Dennis Cassinelli: Sutro Tunnel still around 100 years after heyday
Much of the information for this article was assembled by Clairitage Press, Where History comes alive. It has been well over 100 years since the last mining car filled with ore from the Comstock rolled out of Sutro Tunnel. By the time the Tunnel was completed in 1878, the Big Bonanza was winding down, and the best guess is that the last batch of Comstock ore came through the tunnel about 1880. In 2015, a determined group of volunteers began working to preserve and restore the old buildings and artifacts that still remain there from Sutro’s hey-day.
In 2018, a board of Directors was created for fund raising purposes and leased the property. The Board knew I had been writing history articles for many years, so they appointed me Publicist for the organization.
The Sutro Tunnel portal remains the most prominent feature of the site. Volunteers have re-plastered the brick entry wings and repainted the markings, restoring it to the way it looked when the tunnel was new. Water still flows out of the tunnel, thanks to its gently sloping design. A large pond is filled with the water flowing from Sutro Tunnel.
Back in Sutro’s day, the tunnel stretched 3.78 miles underground to connect first with the Savage Mine at Virginia City. From there, additional tunnels branched out to connect with other Comstock mines.
The original theodolite base is still visible, where surveyors set up equipment to ensure the tunnel ran straight to its intended destination under Virginia City. Survey markers are still in place on the hillside above the tunnel portal to align the excavation as it progressed.
To the right side of the tunnel entrance stands the brick candle house. One side has been caved in by falling rocks from the hillside, but its original bricks have been saved to allow it to be rebuilt eventually by a volunteer brick mason.
Next door, the old machine shop has been cleaned and the floors were oiled. Photographs and artifacts are assembled inside, and it has now become the Sutro Museum, helping to acquaint visitors with the history of the site. Still visible in the floor are tracks that once allowed mining equipment to be rolled into the building for repair. In reality, the entire site can be considered a museum. Outside, a cluster of iron ore cars that once rattled along the tracks of the tunnel still stand a silent vigil. Markings on some of the wheels show they were cast at the V&T foundry in Carson City. In fact, the V&T foundry provided not only machinery for the railroad, but also for mines and mills all over Nevada. The car bodies themselves were built on site here at the machine shop. Each ore car could haul 2.5 tons of material. When the coin press No.1 at the Carson City mint cracked, the V&T foundry cast a new arch, which is still being used today.
Next is the mule barn, where mules for the tunnel work were stabled. Leather tack for the animals still hangs in the barn. Pam Abercrombie gave me a tour of this at my last visit to the site. The floor of the barn is worn from the metal shoes the mules wore. The roof of this mule barn had begun to sag sadly before renovations began in 2017. It was stabilized and additional roof supports were added by volunteers in 2019. During my visit to the site, a crew of volunteers were installing a few hundred feet of steel tracks headed in the direction of the tunnel portal. If and when the tunnel is made safe to enter again, the tracks will be used to enter the tunnel Just as General Grant and his family did to travel underground to visit Virginia City.
The grounds of the Sutro site have several historic houses and buildings. Some of these are original to the site and others were vintage buildings moved there from Carson City. Old iron machinery lines the perimeter of the area including twisted and rusted parts of the original Sutro mill that burned down in 1967. I was lucky to have climbed through the Sutro Mill in 1960 before it burned.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.