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By (July 1, 2009) No Comment

Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns, and High Living on the Comstock Lode

By Dennis Drabelle
St. Martin’s Press, 2009

Doubtless many American readers coming to Mile-High Fever, Dennis Drabelle’s new history of the fabled Comstock Lode, will feel a twinge of familiarity with the subject matter. They will have seen Gerald MacRaney’s understatedly riveting performance as Comstock mining baron George Hearst in HBO’s late, lamented Deadwood, and perhaps they will seek out the blackguard Hearst in this book’s index, in part to see just how much of the man Deadwood creator David Milch borrowed from history, and how much he invented. Such inquiring minds will find only three references to George Hearst – including Drabelle’s verification that yes, his Indian nickname was “Boy the Earth Talked To” – and not much more than a faint whiff of evil. They’ll be further shocked to discover that the town of Deadwood isn’t mentioned in Drabelle’s book at all. Probably Al Swearangen, the whiskey-swilling dictator of Milch’s town, would have had a choice term for Drabelle, and it wouldn’t have been lock-plucker.  

Readers who opt out of the Index approach and instead walk through Mile-High Fever’s front door will be glad they did: this is a fantastic book, one that instructs and entertains in equal measure, one that sheds some new light on the banging, awkward adolescence of America, revels in an enormous cast of well-drawn characters, and is from first to last a fun reading experience. If all history were written like this, fiction would be out of a job.

Drabelle’s subject is the mighty Comstock Lode, the wide shelf of subterranean silver and gold deposits that drew thousands of prospectors, speculators, and developers to what is now Nevada in 1859. For twenty years the Comstock flourished, making mighty fortunes for some lucky few and enticing the dreams of many thousands more in and around the expanding new town of Virginia City. Television viewers of a pre-Deadwood era will recall the long-running series Bonanza, set in the Virginia City of those heady years, the boom years that first popularized the term ‘bonanza’ (and its opposite and less well-known sister term, borrasca, referring to a claim gone belly-up).

But of course the real subject of Drabelle’s book isn’t that shelf of precious minerals but the wild cast of characters who flocked to it after its discovery, in the hopes of changing their lives. That cast starts with Emily Orrum, who has the dubious claim to being discoverer of the Comstock in the first place. “She had an occult streak,” Drabelle writes, “and dreams and portents led her to predict a rosy future for herself, which she tried to nurse along by frequent changes of husband.” Orrum’s claim to supernatural abilities gives Orrum his first chance to grin a bit at the proceedings he’s chronicling:

She left a mixed record as a prognosticator. She came through for a Mr. G. L. Whitney, who reported having lost a valuable watch chain. Eilly advised him to sift through the rubbish in his rooms, and damned if the chain wasn’t there! On the other hand, journalist John Taylor Waldorf never forgot having to dig up the cellar under his family’s house after Eilly declared that treasure was buried there (it wasn’t).

At the general store she ran, she had a customer who couldn’t pay – with money, anyway. He paid her with shares in his mine, and that’s where she met Lemuel Sandford “Sandy” Bowers, who held a mining claim adjacent to hers. They married (as Drabelle has it, “their claims merged”), and their mine went bonanza then began to level out and then peter out, and after Sandy died, Orrum used her occult power to become the so-called Washoe Seeress. An 1877 ad she took out in the Territorial Enterprise stated “She may be consulted in regard to events only the shadows of which have yet been projected into the planes of our lives. She sees and feels the presence of those shadows and in her mind they take apprehensible shape.” As Drabelle puts it, “… she might have done better for herself with a zingier message (a rival fortune-teller billed herself as ‘Prepared to tell the PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE,’ which sounds more like it.)”

There are stories associated with virtually every character who was ever associated with the Comstock or the boom towns like Virginia City that sprang up around it, most certainly including the man who reputedly named Virginia City – while drunk, of course. It seems a prospector named James “Old Virginia” Finney has this honor, according to an anecdote told by Henry “Pancake” Comstock – “a man so peculiar he was reputed to be a half-wit,” Drabelle tells us, before clarifying that “in fact, however, he seems to have been a scheming blowhard.” This relatively impeachable source testified: “According to a story told by Pancake himself, “Old Virginia” was out one night with a lot of the ‘boys’ on a drunk, when he fell down and broke his whiskey bottle. On rising he said – ‘I baptize this ground Virginia.’”

Virginia City, circa 1880

As Drabelle points out, the rapid development of any mining boom-town always mirrored the nation’s development as a whole; the first wave of pioneers carved out a niche while dealing with hostile nature and even more hostile Native Americans, and that first wave was followed by a surge of settlers (in 1870 there were a little less than 7 million settlers west of the Mississippi, and by 1890 there were a little less than 17 million, with thousand more arriving every month)(put another way, in 1850 the country boasted 350 millionaires, and by 1880 the number had grown to over 2,000), fast and largely reckless industrialization, exploitation of cheap ethnic and immigrant labor, and the influx of semi-corrupt syndicates seeking to harness and capitalize on all of it. “Bejabbers!” one newspaper commented, on the ascendancy of the Bank of California in the consolidation of Comstock interests. “The whole of Virginia is comprised in two blocks, and them two blocks consist of one corner, and that corner is the Bank of California.”

