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Tours available of historic Sutro Tunnel site

View of Sutro Tunnel in 1896, while it was still in operation.
Library of Congress |

It’s not often that visitors get a chance to get up close and personal with one of the marvels of the 19th century — Sutro Tunnel. But on Sept. 24 and 25, the Comstock Foundation is hosting special tours of the site, which is on private property and generally not open to the public.

According to the foundation, ticket will include transportation between Sutro School in Dayton and the Sutro Tunnel site (no parking allowed at the site) as well as a memento bag filled with commemorative items. The event is a fundraiser for the foundation.

So what’s so special about Sutro Tunnel? In the mid-19th century, Virginia City’s mining industry was in full production mode and one of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to remove scalding hot water that seeped into the mines and made it impossible to work.

To cope, mining companies resorted to ingenious solutions such as dropping giant blocks of ice into the shafts, limiting the amount of time miners could work underground and developing some of the world’s largest pumps to remove the water.

However, a Prussian immigrant named Adolph Sutro concocted perhaps the most ambitious plan. While only 30 years old, Sutro had already operated a successful mercantile business in San Francisco before heading to Nevada in 1860 to improve his fortunes.

After learning about the challenges facing Virginia City mine owners, he had an inspiration: build a long tunnel deep beneath the mines, then link the shafts to the tunnel so that hot water could easily and safely be drained from them.

Additionally, he thought that the tunnel would be an easier and cheaper way to move the ore from the mines to the mills, many of which were located on the Carson River.

His tunnel would stretch more than 20,000 feet from its entrance, located east of present-day Dayton, to the first connection at the Savage Mine. He also envisioned the development of a whole town, named Sutro, to serve as the focus point for the tunnel.

In the early 1860s, Sutro pitched his tunnel idea to the mining companies, who were initially supportive. In 1865, the Nevada State Legislature granted him authority to drill a four-mile long tunnel into Mount Davidson.

He persuaded a number of the Comstock Lode’s largest mines to agree to pay a fee for each ton of ore transported through the tunnel.

But opposition arose, primarily from officials of the powerful Bank of California, who feared his tunnel might break their monopoly on the milling and transporting of Virginia City’s ore. As a result, it would take Sutro another three years to line up financing for the tunnel.

Finally, on October 19, 1869, work began on Sutro’s hole. Nearly nine years later, on July 8, 1878, the tunnel was completed. It cost $3.5 million and stretched more than 20,000-feet from the mouth, located just east of Dayton, to the first connection at the Savage Mine.

Unfortunately for its investors, who were mostly European, the tunnel was completed about the time that Virginia City’s mines had begun to decline. While it served its original purpose, it was never the moneymaker that Sutro envisioned and never paid for itself.

Sutro was probably aware of this since he quietly unloaded his stock in the venture — making more than a million dollars in profit — shortly after the tunnel was completed.

He successfully invested his funds in real estate in San Francisco, eventually becoming mayor of that city.

The town of Sutro had a similar fate. Established in 1870, it never lived up to Sutro’s expectations that it would eventually be larger and more important than Virginia City.

Sutro peaked in 1876 when it had a population of nearly 800 people, a school, a church, its own newspaper, and Sutro’s impressive two-story Victorian house. After the tunnel opened, the town’s population actually declined as the amount of business generated through the tunnel didn’t support such a large community.

Sutro’s grand mansion managed to survive until 1941 when it was destroyed by fire.

Today, only a handful of privately owned buildings including several barns, a large drainage pond, a few ore carts, an old wagon, some rusted rails and a handful of houses mark the former site of Sutro.

The foundations of Sutro’s mansion can be found in the sagebrush on the hillside above the tunnel. An interesting aspect of the house was the fact that thick cables, which can still be seen, were attached to the house to keep it from being blown over by the area’s often-fierce winds.

For more information about the Comstock Foundation tours in September, go to http://comstockfoundation.org/programs/events. Tickets are $45 for adults, $35 for children 12-17 and seniors over 65 (children 11 and under are free).

Water, snacks, and souvenirs will be on sale at an entrance tent. Organizers require participants wear comfortable walking shoes and recommend hats and sunscreen. No smoking or vaping allowed on the site.

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make the Silver State special.