Time stands still at Sutro townsite
Appeal Staff Writer
Heading east on Highway 50 from Dayton, just past Smith’s Market, drivers glancing left probably only notice the commercial development and maybe the subdivisions in the back.
Most won’t realize there is an historic site behind and just above the rows of nearly identical houses.
The Sutro town site, built in the mid-1860s as the infrastructure for the historic Sutro Tunnel, is still in existence, privately owned and inhabited by a few renters, some wild horses, bobcats, mountain lions, frogs and lizards.
The tunnel itself is still there, though it has caved in and is not safe to enter beyond 10 feet or so.
But it still does one of the jobs it was designed for as water from under the Comstock drains into a man-made pond on the property.
Adolph Sutro, who came to the area in the 1850s and later was mayor of San Francisco, envisioned a tunnel to drain and ventilate the Comstock mines, after extreme heat and hot water were hindering mining even deeper under Virginia City.
Peter Leonard, owner of the Sutro Tunnel Co., gave a tour for about 20 visitors recently as a fundraiser for the Historic Fourth Ward School as part of the museum’s Parties of the Year effort.
Leonard, whose great-great-grandfather was the superintendent for Sutro, is the fifth generation of his family managing the property.
Sutro built the tunnel to drain the mines, Leonard said, and had the support of the mine owners in the beginning.
“But mine owners opposed it when they realized he would control access and drainage for the mines,” Leonard said.
Sutro bought the property east of Dayton where the tunnel would begin for $8,000, and laid out a town, figuring to make money selling real estate, in addition to the tunnel.
But the next few years were spent traveling the U.S. and Europe about 15 times to find investors for his tunnel company, so the real estate side of his financial empire, at least in Nevada, never really came to pass. Today, the Traditions subdivision is planned for the same area where Sutro envisioned his town.
Sutro planned to make money through royalties for draining water from the mines. Virginia City mine owners had pledged $2 per ton of all the ore extracted from above the tunnel, which was 1,640 feet below the surface.
Eventually, the mine owners decided they shouldn’t have to pay for what happened naturally, so they refused to pay. At that point, Leonard said, Sutro built a bulkhead in the tunnel and flooded the mines. The mine owners paid after that.
“It was successful in draining and ventilating the mines, but was finished too late to make much profit,” Leonard said.
The tunnel was finished in 1879. The company added a fancier entrance to the portal in 1888, when Dayton residents began to use the tunnel as a way to get to Virginia City for weekend dances.
In its day, the tunnel also hauled ore to the Dayton mills.
A mule barn is one of seven buildings still standing on the property, along with the tunnel office, blacksmith shop, several houses and a shed.
One building of interest that no longer stands is the Sutro mansion, a three-story building with three floors and running water piped in. The mansion was built at a cost of $40,000, Leonard said, a huge sum back then and twice what was budgeted.
Leonard’s great-grandfather lived in the mansion in the 1930s. Later it was rented out to a utility company executive, who occupied the building when it burned in 1941. Supposedly, he said, a disgruntled ex-employee of the power company set the fire.
Since then, Leonard said, family heirlooms, which were thought to be destroyed in the fire, have turned up at auctions, leading him to believe the house may have been torched to cover theft.
The tunnel cost $3.5 million and took from 1869 to 1978 to complete. But by that time the Comstock boom was beginning to fade, and Sutro saw the writing on the wall. In 1879 he sold his interest for a profit before the bust hit and headed back to San Francisco.
Leonard has gone 2,000 feet into the tunnel, and his brother, Hobie, who died last Christmas, claimed to be the last person to traverse it all the way to the Savage Mine.
“As far as I’m concerned, if you have been in one hole in the ground, you’ve been in them all,” he said. “I’m not overly enamored to be underground.”
• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 881-7351.