Barbara Mackey, Director of the Fourth Ward Historic School, Virginia City
Engineering Marvels on the Comstock
From the first recorded ore discoveries in 1859, the Comstock area was part of a global community. Arriving from places as diverse as the Germanies, Poland, Russian and North America Jewish immigrants with engineering backgrounds, an entrepreneurial spirit, and creativity, were foremost in developing innovative technological marvels.The Comstock lode became the “richest place on earth” largely thanks to their remarkable contributions.
As the miners followed the Comstock Lode deeper into the ground, traditional methods of supporting the underground tunnels did not work.In 1860, the Ophir Mining Company hired Philipp Deidesheimer (1832-1916), a young mining engineer working in the California gold mines to solve the problem of the large, deep and unstable underground diggings.He invented a system of “cubes” (similar to a honeycomb structure) sing heavy timbers or square set timbering, that enabled skilled miners to open three dimensional underground cavities of any size.Deidesheimer never secured a patent on his world acclaimed, widely used mining innovation.He was employed as a mine superintendent and invested in companies in Virginia City and California with varied success.
Although square set timbering allowed miners to go deeper underground, they encountered another problem – water.Water, mostly at scalding temperatures and not potable, seeped from underground sources and flooded the shafts.Huge steam driven pumps (Cornish pumpos) and short-term drainave tunnels were used to rid the mines of the water, but these were only temporary solutions.Adolph Sutro (1830-1898) proposed a massive drainage tunnel that could also be used to transport ore and miners.He created the Sutro Tunnel Company in 1865 with a legislative charter and secured financing for a 3.88 mile-long adit from the Carson River valley to the Comstock. In 1869, Sutro swing the first pick for construction of the tunnel, a tow, and a mill at the opening of the adit.Tunnel construction was stalled politically in 1878 to drain at the 1,640 foot level.Although collapsed, the Sutro Tunnel still drains some water from the mines.
Meanwhile above ground, the growing population was struggling to find safe drinking water.In 1871, the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company devised plans to bring water from the Sierra Nevada range, thirty miles to the west with elevation differences of 2,000 feet at both ends.The Water Company’s directors hired Herman Schussler (1842—1919), a civil engineer who had completed a smaller but similar system in California.Schussler designed an engineering feat of flumes, tunnels, tanks, and reservoirs in the Sierra to feed a pipeline that dropped into the Washoe Valley and rose back to the Virginia Range above the Comstock.The system required the development of an inverted siphon to carry the water uphill without pumps and a heavy gauge pipe to withstand the pressure.The system completed in 1873 still supplies water to the Comstock .
Credits: Historic Fourth Ward School Foundation, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, the Comstock Historic District Commission, Ron James articles www.onlineNevada.org,and Shannon Hataway Designs.