Sunday, October 25, 2015

Adolph Sutro--King of the Comstock

Forty-Niner panning
for gold
Most of us know about the discovery of gold in California in 1849, which led to the California Gold Rush. But not as many know that gold and silver discoveries happened in other places as well. One such discovery of both gold and silver was in Virginia City, Nevada (or as it was know in those days, Utah Territory) in 1859.

Within a handful of years after the California Gold Rush started, it peaked and waned. Many who had staked everything to find their fortunes in California’s gold fields lost everything instead. In order to get back on better footing, they wandered farther afield, hoping to find a new vein of ore. A few of the lucky ones did—in Virginia City, Nevada.

At first, the prospectors were focused on gold. However, as they dug deeper into the ground, they found a layer of rich black sand, black manganese mixed with a blue-gray quartz. Upon testing the strange sand, they found it was three parts silver to one part gold. One of the original people to lay claim to this strange sand was Henry T.P. Comstock. And so began silver mining in America. The discovery became known as the Comstock Lode.

This picture shows the
Square Set Timbering method
The silver was buried in the ground or in the mountainsides, so it had to be dug out. Thankfully, the consistency was such that it could be easily dug out with a shovel at first. But as these miners had to dig deeper and deeper, several problems arose. Cave-ins were one such problem. The soil was too soft, and many lost their lives as the surrounding ground gave way. To combat that problem, a German mining engineer created a special timber support system called Square Set Timbering to strengthen the mine shafts.

Another problem was that the mine would fill with water, making it difficult and costly to continue the mining process. At first, large pumps were employed to pump the water up to the shaft openings and out of the mine. But this was very cost prohibitive and time consuming.

Adolph Sutro
A Prussian-born engineer by the name of Adolph Sutro proposed an answer to this issue. Build a horizontal tunnel through which the water could flow out of the mine on its own. Said tunnel would also provide other benefits, in that it would help to vent the poisonous gasses that often built up in underground mines, and it would provide a lower-cost method to remove the ore and transport miners in and out of the mine. Construction of the tunnel began on October 19, 1869.

While the tunnel presented many positive reasons to proceed, some of the mine bigwigs feared that Sutro would use the tunnel to his own benefit in order to take control of the entire Comstock Lode. Sutro struggled to find the monetary backing to proceed with the project until he was finally able to secure a loan from a London bank.

During the construction phase, Sutro was known to work right alongside those he hired as tunnel diggers. He faced the same avalanches, mudslides, and poisonous gasses that his diggers faced, and he often was the first one in and last one out of the tunnel they were constructing. The tunnel was completed in 1878, nearly nine years after it began, and it cost a whopping $5 million to complete. (To put that in some context, that would be $119,047,619.05 in today’s dollars).

The Sutro Tunnel emptied nearly 4 million gallons of water a day from the mine. Sutro rented use of
Entrance to the Sutro Tunnel
the tunnel to the mine owners to the tune of about $10,000 a day. But by 1879, he realized that the richer parts of the mine were petering out, and they had to dig even deeper than his newly-completed tunnel. His profitability began to decline, so rather than hang on to the tunnel, he sold it at a great profit and moved to San Francisco as a very rich man. There, he became one of the city’s largest landowners, and he also served a few years as the city’s mayor.

Because of his work on the tunnel, as well as his great profit from it, Sutro became known as the King of the Comstock.

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.


Join nine brides of convenience on their adventures in a variety of times and settings gone by—from a ranch in California…to the rugged mountains of Colorado…to a steamship on the Mississippi…to the dangerous excitement of the Oregon Trail…into high society of New York City. No matter the time or place, the convenient brides proceed with what must be done, taking nuptials out of necessity. . .and never dreaming that God might take their feeble attempts to secure their futures and turn them into true love stories for His glory.


  1. We can learn a good lesson from Mr. Sutro--get out while the getting is good. Smart man.

    1. Amen, Vickie! He certainly knew when to part ways!

  2. Interesting how silver found where the gold is! Thanks for the post. sm wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  3. Interesting. I've always thought silver was a hard ore where you had to use a pick axe to get it out. This puts a different aspect to it. Thanks!

    1. Glad I was able to share some new information with you, Anita!

  4. Wow, talk about leading by example - first in, last out. Nine years facing life and death adversities is a long time, not to mention cost, to follow a dream.

  5. Thank you for this story. Did you know there's a group of us working on restoring the site and the tunnel?

    1. No, I didn't know about this! That's fantastic. Thank you for letting me know.