On Nevada History: Comstock barbed wire a valued relic
February 16, 2017
A compulsion to collect things is a well known human trait. For centuries, people have collected practically anything that interests them. This could be obvious things such as stamps and coins, or it could be the hundreds of varieties of beer cans, arrowheads, antique bottles or samples of antique barbed wire.
I must admit at different times in my own ancient history, I have dabbled in collections of all those things mentioned above. Having grown up on a ranch and worked on several others, I found there were many varieties of interesting barbed wire to be found along the miles of old fence surrounding the fields and pastures of Nevada. I also learned there were collectors who had a passion for seeing how many different varieties they could assemble into a collection.
Many books have been written about the subject and each variety was given a name. One of the earliest patented varieties was the "Kelly Diamond Point" which was patented in 1868 by Michael Kelly. It had a distinctive diamond shaped-point and one of the twisted wires passed through a small hole in each diamond point. Rules for collectors were established and those included the obligation to repair any standing fence where a sample was removed. Sample size was set at 18 inches and more than 1,000 different varieties of American-made barbed wire have been identified.
My own collection at one time covered an entire wall of my house and included more than 500 different types. It was during my barbed wire collecting phase I learned there was one variety of barbed wire that was manufactured in Virginia City using materials taken from the Comstock mines.
Many of the hoisting works of some Comstock mines used massive flat wire cable straps to raise and lower the heavy elevators deep into the earth. After months of lifting tons of ore, timbers, men and equipment, the flat strap cable became dangerously worn. No longer safe to use for its intended purpose, the cable had to be scrapped and replaced.
In those days, the Chinese built the V&T Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad across Northern Nevada. The Chinese, however, weren't allowed to work in the deep mines, but they did work placer mines such as in Gold Canyon between Dayton and Silver City.
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Enterprising Chinese laborers soon found there was a market for the worn-out flat cable from the Comstock mines. Miles of the used flat cable was laid out flat on the ground and split apart by the Chinese laborers into several strands, complete with barbs that were formed where the cable was cut apart with chisels.
Wagon loads of this heavy barbed wire were sold to farmers and ranchers in the Truckee Meadows, Dayton and the Carson Valley. Fencing of the various farms and ranches became necessary about the same time the Comstock mines were being developed.
The Comstock has always been known for its superlatives and Comstock barbed wire continued this tradition. Comstock barbed wire is easily the largest and heaviest barbed wire ever made and it had the longest barbs of any barbed wire. It's also perhaps the rarest of barbed wire types. This is because it was handcrafted from local materials and was used extensively on the farms and ranches surrounding the Comstock region.
Surprisingly, examples of Comstock mine cable barbed wire can still be seen on a few fences along the back roads of Carson Valley today. A few years ago I photographed a section of this wire on a fence near Genoa. Several other sections of the wire are still in place, but aren't easily recognized since many of the barbs have fallen out. Please try to look for the distinctive Comstock barbed wire during your next visit to Carson Valley. It's truly a relic of the old Comstock days and worthy of preserving. Cameras only, please — no wire cutters.
I want to ask a favor from my readers. I know the distribution of the Comstock mine cable barbed wire was probably the immediate area surrounding the Comstock. If any of you readers out in Winnemucca, Elko or Hawthorne have seen this unique wire, please let me know by email. Not exact locations, please, just general locations so the fences can be preserved. It will be interesting to learn the geographic distribution of this amazing artifact from the Comstock. It likely was distributed around other agricultural areas where the Comstock obtained its food, livestock, hay and grain. If any of you know some of the wire still exists besides Carson Valley, could you please let me know?
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinlli.com. All books sold through this publication will be at a 20 percent discount and Dennis will pay the postage.