Comstock barbed wire

antique barbed wire

Comstock barbed wire still exists in several areas around Northern Nevada.

A compulsion to collect things is a well-known human trait. For centuries, people have collected practically anything that interests them. This could be obvious things such as stamps and coins, or it could be the hundreds of varieties of beer cans, arrowheads, antique bottles or samples of antique barbed wire.

I must admit that at different times in my own ancient history, I have dabbled in collections of all those things mentioned above. Having grown up on a ranch and worked on several others, I found that there were many varieties of interesting barbed wire to be found along the miles of old fence surrounding the fields and pastures. I also learned there were collectors who had a passion for seeing how many different varieties they could assemble into a collection.

Many books have been written about the subject and each variety was given a name. One of the earliest patented varieties was the “Kelly Diamond Point” which was patented in 1868 by Michael Kelly. It had a distinctive diamond shaped point and one of the twisted wires passed through a small hole in each diamond point. Rules for collectors were established and these included the obligation to repair any standing fence where a sample was removed. Sample size was set at 18” and over 1,000 different varieties of American-made barbed wire have been identified.

My own collection covered an entire wall of my house and included over 500 different types. It was during my barbed wire collecting phase that I learned there was one variety of barbed wire that was manufactured in Virginia City, Nevada using materials taken from the Comstock mines.

Each of the hoisting works of every Comstock mine used massive flat wire cable straps to raise and lower the heavy elevators deep into the earth. After months of lifting tons of ore, timbers, men and equipment, the flat strap cable became dangerously worn. No longer safe to use for its intended purpose, the cable had to be scrapped and replaced.

Enterprising Chinese laborers soon found there was a market for the worn-out flat cable from the Comstock mines. Miles of the cable was laid out flat on the ground and split apart by the Chinese into several strands complete with barbs that were formed where the strands were cut apart with chisels.

Wagonloads of this heavy barbed wire were sold to farmers and ranchers in the Truckee meadows, Dayton and the Carson Valley. Fencing of the various farms and ranches became necessary about the same time the Comstock Mines were being developed.

The Comstock has always been known for its superlatives and Comstock barbed wire continued this tradition. Comstock barbed wire is easily the largest and heaviest barbed wire ever made and it had the longest barbs of any barbed wire. It is also perhaps the rarest of barbed wire types. This is because it was hand crafted from local materials and was used exclusively on the farms and ranches surrounding the Comstock region.

Surprisingly, examples of Comstock mine cable barbed wire can still be seen on several fences along the back roads of Carson Valley today. I recently photographed a section of this wire on a fence near Genoa. Several other sections of the wire are still in place, but are not easily recognized since many of the barbs have fallen out. Please try to look for the distinctive Comstock barbed wire during your next visit to Carson Valley. It is truly a relic of the old Comstock days and worthy of preserving.

And, most importantly: Cameras only, please — no wire cutters.

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