The Comstock’s first New Year’s Eve dance

Comstock New Year's Eve Dance

Gold was first discovered in 1849 by Abner Blackburn and several other placer miners at the mouth of Gold Canyon where it empties into the Carson River at Dayton. Shortly after the discovery, an influx of prospectors, miners and opportunists began working its way up Gold Canyon in pursuit of the elusive yellow dust. It would be another 10 years before silver would be identified as the most amazing mineral discovery of the century at the upper end of Gold Canyon.

Enterprising Spafford Hall saw an opportunity to make his fortune catering to the needs of the local miners and travelers passing through to the “real” gold fields in California. Hall constructed a substantial log store to become known as Hall’s Station. This was the first business established in what later would become known as Dayton, and Hall was the first permanent settler.

To provide entertainment to the miners, ranchers and employees at the station, Hall decided to throw Nevada’s first New Year’s Eve dance at the station on Dec. 31, l853. He invited a total of about 150 men from a radius of about 50 miles. Nine of the 12 women then living in this remote outpost of western Utah Territory showed up for the bash. I’m sure there was not a wallflower among them. They ranged in age from little girls to grandmothers. Miners, cowboys and ranchers waited their turn for a chance to dance with the ladies. They danced on the rough log floor to the music of a makeshift orchestra playing “Oh Suzanna,” Virginia reels and other popular ditties.

The affair lasted until the wee hours of the morning. When at last the party broke up and the revelers went out to get their horses for the long ride home, they found most of the horses were gone. It seemed that sometime during the fandango, a band of Washoe Indians drove off the horses to a place near the present site of Moundhouse. There, the Indians, who were fond of fresh horsemeat, were having their own New Year’s Eve party consisting of a horesmeat barbecue.

A search was begun by the hungover partygoers in an attempt to track down the missing animals. They set out on foot in the cold January air with headaches and a chill in their bones with a bitter contempt for the Washoe horse-nappers. It wasn’t until late the next afternoon that most of the horses were recovered. Two of the animals were never recovered and were considered eaten. Late New Year’s Day 1854, the participants of Nevada’s first recorded dance made their way home from the most memorable dance party they likely ever were to attend.

Later that year, Spafford Hall was severely injured in a hunting accident and sold the station to an employee, James McMartin. Major Ormsby bought the station sometime between 1854 and 1860. The title was still in his name when he was killed in the first battle of the Pyramid Lake Indian War. The site of Hall’s Station has been destroyed by the huge borrow pit at the mouth of Gold Canyon, which rivals in size to the pit at the upper end of the canyon at Gold Hill.

Perhaps someday, there may be a re-enactment of the events of the first dance ever recorded in what was to become Nevada. Because Hall’s Station no longer exists, it may be appropriate to hold the event at my office in Moundhouse. After all, some of the original festivities ended up in Moundhouse anyway. It seems to me that a community that holds events such as the World Championship Outhouse Races, the Camel Races, Bed Races, the Mountain Oyster Cookoff and other unusual events just might consider a celebration of Nevada’s first dance and even the horse barbecue that topped off the event.

Never mind — on second thought, I don’t think so.

The Night Before (a Comstock) Christmas

Comstock Christmas Bells

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the mines,
The men heard the whistles that signaled the time.

From the bowels of the earth, they were pulled to the top,
Up out of the shaft, then they came to a stop.

From the Chollar and Yellowjacket they came,
From the Savage and Belcher, and some with no name.

With lanterns in hand and dirt on their faces,
They started their hike to their favorite places.

The frozen snow sang as they walked or they rode,
Up the hill to the bars of the old Comstock Lode.

They went to the Delta or the Boston for action,
Others to the Bucket of Blood for their satisfaction.

Saloons and bars were their gathering places,
When drinking and gambling and hoping for aces.

Some men ordered whiskey, some ordered wine,
Cold beer was a favorite — soon all men felt fine.

The big shots showed up and bought a few rounds,
While girls of the evening came out on the town.

At midnight, the whistle of the Lyon heard clear,
Across the Divide announced Christmas was here.

The bells of Saint Mary and Saint Paul’s soon did ring,
Calling the faithful to worship their King.

The miners raised their glasses to toast and to cheer,
And to remember the fellows who no longer were there.

In the east, the clouds parted to reveal a star bright,
The men went out to see in the cold, winter night.

And when they returned, they raised up a cheer,
“Merry Christmas to all, and a Happy New Year!”

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 

2012 Gold Hill Hotel lecture takes place April 17

Dennis’s annual Gold Hill Hotel lecture is scheduled for April 17! This year, the topic will be “Transportation in the Comstock Days.”

The Gold Hill Hotel

Dennis has been giving lectures at the Gold Hill Hotel for more than a decade, covering such topics as Great Basin Indian artifacts, Nevada archaeology and Comstock history. Dinner is served at 5 p.m., and the lecture begins at 7:30 p.m. Also, Dennis’s books will be available for purchase and for signing at the event. Hope to see you there!

DETAILS:

WHAT: Transportation in the Comstock Days, a lecture and book-signing by Dennis Cassinelli

WHERE: Gold Hill Hotel, 1540 Main St., Virginia City, NV.

WHEN: Tuesday, April 17. Dinner begins at 5 p.m.; lecture begins at 7:30 p.m.

COST: $15 dinner and lecture; $5 lecture only

DETAILS: To make reservations, call the Gold Hill Hotel at 775-847-0111.

Dennis signing books at the 2010 lecture

The Remains of the Rock Point Mill

Video

You wouldn’t know it driving past, but this scenic, cottonwood-shaded area alongside Highway 50 through Dayton was once home to a spellbinding ore-processing operation. And though nature’s started to reclaim it, the Rock Point Mill still stands as one of the many reminders of the Comstock mining district and the tremendous wealth it generated.

The Rock Point Mill site in Dayton, Nevada

The mill was built in 1861 by Charles C. Stevenson, who also served as Nevada’s governor from 1887 to 1890. Forty stamps crushed the ore that came from Gold Hill, Silver City and, of course, Virginia City. Flumes carried water from the nearby Carson River to the mill site. At one time, the mill had the capacity to crush 40 tons of ore per day.

A fire ravaged the original mill in 1882, and another fire wreaked havoc in 1909. Though it was immediately rebuilt, the new mill closed in 1920 and was moved to Silver City. Between 1920 and 1954, the site was used a dump.

Now part of the Dayton State Park, the remains of the historic Rock Point Mill include rock walls strung along the hillsides and concrete slabs sprouting from the earth. A wood-framed doorway leads into a room enclosed in rock. Outside, a stone staircase winds up a hill that provides amazing views of the surrounding town. An earthen dam still exists and provides a scenic basin hidden from the highway.

A sign near the base of the ruins tells the mill’s story through words and photographs. Rock-lined pathways wind uphill toward the dam, around the dump and to a round concrete structure at the top of a high hill. A convenient bench allows visitors to sit and admire the view. In addition, the site is connected to the Dayton State Park through a tunnel that runs underneath Highway 50.

Venturing among the ruins, you get a sense of the operation’s vast scale. As one of three ore-processing plants in Dayton, The Rock Point Mill was a crucial fixture not only of the town, but of the Comstock mining district as well. Today, it serves as an historical remnant of a bygone era, reminding contemporary Dayton of its roots and the role it played in the shaping of the west.