Comstock Creations: The Properties of an Industrial Watershed

16 Nov 2011
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Robert Chester

Discovered in 1859, the Comstock Lode was the largest silver strike in United States history. In stark contrast to the diffuse deposits of California’s Mother Lode, the Comstock’s mineral deposits were geographically and geologically concentrated; this massive concentration of ores also demanded a concentration of workers, capital, and machines never seen before in the history of precious metals mining. Northwestern Nevada’s aridity, isolation and scarcity of usable timber all posed considerable obstacles to the lode’s development. These challenges precipitated the creation of immensely expensive and elaborate technological systems to surmount environmental constraints. However, the disruptive effects of mining and milling unleashed unstable and unpredictable forces that reshaped working environments above and below ground.

The organization of labor, technological innovation and economic scale that emerged in dialogue with environmental forces on the Comstock Lode ultimately propelled mining towards the corporate, hard-rock paradigm that would define precious-metals mining for the remainder of the nineteenth century. These forces also reconfigured the hydrology and topography of northwestern Nevada’s high desert by removing countless tons of earth from below ground, as companies created artificial hills of mining waste. While people scrambled to find adequate water above ground, workers struggled to combat vast quantities of scalding water below. Expensive pumps consumed massive quantities of fuel in attempts to drain the mines and prevent flooding. In addition, extraordinarily hot air taxed worker health and limited a company’s productivity, even after the adoption of mechanical drills. Crumbling, water-soaked quartz encased the Comstock’s rich veins of silver and gold. Thus, in the process of removing so much earth, gravity acted upon interdependent strata and seams of clay shifted repeatedly and frequently broke and fragmented boulders and rocks that collapsed timber supports, caved tunnels, and injured and killed workers.

By necessity, those who processed the Comstock’s ores enlisted gravity as an ally. Entrepreneurs built mills that mechanized centuries-old techniques pioneered by Mexican and Spanish metallurgists. In the process, they ordered the interior space of these industrial “extractories” to conform to the laws of gravity. From stamping and amalgamation to settling, each subsequent stage moved downward to a station below. An elaborate system of hundreds of miles of sluices lined with blankets, copper riffles, iron nails and large quantities of quicksilver protruded from these mills and extended the distance over which gravity continued extracting precious metals from the tailings that mills expelled. Mill men grafted a new industrial hydrology atop the older watershed originally shaped by nature. Their actions created new, unstable hybrid systems, as they built dams and reservoirs to store thousands of tons of tailings. Ultimately, Adolph Sutro’s grandiose drainage tunnel proved the most ambitious engineering scheme that sought to harness rather than combat gravity in efforts to prevent flooding.

By manipulating environmental processes in such ways, these men literally created an industrial watershed, as mounds of ore rose, shrunk and grew again amidst the clangor and din of immense machinery and the ordered symmetry of railroads and smokestacks. The Comstock also proved a historic watershed by providing templates for industrial technologies and corporate economies of scale that shaped the fates of future mining districts throughout the West and the World.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  Office for the History of Science and Technology

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