Mill to give tourists new look at Virginia City’s history |

Mill to give tourists new look at Virginia City’s history

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer
BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal "Diamond" Jim Caravallo demonstrates a smoke machine that is meant to replicate steam that used to blow back through the engine when the mill was operational during a tour of the Comstock Gold Mill in Virginia City on Thursday morning.

There are several mines to visit in Virginia City to find out how the “richest place on Earth” made its millions. And The Way It Was Museum on North C Street has exhibits explaining how mining was done.

But now, visitors to the historic town can see what happened after the ore was extracted from the ground.

The Comstock Gold Mill opens for its first tours at 10 a.m. Saturday, and Paul Thompson, who owns the business with Scott Jolcover, said its main purpose is to educate visitors.

“I don’t know of any other place that operates daily, but some operate occasionally,” he said. “This is educational, to show people how it was really done.”

Milling the ore was a process through which the metal was extracted from the rock. It was sent through a process that allowed the ore to be crushed several times.

“It’s like a walnut,” said tour guide “Diamond” Jim Caravallo. “The walnut has a shell. Well, the rock is the shell.”

Caravallo met Thompson in an old ghost town in California, and came on board the mill effort.

“I never saw a stamp mill,” he said. “I don’t think many people have. But this is what made this town, not the Cartwrights. People remember Bonanza, but this is what made this town, the mining and the milling.”

In the old days, Thompson said, the ore would be washed out from the crusher and put on a steel table, where mercury would be used to extract gold.

“The mercury would act like a magnet, and attach to the gold, then they would burn the mercury off,” he said.

After the late 1880s, after too many workers were killed burning the mercury, the mills of the day, which Virginia City had many, changed to a system where the gold is washed out of the ore through several screens, then taken into a pulsation jig, where larger pieces would be trapped. The finer ore would then be washed onto another steel table. Since gold is heavier than plain dirt, Thompson said, the dirt would just wash away.

The mill is reconstructed in a building attached to the Arizona-Comstock Mill, Thompson said. Most of the equipment came from the Murrietta Mine near Goldfield, Esmeralda County.

Thompson said the water in the mill is recirculated, so his operation probably doesn’t use any more than a regular household.

The mill has a Gantry crane, which is used to swing large pieces of mining equipment into place. Thompson said they used the crane to put this mill together.

“We preserved it and took care of it,” he said. “We want to make it as authentic as possible.

The boiler and the steam engine originally ran the Arizona-Comstock mill, according to Thompson.

One thing that isn’t that authentic is the smoke that comes from the boiler, it’s just there to show the visitor what it was like to work in the mill.

“We didn’t want the fire department being called in,” he said.

Thompson has more plans for the old mill. From the same Murrietta Mine he obtained a complete blacksmith shop with forge, bellows and tools that will go in one open area.

Another will have a reconstructed mill office, complete with antique furniture. And eventually he will include a ball mill, where gold is milled by having big balls rolling around crushing the ore.

“Ball mills are still used today,” he said.

Thompson would also like to see a Huntingdon Mill installed. He said he has a wood frame that is attached to a 1920s Oldsmobile engine that was used to run the mill.

A video will eventually be made to tell visitors of the whole area’s history and, hopefully, Thompson said they would like to open up an old decline, or a drift on a 6-degree decline, which runs under the Historic Fourth Ward School and goes 450 feet under C Street.

“I don’t think I’ll live to see that,” he said. “But we are going to go into the drift and do some timbering.”

The mill has been a labor of love for Thompson, Jolcover and now Caravallo and Norman Garcia, who helped put it together.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, but building this place has been a real experience,” he said.

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or 882-2111 ext. 351.