Experiences of Those Who Stayed
The First Winter 1859-1860
excerpted from
The Big Bonanza

by Dan DeQuille
of the Territorial Enterprise

Dan DeQuille

The first winter after the discovery of silver, 1859-60, was one of the severest the country has known. As I have already stated, there were very few buildings in Virginia City that were worthy of the name. The majority of the inhabitants lived in mere shanties and in underground caves and dens - a tribe of troglodytes.

Many men who were in the country during the summer and fall left for California before winter set in, some with the intention of returning and others cursing the country. These last were men who had for years been working in the placer mines of California and who had rushed over the mountains to Washoe as soon as news had reached them of the great wages being taken out with rockers. They supposed there were extensive placer-mines in the new region. When they found none but such as had already been gutted by the Johntowners and the Chinese who had worked about the mouth of Gold Canyon. They wanted nothing more to do with the country. They had no taste for working quartz veins or for deep mining of any kind. They lingered in the country till toward fall, hunting for rich pockets in veins of quartz that appeared to be gold-bearing, then rose up and in a flock crossed the Sierras to the more congenial hills, flats and gulches of the Golden State.

Many persons, however, remained at Virginia City, Gold Hill, Silver City, and Dayton, and a rough time they all had of it before spring. The first snow fell on the 22nd of November; it snowed all day, and four days later set in again, when snow fell to the depth of five or six feet, cutting off all communication between Gold Hill and Virginia, though the two towns were but a mile apart. The worst of the winter was between this time and the 1st of February. In December many cattle were dying of cold and hunger about Chinatown (Dayton), where they had been sent to find a living in the valley along the Carson Rover, Not only cattle, but also horses, donkeys, and animals of all kinds died of cold and hunger. Most of them starved to death. It was impossible to procure food for them.

In March 1860 hay was selling at fifty cents per pound and barley at forty cents. Men could not afford to keep horses and therefore shot them of let them wander away into the valleys and flats and take their own time about dying. Food for man was about as dear as that for beast. Flour sold for seventy-five dollars per hundred pounds in Virginia City; coffee at fifty cents per pound, and bacon at fourty cents. Lumber was worth a hundred and fifty dollars per thousand feet, and all else in proportion. None of the settlers starved, but the stomachs of many of them had frequent holidays. Fuel was scarce, it being necessary to pack it through the deep snow from the surrounding hills, where, at that time, was to be found a sparce growth of stunted pines and cedars. The stoves of the Saloons and lodging-houses were well patronized, Bean-poker and old sledge were the principal amusements, aside from talking over the great expectations that all cherished. Every man who had a claim expected to sell it for a fortune when spring came.

Little work could be done in the mines, but that little showed them to be growing richer and richer for every foot of progress made or depth attained. The excitement was at fever heat in California, and a grand rush of capitalists was expected as soon as the mountains could be crossed. This being the case, those who were wintering in Washoe, though physically, uncomfortable, were comfortable in sprit. Gold lent its hue to all of their visions of the future.

In the early part of February it began to grow warm. Many days were allmost as warm as summer, but at nights it continued to freeze. Building soon began, and in March many houses were going up in Virginia City, in all directions, and the town was roughly laid out for nearly a mile along the Comstock lead. People began to flounder throught the snow from California during the latter part of February, and early in March began to cross the Sierras in swarms. Great hardships were endured by some of the first parties that crossed the mountains, and a few persons lost their lives in storms that suddenly arose.

The early settlers at Virginis made the acquaintance of the " Washoe zepher" during this first winter of their sojourn in the town. This "zepher," as it is sarcastically termed, is a furious westerly gale which is a frequent visitant during the fall and spring months. It appears to come sweeping in from the Pacific Ocean, passing over California, and only plunging down to the earth when it has crossed the sierras. It made wild work that first winter with the frail tenements of the first settlers. Canvas houses, tents, and brush shanties were scattered right and left.

Avalanches also put in an appearance, and in March a man who was cutting wood on a hill just north of Virginia was burried by one, and his body was not recovered till the snow had melted away. Avalanches are still of occasional occurrence, and several lives have been lost and a number of buildings demolished in the sourthern part of Virginia City by heavy slides of snow rushing down the side of Mount Davidson into the western suburbs of the town.

In the spring of 1860 an avalanche that fell near Silver City covered the mouth of tunnel in which half a dozen miners were living. It came down in the night when they were all asleep. At the usual hour in the morning some of the men awoke, but, finding it still dark, turned over and went to sleep again.

Others of the party did the same. After a time all were tired of sleeping and began talking about what a long night it seemed. However, they concluded it was all right, and each again addressed himself to the task of trying to sleep the night through. All would not do, and in an hour or two they were again discussing the apparent great length of the night, wondering, also, whether of not all hands might not be unusually wakeful.

At length one of the party said he would go to the mouth of the tunnel and see if he could perceive a sign of the approach of daylight. On reaching the mouth of the tunnel, he ran his nose into a solid bank of snow. The exclamation of surprise he uttered brought all to their feet. They soon comprehended the situation. Luckily they had several shovels in the tunnel. Lighting a candle, they set to work, and in half an hour had dug their way out, when they found that it was almost sundown.

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Bridget E. Smith, editor & publisher

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Historical Gazette
Published in Portland, Oregon
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