Dennis Cassinelli: Building the Comstock

North E Street near the railroad depot in Virginia City, probably in the late 19th century.

North E Street near the railroad depot in Virginia City, probably in the late 19th century.

The region of Nevada known as the Comstock includes the cities of Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, Sutro and Dayton. These communities comprise the Comstock Historic District.
Silver and gold were discovered in the region in 1859. This started a rush to the Comstock that brought thousands of hopefuls to participate in the expected prosperity.
It soon became evident that in order to thrive and build towns and cities, the people had to have lumber, building supplies, food and other resources not readily available in the rocky area where the mining would be done. This was compounded by a rush to the area from former California 49ers coming back “over the hill" to participate in the new discoveries.
One of the first priorities was obtaining sufficient food to feed the growing population of the area. Fortunately, the Dayton Valley was nearby and several Italian families, including my own, already had farms and ranches that marketed their products to the towns on the Comstock. This included fruits, vegetables, horses, mules, cattle, hogs and other livestock.
The next priority was obtaining lumber and other building materials to construct the residences, hotels and business establishments in the growing towns. This need was met by the timber in the nearby forests in the Lake Tahoe region.
Trees cut around Lake Tahoe were dragged by oxen to the lake shore and brought to Glenbrook where a sawmill cut the logs to make lumber for building their town. Steam ships on the lake brought even more timber to Glenbrook where the Glenbrook Railroad took logs to Spooner Summit and placed them in a “V Flume” and sent them down Spooner canyon to a mill in Carson City near what is now the Railroad Museum.
Other logs were floated down the Carson River where Dutch Nick Ambrose had built another sawmill near Empire Ranch. When the square set timbering system was invented by Philip Deidesheimer, tons of lumber was used to make square set timbers to place in the deep ore bodies that were excavated so the town of Virginia City would not sink into the ground. This method prevented cave-ins from occurring. Unfortunately, much of this underground timber later caught fire which burned for weeks.
The next priority was constructing a railroad to serve the needs of the Comstock. The “big Four on the Comstock” – Mackay, Fair, Flood and O’Brien – conceived the idea of building a railroad that would serve Virginia City and connect with the Truckee River in Reno. This was how the Virginia and Truckee Railroad got its name. The railroad was used to bring gold and silver from the mines and mills to the Carson City Mint to be minted into coins. Later on the railroad was extended to Minden where flour milling and agriculture was being done.
In 1869, work begun on excavating the Sutro Tunnel over three miles through solid rock to provide drainage and ventilation and connect to the deep mine shafts beneath Virginia City. Sutro Tunnel has been the subject of other articles I have contributed in the past. Activity on the Comstock declined after the tunnel was completed. Even today, water continues to drain from the tunnel portal.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at


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