Electric Ingenuity On The Comstock Lode

April 24, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

Comstock PhotosSutro TunnelThis photograph (UNRS-P0121-3), courtesy of the University of Nevada, Reno, shows the Dayton entrance to Sutro Tunnel. This tunnel was cut through Mt. Davidson and extended approximately five miles. Its purpose was to provide improved mine ventilation and to aid in the emptying of water from mines. Shown in the photo are: Thomas, foreman superintendent of work; Shelden, assistant superintendent. The photo is part of the George Wharton James collection. by Glenn Franco Simmons
With the wealth derived from silver and gold mining on The Comstock Lode, there were many industrial advances that led the world technologically.

One of these was electricity.

In his book, "My Memories of The Comstock," 26-year (1877- 1903) Comstock resident Harry M. Gorham spoke of kerosene used to light lamps — from in-home use to lighting mine operations.

"There were student and other patterns for homes," he wrote, "and large reflecting lamps of locomotive type in the hoisting works and for the benefit of the hoisting engineers. To clean and care for them, to distribute the various oils and greases, and to pick the cotton from the bales for the use of the mechanics, was, in early all of the works, the duty of one man. The question of light, then, was a serious one when it is considered that the question of speed in all departments meant greater or lesser cost per ton."

Soon to follow kerosene were the telephone and electric light, Mr. Gorham added. However, since such work was laborious to maintain kerosene lighting, another alternative had to be found for industrial-grade lighting.

"There had been a gas plant making gas from wood, and some individual places had gas made from gasoline," he wrote. "But the wood gas was not satisfactory, and the difficulty in in keeping the distributing lines free from breaks due to moving ground finally led to the establishment of an electric light plant by the water company. Soon this form of lighting was extended all over the territory."

It didn't take long for Comstock-based engineers to come up with an alternative to producing electricity.

Water & ElectricityWater & ElectricityThis photo (UNRS-P1992-01-8777), courtesy of the University of Reno, Nevada, shows water being pumped in a mine. It may have been taken in Virginia City. "As discoveries in the use of electricity were progressing constantly," Mr. Gorham wrote, "and as the water company had an excess of water, a plan was devised for the purpose of developing power by use of such excess water. The Nevada Mill stood adjacent to the works of the Chollar Mine shaft, which was one thousand feet deep. A large station was excavated at the level, and a contract was made with the Brush Company of Cleveland, Ohio, which installed electric generators at the point. The water was first run through a turbine on the surface, thence conducted down the shaft to the generators, and the power thus secured conducted back through the shaft to the motors at the mill."


Mr. Gorham noted the innovative solution to produce electricity for the mill.

"In spite of the crudeness of the machines, “he wrote, "in spite of the belief that the Brush machines ran backward, power was developed which lifted the stamps, turned the pans and settlers. I think it was calculated that the machine delivered about fifty percent of generated power."

He contrasted that technology with the technology at the time he wrote years later and that was published in 1939 by Suttonhouse.

"Visit any plant using electric power today," he wrote. "Smooth, silent, the very epitome of energy and ability; compare it with that inferno a thousand feet underground. Sparks jumped twenty feet, accompanied by roaring and squeaking, and enough electricity escaping to light up the entire chamber. It is a wonder that electrocutions were not the order of the day and night.

"Nevertheless, it pulled, and although that installation is now a memory only, I believe it will be found that in electrical history this was a pioneer, the classic distribution of electricity for power use."

So, what happened to all the water?

"It ran out through a connection from those workings with the Sutro Tunnel; the only use, as far as I know, the tunnel ever was to the Chollar Mine," Mr. Gorham wrote. "It was in very truth a Quixotic scheme. The science was in its infancy, the installation is costly. As one observer exclaimed, "'It must have been very costive!'"

As he did throughout his book, Mr. Gorham wondered aloud.

"That is all past and gone," he wrote, "but the history of it remains. And what would the world be today if all the Quixotic schemes that have ever been exploited all the years that men have tried to civilize themselves, were cast aside in the discard? "Meanwhile the art of manufacturing and distributing electric energy over distances was more and more successfully accomplished."

Time moves on.



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