The Carson River Canyon Mills

Someday, when all the political maneuvering and financial woes are settled, the revived Virginia and Truckee Railroad will extend from Moundhouse through the Carson River Canyon to Carson City again. When this route is finally completed, it will pass through an incredibly scenic and rugged area that was once the location of many of the great mills that produced gold and silver from the ores mined on the Comstock.

When silver ores were first discovered and identified there in 1859, none of the early prospectors knew how to process and refine the sulphuret of silver to produce the shiny white metal. Several Mexican miners who had been working the diggings knew methods they had learned years earlier in Mexico. They adapted their methods of using arastras, the patio process and adobe smelting furnaces to process the ores. These methods proved too slow to process the large volume of ores being produced, so other more efficient methods were introduced through innovation and experimentation.

Soon, stamp mills were being used to crush the ores and the amalgamation method using mercury and mixing pans was employed to separate the silver and gold from the rock. The drawback for all these methods was the shortage of water required to operate these mills in the mountains where the ore was being extracted. Water being pumped from some of the deeper mines did provide water for ore processing but this was expensive and inefficient.

Tons of ore was hauled over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to California mills at great expense in the early days of operation. The richness of the early ores made even this venture profitable. Soon the idea of transporting ore to mills located along the nearby Carson River attracted development of mills in Dayton and along the Carson River Canyon between Moundhouse and Carson City. Dams, canals and ditches were constructed to divert Carson River water to operate these mills.

The first large scale quartz mill to use Carson River water was the Rock Point Mill in Dayton, constructed in 1861. Many other smaller scale mills sprang up along Gold Canyon, Virginia City and Six Mile Canyon, but lack of water was a limiting factor in their production. After the Virginia City and Gold Hill Water Company began delivering water through the Marlette System in 1873, more mills were able to operate on the Comstock.

Once the Virginia and Truckee Railroad was completed in 1869, eight large scale mills sprang up along the Carson River Canyon between Moundhouse and Carson City. This canyon was an extremely busy industrial area during the 1870s and 1880s. In addition to the huge mill buildings, there were ore dumps, railroad spurs, machine shops, employee residences, mill offices and other associated buildings. Several trains each day delivered ore, timber, building materials, machinery and passengers to the busy mills.

When traveling from Moundhouse toward Carson City, the trains served the Eureka, Santiago, Vivian, Copper Canyon, Merrimac, Brunswick, Morgan and Mexican mills. Unfortunately, all the great mills and other structures have now disappeared. The canyon has pretty much been reclaimed by nature except for the modern reconstruction of the old railroad bed. As the train passes by each of the old mill sites, I am sure the conductor will point out the location of each of them.

I explored all the old mill sites over 50 years ago and there was not a single structure remaining even that long ago. In 1997 I worked for a construction company for over a year where Brunswick Canyon meets the Carson River canyon. I was there when the flood of 1997 came through the canyon and the water level came up to the level of the old railroad bed at that time. It washed out the footings of the Brunswick Canyon bridge during that flood.

Several years ago, the canyon was under scrutiny as a potential superfund pollution site due to the tons of mercury lost in the river from the amalgamation mills back in the Comstock mining days. During some of my early explorations along the river, I found several of the old steel flasks that were used to transport 76 pounds each of mercury to the mills. I also found a V & T railroad lantern but it was rusted so badly, I threw it away.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

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