These syndicates could grow enormous and enormously complicated, and since their victims were often the meanest, most solitary types, the ground was naturally fertile for David-and-Goliath style yarnspinning. In a neat little connecting maneuver that wouldn’t have occurred to most writers, Drabelle sees this as a vital part of the Comstock place in American mytho-history, and he knows who looms the largest in that history, as will most of his readers: the fledgling newspaperman Samuel Clemens got his start soaking up the larger-than-life world of the Comstock. Indeed the smelting process that took place there would create the ‘Mark Twain’ who then went on to become something of an American myth himself:

By the 1860s Americans could point to a longstanding tradition of frontier humor, people with extravagant characters like Paul Bunyan and Mike Fink, and larded with exaggeration and sass. Originally oral but increasingly being committed to paper (the jumping-frog story that made Mark Twain famous evolved that way, from something overheard to a mature work of art.) The tall tale was a defiant celebration of several facets of the American scene: everyday life was rougher than in most European countries; manners were plainer; and the setting was bigger, grander, and wilder, with vast mountain ranges and hellacious deserts to cross, rampaging rivers to navigate, violent storms to endure, recalcitrant native Americans to fend off, strange homegrown sects to conjure with and ex-slaves and immigrants from just about everywhere to assimilate. Out West, where these conditions applied all the more, the tales only grew taller. (By contrast, the landscapes of Europe looked dinky when Mark Twain and others writers got around to touring them: “It is popular to admire the Arno,” Twain wrote a few years later in The Innocents Abroad. “It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would just pump some water into it.”)

Fans of Twain will remember his tales of the Comstock in Roughing It, and as good a natural storyteller as Drabelle is, he’s smart enough not to measure himself against somebody as far outside his weight class as Twain (of whom he says “when he got rolling, he was virtually incapable of writing a dull sentence” – an observation that holds true for Drabelle as well). Which doesn’t mean there aren’t fights to be picked! For instance, there’s the infamous (and hilarious) rough handling Twain gives prospector Conrad Wiegand (who Drabelle calls a “guileless do-gooder”). Weigand challenged the ethics and practices of the Bank Ring that ruled the Comstock traffic in the late 1860s, and even Drabelle admits what was widely known about him from the first minute he gained any prominence: he was a bit of a buffoon, easily mocked. When he tried to raise public outcry against the Ring, Wiegund was assaulted in the streets for his efforts, and Twain lampoons the whole incident at length. Weighing the two sides amply displays the easy-going, authoritative way Drabelle has with his prose and his material:

Of what happened next, we have not only Weigand’s version but also a running commentary by Mark Twain, who devoted a long appendix to the episode in Roughing It. Twain had long since left the Comstock, and as far as we know Wiegand had done him no personal harm, so why make such a to-do of the assayer’s shortcomings? Something about Wiegand got under Twain’s skin, but let’s hold off trying to specify what it was until the whole story is on the table.

(Drabelle’s conclusions on this subject – and let’s just say they’re as insightful as they are unflattering about Twain – make fascinating reading.)

Outsized personality after personality fill these pages and make Mile-High Fever so addictive. For example, we meet Twain’s fellow newspaperman at the Territorial Enterprise, a man who wrote under the pseudonym Dan De Quille (as Drabelle points out, if you say the name aloud you get the joke, not that it’s really worth the effort), who made an observation as factual as it is grisly:

“The body of a man falling a distance of one thousand feet or more emits toward the latter part of its course a humming sound, somewhat similar to that heard from a passing cannon-ball of large size.” (It wasn’t until the era of skyscrapers that anybody could confirm this without being in a mine shaft). And there’s the Prussian immigrant Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro (a drinking partner of Twain’s), who pioneered advanced tunnel-drainage, founded the town immodestly named Sutro, struck it rich, and got out while the getting was good. Drabelle tells us: “The tunnel remained in service for fifty years, mostly as a gigantic drainpipe (it drains the Comstock to this day), but the burg of Sutro withered until it joined the ranks of Nevada’s many ghost towns.”

It’s true that Twain brings out the best in Drabelle’s snappy prose, as when he describes the Paige Compositor, the mechanical page-compiler that would be the “bane of Twain’s middle age” by saying the monstrous machine was “high-strung and temperamental – you would be too, if you weighed 9,000 pounds and had 18,000 moving parts.” But he’s almost equally evocative on the nitty-gritty of his story, the actual physical reality of mining hundreds of feet down in the earth. Despite the unprecedentedly extensive precautions made for miner safety in many Comstock operations (Drabelle points out that many of the technical innovations would later be used in any number of big-city infrastructures), the men in those operations still faced the possibility of gruesome death every day:

The shafts themselves could pull a careless man to his doom. Imagine a worker somewhere in the mine’s bowels, pushing a car full of ore toward a shaft with an open gate, which leads him to expect a cage waiting, although in fact it’s not there. The car goes hurtling into space, and the miner’s momentum carries him after it. Down he goes, “dashed from side to side against the timbers and planking … till the bottom is reached, hundreds of feet below.” Few bodies falling that far landed intact; colleagues would gather up the severed parts and place them in candle boxes to be carried to the surface. (Filled with dirt, candle boxes had another use in the mines: as receptacles for human excrement.)

The story of the Comstock has been told many times before (including by Dan De Quille, who asked for and received Twain’s permission to use of the guest house’s on Twain’s Connecticut property in order to write his book The Big Bonanza), but this picaresque chapter in America’s Manifest Destiny has never had a more lively and inviting chronicle than this. Time and again, the separate storylines Drabelle follows end in the same way: played-out mines, shuttered stores, clapboard ghost towns. The Comstock itself eventually dwindled and died – but it lives again in Mile-High Fever, a brawling, high-spirited bonanza of a book.

Eli Wanamaker was for many years a stringer for various small-town Nevada newspapers, including the Bee, the Sentry, and the Alert. His plans for striking it rich (in gold or the lottery, he’s not picky) have consistently gone borrasca. This is his first published piece for Open Letters Monthly.

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