Book Review: 'Mile-High Fever' by Dennis Drabelle

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By Richard Rayner
Sunday, July 5, 2009


Silver Mines, Boom Towns and High Living on the Comstock Lode

By Dennis Drabelle

St Martin's. 282 pp. $25.99

In 1859, the discovery of silver on the Nevada side of the Sierras brought to an end the California gold rush and summoned up another Western mining boom. The Comstock Lode, as it came to be known, "stretched for about two miles," writes Dennis Drabelle, a contributing editor of The Washington Post's Book World. His new book, "Mile-High Fever," describes the geological discovery that led to a host of mining innovations and created a teeming boomtown, Virginia City, with the customary "Bonanza" backdrop of saloons, hotels, theaters, whorehouses, gambling, gunfights and con games. These developments, Drabelle argues and amply demonstrates, provided a blueprint for the predatory ruthlessness with which American capitalism would work thereafter.

The saga begins with two brothers, Hosea and Ethan Grosh ("exemplary young men," writes Drabelle), who first spotted a "monster" vein of silver in 1856 in the area but died shortly thereafter, having gained nothing from their discovery. Soon, though, this rich lode was co-opted by Henry "Pancake" Comstock, a scheming braggart. Comstock loved publicity and made the area inseparable from his own name but failed to turn notoriety into fortune. The money-making was left to a ring of San Francisco bankers, led by William C. Ralston of the Bank of California, who recognized that Comstock silver held massive opportunities for monopolization and stock manipulation.

This was possible, Drabelle explains, because of some special geological conditions. The silver lay deep in the ground and was extracted as ore. Mining it, therefore, called for technologies that gold mining did not require. New engineering techniques enabled the Comstock mines to plunge more than 2,500 feet into the ground and become miracles of the early industrial age. Such ingenuity required capital, and hence the chance for the money men.

Arguments raged, though, about whether the Comstock was a sheaf of different veins or one single wedge, to which, therefore, a single claim might theoretically be established. The dispute led to "a blizzard of litigation," Drabelle notes. In one five-year period, Comstock mines spent more than $10 million on lawyers. And those were 1860s dollars: The stakes were mile-high, indeed. Some $300 million worth of ore was mined during the 20-year span that constituted the Comstock's glory days.

A leading player, and beneficiary, in Virginia's City's busy courtroom skullduggery was William Stewart, a character who emerges here as an emblem of the West's amoral transformative capacity. A strapping man, Stewart was born in New York State, attended Yale briefly and was pulled West by the sensational California gold discoveries. He prospected with little success and turned to the practice of law, but he also owned mines, or parts of them. According to some accounts, he carried two Derringer pistols, one in either pocket of his overcoat. As Drabelle outlines (not without a certain writerly glee), Stewart bribed juries, threatened witnesses and swayed judges. His success in Virginia City took him into politics and to the United States Senate, where he served several terms and is credited with authoring the Fifteenth Amendment, giving black men the right to vote. He was later involved in mine fraud and was himself pretty much bribed, and therefore politically owned, by the Southern Pacific Railroad, whose leaders Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington formed the next California power bloc to come along after the Comstock silver kings.

Stewart is among the many colorful characters brought to life here, although of a different order than the brave and hapless Grosh brothers who got this drama rolling. Stewart had a big hand in the career of a certain Samuel Clemens, who got a job in Virginia City (on The Territorial Enterprise, the most famous of the frontier newspapers) and in 1863 began using the pen name Mark Twain. The first 26 graves in Virginia City Cemetery, Twain wrote, were all murdered men. "So everybody said, so everybody believed, and so they will always say and believe," Twain went on. Even in 1863, writers in the American West were conscious of the legend they were creating. Virginia City's "cornucopia of bustle and greed, of mayhem and corruption, was a godsend to a journalist, especially one as attuned to the extravagant as Twain," Drabelle writes, and it was in Nevada, listening to the polyglot miners' slang, that Twain began to forge the plain-spoken style that would shoot American literature in a more idiomatic direction.

Amply quoting from Twain and other journalists of the era (including Twain's pal, William Wright, who went by the splendid name, Dan DeQuille), "Mile-High Fever" provides vivid insight into the mines and the world of Western newspapering -- less so into Virginia City's saloons and street life. The wheeling and dealing of Ralston and his mentor and nemesis William Sharon, and of the silver kings who usurped them both, interest Drabelle more than the whoring and shooting which so fascinated earlier literary prospectors of the Comstock. But money, not guns, drove the settlement of the West, and Drabelle's book has a pithy, well-judged feel.

Richard Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption, and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

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