Cornwall, Bonanza, and the Great Comstock Lode

Cornwall, Bonanza, and the Great Comstock Lode

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At 7:00 a.m. on April 7, 1869, Edward Jewel, Harry Stevens, and William Mitchel reported for work at Gold Hill’s Crown Point Mine. They were only three among hundreds of miners from Cornwall employed to excavate for gold and silver along Nevada’s famous Comstock Lode. That morning they were about to participate in one of the most tragic events of the mining district’s history. It would be the last time the men descended the shaft.

Comstock Lode by Ronald M James

Gold Hill, Nevada, was the smaller neighbour of Virginia City. Cornish miners lived throughout the area known as the Comstock Mining District, but a majority favored Gold Hill.

During the 1860s and 1870s, Gold Hill proved to be one of most Cornish places in North America. After the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode in the Far West, the mining district attracted Cornish miners. A decade before, the California Gold Rush initially proved of less interest to those with the skill to work underground. Washing away piles of dirt on the surface to uncover flakes of gold required no real expertise. The Cousin Jacks, the famed miners of Cornwall, were internationally renowned for their ability to work beneath the ground, and they watched for promising opportunities before moving to new locations. The Comstock proved to be just that sort of occasion. Several miles of underground mines along the gold-and-silver-laden lode provided two-decades of work for up to five thousand miners, and those with experience were the first to be hired and promoted.

Virginia City was the largest and most famous of the Comstock towns, but it was dominated by Irish immigrants. Because the Cornish were largely Methodists, they felt a natural antagonism for the Irish Catholics. Not surprisingly, there are many stories of rivalries between the two groups. This inspired most of the Cornish to live to the south in Gold Hill and in the neighborhood known as the Divide between the two communities. Cousin Jacks and their wives dominated one lane of houses in particular, high on the side of the mountain on the Divide, so people called it Cornish Row.

Comstock Lode by Ronald M James

A number of tombstones in local graveyards include the phrase ‘Native of Cornwall’

Whenever tragedy struck, however, everyone came together, regardless of religion or place of origin. During the last hours of the night shift of April 7, 1869, a miner apparently left a lit candle unattended at the 800 foot level of the Yellow Jacket Mine. A flame took hold, devouring support timbers and filling that part of the mine with poisonous fumes. As the morning crews began to descend to their work stations, the burning wood collapsed, forcing smoke and foul gases throughout that level and into the adjacent Kentuck and Crown Point mines. Fortunately, most of the workers were still going down the shafts when the first alarm bells rang. Hoist operators answered the call to bring cages up from the depths, the first, lifting desperate groups of miners with stories of hellish scenes below.

In all, at least thirty-five miners lost their lives that morning, making it the worst mining accident in Nevada history. Not all the bodies could be recovered because the intense fire continued to burn for several years, but a combination of death records and newspaper articles allow for a portrait of the shifts that morning. About a dozen of the victims were Cornish. Another twelve were from Ireland, and the remainder came from North America with a few more from elsewhere in Europe. It was the greatest single loss of Cornish immigrants in Nevada.

Comstock Lode by Ronald M James

The Yellow Jacket disaster in 1869 devastated many families in Gold Hill. This lithograph captures the anguish of the community

Regardless of setbacks, the Comstock proved to be a profitable place: it produced at least $350,000,000 in precious metals between 1859 and 1880, the equivalent today of over ten billion dollars. It was an astounding amount of wealth, and it placed the Comstock at the forefront in the history of international mining. Nineteenth-century immigrants from Cornwall enjoyed the prosperity that the Comstock mines produced, and with their technological prowess, they could command the best of the available employment.

Nevertheless, the Cornish confronted a well-organized block of Irish miners who proved themselves adept at controlling the political machinery of the community and the state.       The sons of Erin organized themselves into several militias, which doubled as units of “Fenian” Irish revolutionaries and also as elements of a Nevada national guard. The Irish named their companies after heroes of their national struggle – one of the most prominent was the Robert Emmet Guard. Their leaders made it clear that they hoped someday to fight for the liberation of the Emerald Isle.

The Cornish countered by forming their own militia, naming it the Washington Guard, a tribute to the nation’s first president. It was a signal to the community that while the Irish repeatedly declared their desire to return to Ireland, the Cornish strived to be good Americans, and as Protestants, they could maintain that they were better citizens of their new homeland than their Catholic neighbors. Ironically, when the ore became depleted, the Cornish left the mining district more quickly than the Irish.

Comstock Lode by Ronald m James

Kenny Rule, one of the last descendants of Cornish miners on the Comstock, lived in this house just below Cornish Row

As long as the Comstock prospered, Cornish immigrants found it to be a good place to call home. As the mines began to slump into depression in the 1880s, however, these experts of excavation were some of the first to leave. They were sojourners on the international mining frontier, and the only reason to be thousands of miles away from Cornwall was because of the promise of well-paying jobs. While many others lingered on the Comstock into the 1880s, the Cornish quickly became scarce, and their Methodist churches were some of the first to be moved or demolished.

The reputation enjoyed by the mining district echoed through the decades. Then the television series “Bonanza” premiered in 1959 and renewed Virginia City’s celebrity. The famous – and fictional – Cartwrights reminded the world about how the Comstock once produced millionaires by the dozen. The television show aired until 1973, continuing to the present in international syndication. Today, the National Historic Landmark District is a favorite tourist destination. It commemorates the tens of thousands who built the Comstock and produced tons of gold and silver bullion. Among those who toiled underground were hundreds who looked back to Cornwall as the place of their birth.

Words and pictures: Ronald M. James

Comstock Lode by Ronald m James

Cornish Row, a lane of houses favored by Cornish Immigrants. The view includes the Fourth Ward School, where many Cornish children attended classes.

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