Sierra history: Big risk, big money came with Comstock mining – by Mark McLaughlin (Tahoe Daily Tribune – May 15, 2015)

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker.

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — If you haven’t been to Virginia City, Nev., recently you’re in for a surprise, but probably not a pleasant one.

For several years now, Comstock Mining Incorporated has run a massive open pit excavation operation on the old Comstock Lode in the Virginia Range.

The resumption of large-scale mining adjacent to the Virginia City Historic District has upset residents and businesses alike. The federal government has designated the integrity of the nationally recognized landmark as “threatened.”

Nevada has had a close relationship with mining since its first days as a territory in the early 1860s and it is a major component of its economy.

Although the primary ore in the 19th century Comstock bonanza was silver, today the state produces about 80 percent of all the gold in the United States.

And just like back in the days of the Wild West, mining companies pay no royalties to the federal government on any precious metals extracted from public lands under provisions included in the 1872 General Mining Act.

Unlike in the past when gold or silver strikes attracted thousands of people to mine, work and build the Silver State’s first communities, most of today’s operations are in remote rural areas where modern machines and technologies require only a fraction of those numbers for its workforce.

Many, if not most, Virginia City residents feel that Comstock Mining Inc. is hurting their community rather than helping it.


Mining is environmentally disruptive, physically dangerous work. Like the California Gold Rush that preceded it by a decade, the 1859 discovery of precious metals in what was then western Utah Territory lured tens of thousands of adventurous, sometimes desperate souls to that region.

The mining excitement grew rapidly in the new Nevada Territory (1861), and the Comstock Lode near Virginia City quickly become one of the world’s greatest producers of silver and gold, with all the peripheral business opportunities commensurate with a 19th century Gold Rush.

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