Sutro Retro offers another glimpse of mining history |

Sutro Retro offers another glimpse of mining history

Chic DiFrancia
Appeal Staff Writer
Photo by Carol Clifford Virginia City resident and Mark Twain Bookstore owner Joe Curtis hand lettered the portal facade on July 29, 2001. The 1888 date refers to the original date the facade was erected. The tunnel was completed on July 8, 1878.

Adolph Heinrich Joseph Sutro’s struggle to construct the tunnel was not only a remarkable engineering feat for its time, but is also a story of one man’s perseverance to succeed when faced by giant forces that were bent on destroying him.

His persistence will be remembered July 9 when the Historic Fourth Ward School in Virginia City once again hosts a tour of the privately owned town of Sutro.

This will be the fourth tour the school has hosted in the last six years. This year’s theme is Sutro Retro and event-goers will be treated to a guided tour of the grounds, where a barbecue and cool libations will be in great abundance. Sutro Mint Juleps will be served in a commemorative glass that can be procured for an additional charge.

The barbecue at Sutro Retro is in keeping with the historical accuracy of the first barbecue and festivities held there when Adolph Sutro put the first pick in the ground on Oct. 19, 1869. His was an immense affair where eight pigs and several beeves were consumed. This year’s barbecue will probably not match the output of the first barbecue, but is guaranteed to be every bit as good.

Sutro conceived the idea of a tunnel as early as 1860 when he first arrived in Virginia City, but it wasn’t until 1865 when the Nevada Legislature granted him a franchise for the project. Work on the tunnel began in October 1869. The tunnel’s main purpose was to drain the scalding waters from the mines and help ventilate the shafts, where temperatures often hovered at 130 degrees.

The Comstock mining community at first supported Sutro’s great undertaking, but that abruptly changed when Sutro announced he also intended to transport ore to the Carson River mills through his tunnel, some powerful folks on the Comstock started to get antsy.

One of those folks was William Sharon, Virginia City agent for the Bank Of California.

Sharon along with bank buddies William Ralston and Darius Ogden Mills already had plans in the works to transport Comstock ore down Mount Davidson and bring goods into Virginia City. Those plans came to fruition when the Virginia & Truckee Railroad reached Gold Hill in November 1869.

Financial assistance that Sutro had counted on evaporated as word from the bank crowd filtered through the financial community. Time was another enemy he faced. The four-mile tunnel took almost nine years to complete and when finished in July 1878 it connected the Savage mine at the 1,640 foot level. By then most mining operations were working far below that level and water would still have to be pumped up to drain through the tunnel. Another disaster was the $3.5 million price tag.

The tunnel never recouped its construction cost through royalties, much less show a profit. Time was running out for Sutro and when the great Comstock Lode started its decline a year later he knew it was time to get out. Sutro sold his stock in the tunnel and relocated to San Francisco where he built the Cliff House, and the magnificent Sutro Baths. He was elected mayor of San Francisco in 1894 and served one term.

Sutro died in San Francisco on Aug. 8, 1898, he was 68.

Restoration on the tunnel entrance and portal took place in the summer of 2001 and looks very much as it did when the tunnel was in operation years ago.

Sutro Retro will be your chance to participate in a legendary piece of Nevada history.

Sutro Retro

WHAT: Ticket includes guided tour of the town of Sutro by local historians. Barbecue prepared by Lakeside Inn & Casino. Slide show presentation by Ron James, Nevada State Historic Preservation Officer.

WHEN: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. July 9

WHERE: Meet at Smith’s in Dayton on Highway 50, no vehicles will be permitted on the Sutro townsite, first trolley leaves at 10 a.m. & last trolley departs at 2 p.m. Last return trolley departs Sutro at 3 p.m.

COST: Prepaid tickets $30/$20 members of Fourth Ward School. At the Event: $35. Early ticket purchase recommended due to limited space.

Tickets: Call the school at 847-0975, fax 847-1011 or e-mail: or visit

Notes: Remember, no smoking or collecting. There will be memorabilia available for purchase.