuts of meat the hunters had bagged that autumn were being cooked over the campfires. Berries, pine nuts, fish, and many other delicacies were being prepared for the evening feast. Celebrations were being planned where dancing, gambling and feasting were featured events. Elderly members of the tribe worked on costumes to wear when enacting mythical and spiritual stories around the evening campfire to the delight of the younger generations.

Rabbit and Coyote quickly forgot the struggle they had endured while making their arrows in anticipation of the exciting events of the upcoming celebration. Visitors and participants in the two day long event included smaller hunting parties from the surrounding region, invited guests from nearby villages, and the women and children from the Truckee Meadows encampment. Many friends and acquaintances of Rabbit and Coyote began to arrive for the festivities.

As the sun fell low in the western sky, it was filtered through the rustling pine boughs, and cast long orange rays through the smoke that rose over the mountain meadow encampment. Several roaring bonfires were being set to light up the grounds for the celebrations. A large area was cleared for dancing, and smells of many kinds of food being prepared filled the chilly autumn air. Before the feasting began, the people all gathered in the large clearing at the edge of the mountain meadow to hear prayers of thanksgiving. One by one, the respected elders of the tribes spoke about the successes the people had enjoyed since the last gathering.

Being in jovial spirits, the people sat quietly and listened to the prayers and the speakers. Many families and friends sat in small groups gossiping and renewing acquaintances. The children were anxious for the tellers of the mythical and legendary stories to perform for them and relive the old oral traditional stories.

Rabbit and Coyote paid little attention to the prayers and speakers. They were occupied visiting some of the young girls who had come up to visit from the valley. They chatted and laughed with their friends until they noticed the unmistakable booming voice they had learned to obey and respect during the long summer months. It was Silent Buck’s turn to address the crowd and mention the deeds of the brave hunters who had gathered the game animals the people would need to feed them through the approaching winter. The two young men stopped their visiting and carefully listened to their teacher out of their habit of paying close attention to the things he had to say.

Buck went on for some time reciting the names of the various hunters from the camp and the game animals each had bagged for the community stockpile of provisions. The shaman mentioned the bear that Rabbit and Coyote had hit in the head with their rocks. He referred to the boys by name and gave them credit for assisting in the kill of the bear.

Rabbit and Coyote looked at each other and smiled. This was the first acknowledgment that Buck had forgiven them for telling the incredible story of driving the bear away by throwing rocks at him. They were somewhat confused that they were even mentioned at all by the hunting shaman, since they never actually did any real hunting all summer.

Unexpectedly, Buck walked over close to where Rabbit and Coyote were seated, and with hand gestures in their direction, he spoke to the gathering about the arrow-makers. “This summer, we have had Squealing Rabbit and Coyote Skin at the hunting camp learning the skills required to make arrows. And it was very fine arrows they learned to make. These two arrived here as mere boys. After their training and apprenticeship, I can now say they have grown to the status of men. They have learned to produce arrows that would be the envy of any hunter.

“Congratulations, Rabbit and Coyote. You have learned your lessons well. Now that you have mastered the art of arrow-making, it is time for you to move on to the next step to becoming hunters for our tribe. Next summer, I will teach you how to make some splendid bows with which to shoot the fine arrows you have made.”

The End

‘Making Arrows’ Part 10

After Coyote had finished fletching about six arrows, Silent Buck came by to see how things were progressing. The shaman examined the arrows, sighted down their lengths, hefted them in his hands, and threw them back to Coyote.

“How many feathers do the other hunters use on their arrows?” Buck asked. “I don’t know. I never really noticed. We kids always used two feathers on the willow arrows we made.”

“You aren’t kids anymore,” replied the shaman. “You are making hunting arrows, not toys. Only children use two feathers on their arrows. Warriors use three feathers, but hunters always use four. If you are to become successful hunters, you must use four feathers for maximum accuracy. No hunter in my hunting camp will hunt with anything less than four arrow feathers.

”You have also failed to polish the arrow shafts before attaching the feathers. It is always easier to polish the shafts before the feathers are attached so the feathers will not be in the way . You must think more about what you are doing in order to achieve perfection. Your project is nearly completed, but I have yet to see a finished product I can accept as worthy of seasoned hunters. Let me know when you think you have finished the arrows to the standards of our tribe.”

When the shaman left, both Coyote and Rabbit concentrated their efforts on polishing the arrow shafts and putting the required four feathers on all the arrows. They were becoming extremely anxious to finish their tedious project and join the ranks of the seasoned hunters.

Rabbit used a small stone mortar and pestle to grind a few lumps of red ocher to a fine powder. He then he added bear grease until it formed a thick paste. This he applied to the arrow shafts with a piece of tanned leather, sliding it up and down the shafts, rubbing the compound into the wood. This treatment gave the arrows a beautiful reddish brown polished finish, protecting the wood from weather and making it smooth to the touch.

As Rabbit finished polishing each arrow, Coyote attached the required four feathers to each one with sinew wraps top and bottom. He also made a few wraps of sinew two or three inches back from the arrowhead for added strength. This was to keep the arrow shafts from splitting when they hit wood or bone. The two young men showed remarkable concentration these last few days. They were trying to finish their assignment and make the perfect set of arrows to the satisfaction of their teacher before the hunting season was over in the high country.

Just before the last few feathers were attached, Buck came back for another look at the work being performed. He held up a few of the completed arrows and looked at them from behind, slowly turning them in his fingers. Rabbit and Coyote silently waited as the inspector checked out their work. The young arrow makers were almost afraid to breathe with the anticipation of what the man would say. Finally, Buck shook his head and handed the arrows back to Coyote.

“Do either of you know the purpose of the feathers on your arrows?” asked the shaman.

Rabbit and Coyote were afraid to answer for fear of revealing their ignorance about the subject. Finally, Coyote decided to break the silence and take a stab at answering the question put to him by the shaman. “I think the feathers are put on the arrows to make them fly straight, instead of twirling through the air like a throwing stick. “

“That is only part of the answer,” replied Buck. ”The feathers must be applied in such a way that they cause the arrow to spin in flight for better stability. This keeps them from wobbling during their flight toward the intended target. You have not attached your feathers in the correct way to provide that spin. All the feathers on a single arrow must be from the same wing of a bird. Some of your arrows have both right wing and left wing feathers mixed on the same arrow. Notice the curve of the feathers as you attach them to the shafts. They must all curve the same way.

“Take the advice of one who knows how important true flight is to an experienced hunter. Some of our best hunters will use feathers from only the left wing of a bird. Others will use only the right wing. In this way, they know the performance of every arrow in their quiver will be the same as every other one.

“Once you have made this last correction, I will accept the arrows you have made to be worthy of the best hunters of out tribe. I will talk to you more about this when your work is finished.”

Once again the two wannabe hunters had to repair mistakes they had made. They knew they were close to being finished, but every setback was a source of discouragement and frustration. The many setbacks they had experienced truly reinforced their character. Undaunted, they changed all the feathers to curve the same way on each arrow. To simplify the procedure, they used left wing feathers for Coyote’s arrows, since he was left-handed, and right wing feathers for Rabbit’s arrows, since he was right-handed.

Rabbit and Coyote worked until late that evening in order to finish their arrow-making project. They did not wake up until mid-morning the next day when they were awakened by a commotion in the encampment. A large troop of visitors from the valley had come up to the hunting camp to help with processing the bounty the hunters had taken in the late fall hunt. It seemed spring and summer had slipped away while the two young men worked on their arrow-making project.

To be concluded….