Dennis Cassinelli: Adolph Sutro and his famous tunnel

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When I was a student at the University of Nevada in the early 1960s, I sometimes spent my weekends exploring and poking around the ruins of the Comstock and surrounding areas. On one of these excursions, I paid a visit to the old townsite of Sutro to see the tunnel and explore what was left of the old town. At that time, there was not a single person anywhere around the site, so I had a chance to check things out undisturbed.
I was unable to enter the tunnel, since there was a heavy gate at the entrance, but I could see inside and the way was further blocked by piled up soil. There was a small stream of water exiting the tunnel that formed a small creek down the hill outside the tunnel portal to a storage pond.
I then turned my attention to the then still standing stamp mill that was the largest building at the site. I climbed in and around the old mill and examined the bank of stamps that had once processed the ores that were brought out through the tunnel from the Comstock mines. Remember, I was young and foolish in those days, and I do not suggest anyone go poking around private property today to explore any of the remaining old buildings. They are now being protected and restored by the Friends of the Sutro Tunnel.
Adolph Sutro first made an appearance on the Comstock in March 1860. While in Virginia City, he came up with the idea to construct a tunnel that would theoretically drain the water from the deep mines that were developing along the face of the Comstock Lode. Sutro developed and operated an ore mill in nearby Dayton. He continued to push for the idea of a tunnel and obtained a legislative mandate to excavate a three-mile tunnel from near Dayton to connect to the deep mines of the Comstock.
Sutro argued the scheme would cut costs, but it was apparent that he had other motives including charging the mines for drainage and ore transport to his own mill for processing. He also proposed the route as a transportation corridor for commuting and freight. After the 1869 disastrous Yellow Jackets Mine fire, Sutro argued that the tunnel would provide an escape route for miners in case of an emergency. The influential Miner’s Union backed him in this argument and he was finally able to obtain financial support to begin construction of the tunnel in 1869.
It took another nine years of digging to excavate the tunnel through three miles of solid rock to reach the Savage Mine on Sept. 1, 1878, Sutro’s dream of making a huge profit from the venture never did materialize. The Virginia and Truckee Railroad made transportation of ores to the Carson River mills less expensive than a tunnel route to Sutro’s town and stamp mill. The mine shafts of the major Comstock mines had been dug far below the level of Sutro Tunnel, thereby making drainage quite impractical.
Adolph Sutro was quick to realize he would never become wealthy operating the tunnel as he had originally planned. Fortunately for him, he found a buyer and sold his interest in the venture and moved back to San Francisco. There he was very successful in real estate and became quite wealthy.
The Sutro tunnel continued to be used as a transportation corridor and to drain the mines. In 1870 ex-President and Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant and others toured the tunnel and up the C&C shaft to Virginia City. In the heavy winter of 1889, the tunnel was used to transport food to Virginia City when all the roads were closed due to heavy snowfall.
Adolph sold much of his stock but maintained a controlling interest. His brother Theodore Sutro stayed on as manager for another 20 years and sold after to Francis Leonard in 1890 after Sutro died. The Leonard family ran the site and bought most of the Comstock mines. They were incredibly profitable and operated them until World War II when the mines were shut down.
This edited article is from Dennis Cassinelli’s book, “Chronicles of the Comstock.”


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