How a mammoth vein of silver ore—a “Babylon of the Great American Desert”—helped shape the West.
Washington Post Book World contributing editor Drabelle begins in 1857 on a mountainside on the Nevada side of the Sierras. Rumors of gold drew prospectors from the abandoned remains of California’s Forty-Niner rush. In the yet unnamed Virginia City, initial diggings quickly showed that the Nevada find would be of the silver variety. What would years later be revealed as a single vein stretching two miles long would, during the following two decades, yield a series of bonanzas interspersed with excesses of greed, deception and plenty of good times. Ironies, the author writes, began to spring up immediately. The Comstock Lode took its name from a blowhard self-promoter who was no good at mining or much else, and who eventually committed suicide. The flurry of “culture” drawn by the promised wealth included newspapers that employed journalists of the stature of Mark Twain (frequently quoted here) and Ambrose Bierce, yet were edited by men who published at the beck and call of the powerful. Drabelle is thorough in documenting conflicts with exploited Native Americans, the stress of hard-rock mining at deep levels where temperatures could fell a man in 15 minutes and the sheer technological innovation—later adapted across other industries—needed to process silver ore efficiently. The bulk of the narrative, however, involves the few who actually made off with the riches and how they did it: manipulating mining share prices down to buy them, up to sell them, assessing speculators for operating expenses, charging them fraudulently via ore-processing mills they also controlled—and, of course, buying the necessary judges and/or juries when stockholder or rivals’ lawsuits were launched.
Engaging stories from a fabled place where many arrived broke and most left that way.