Crumbling Comstock mill targeted for tear-down

RENO (AP) - A crumbling concrete colossus alternately described as a hazard and as a historic resource in need of protection is once again being targeted for tear-down by the federal government.

Demolition of the eight structures that make up the United Comstock Merger Mill at Storey County's American Flat, at an estimated cost of $4 million, is proposed in a new environmental study released by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management as discussion over the site's future ramps up.

Others options include leaving the graffiti-covered complex as is, saving the buildings but controlling access with full-time security, or tearing down five structures but leaving three standing.

As it stands now, the mill simply poses too many hazards to the public, said Jim Schroeder, acting field manager for the BLM's Sierra Front area.

"It's very dangerous," Schroeder told the Reno Gazette-Journal (

Others argue it should be protected as an important historic resource and potential tourist destination.

"There's no other structure like it in the world," said Carson City resident Neal Dach. "It was right where modern science met the Wild West."

The issue arises after the BLM last year withdrew its decision to raze the complex amid concern the agency failed to follow proper historic preservation procedures. The new environmental assessment, released to the public early this month, is designed to address those concerns but still recommends demolition as the "proposed action."

Built in 1922, the United Comstock Merger Mill was used to process locally mined gold and silver ore with a cyanide solution. At the time, the mill was the largest, most modern and sophisticated operation of its type in the country but its time was short-lived. It shut down in 1926, largely due to the plummeting price of silver.

After closure, the mill was stripped of all equipment, metal and wood, with salvage operations causing significant structural damage, the BLM's analysis said.

The mill's cavernous interior became an irresistible destination for keg parties, its walls a canvas for graffiti artists. Some practiced rappelling from its largest structure. In May 1996, a 44-year-old man driving an all-terrain vehicle on concrete steps inside one building was killed when the vehicle rolled over on top of him. At least three serious injuries have occurred there over the years, the BLM said.

The 1996 fatality prompted the BLM to close all of the buildings at American Flat to public entry the following year. The site was fenced but fencing was repeatedly torn down as the buildings remained a popular if hazardous midnight destination. A 2008 audit of the site by the Department of Interior's Office of Inspector General concluded the mill posed a "high risk" of liability to the government.

Two years after the BLM's initial decision to tear the facility down, nothing has changed. Crumbling concrete walls could collapse at any time, floors have massive holes and underground mill sumps are full of water, posing a drowning hazard. For that reason, a tear-down of the entire place makes sense, the BLM's Schroeder said.

"We've had one fatality. There's been a number of injuries," Schroeder said. "All of that makes it pretty clear it is a hazard. I think the record shows that pretty clearly."

Others continue to argue the mill is of sufficient historical significance to keep it standing. One of them is Dach, who submitted a proposal to the BLM to open a museum of Nevada history at American Flat. Demolition of the mill, Dach argues, "would be a pretty big loss."

"They're still dead-set on this. They're going to destroy it," Dach said. "I think that sends a message to people that history is unimportant. It is important to the history of that area and of the nation as a whole."

Converting the complex into a museum would protect a valuable historic resource and offer a needed revenue source, Dach said, arguing the public should support the "no action" option and thus allow his proposal to take shape.

The BLM mentions Dach's proposal in its new environmental study but does not examine it in detail, concluding it is "too speculative to implement" and not economically feasible.


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