As prospectors and early miners were following the old California Trail through Nevada on their way to the Gold Rush in 1849, a few of them stopped to camp along a small stream running into the Carson River where the town of Dayton now stands. Eager to try their skill at panning for gold, some of them were able to pan out a few flecks of color from the stream. Convinced that this was just a taste of what they would find when they reached the “real” gold fields in California", they pushed on over the Sierras.
The stream came from a range of high hills seven miles to the west and entered the Carson river where small traces of gold had been discovered. Abner Blackburn, William Prose, and others, having a little time on their hands, thought to wash some of the sand in a pan to see if it carried any gold. To their surprise, a few small “colors” remained in the bottom of the pan after the sand and gravel had been washed out. This discovery was not thought important, so the party moved on.
Later, John Orr and Nick Kelly returned to spend two weeks prospecting the gulch down which the little stream flowed. They found a little gold all the way up to the mouth of American Fork, where Orr dug a small nugget out of a crevice with a butcher knife.
The diggings were poor when compared to those they expected to find in California, so the prospectors proceeded on. John Orr gave the gulch the high-flown title of Gold Canyon, though it was not extremely rich in gold, nor was it much of a canyon. Throughout much of its length, it was a shallow, sage-covered gulch like a thousand others in Nevada. The only place where the walls came close together was at Devil’s Gate, near what is now Silver City.
The story of the discovery was greatly exaggerated in typical gold-rush fashion and passed along the road to other emigrants who had stopped to gather a little gold. It was soon learned that men could earn an average of $5.00 a day in the canyon during the working season. From 1852 to 1855, about 100 men, mostly Chinese, worked there part of each year. Many disappointed placer miners came from California every spring to earn better pay than they could at home, among them were Allen and Hosea Grosh.
By 1855, the best ground had been washed. Earnings fell to $4.00 a day, and thereafter, the number of miners steadily decreased. Two years later, men could earn only about $2,00 a day with rockers but the stream was dry for part of each year. In 9 years of operation, the placer mines produced less than expected and was considered panned out.
James Finney, (Old Virginia) so called due to being from Virginia, was more resourceful than any of the other miners. He discovered fair placer ground in 1857 along a little stream at the head of Six Mile Canyon. He and a few others worked this area out in the next two summers. This was just below the future Virginia City. Old Virginia is buried in the Dayton cemetery and Virginia City is named after him.
The next spring, two miners, Peter O’riley and Patrick McLaughlin, came up from Johntown and began to work a little higher up, hoping to earn enough gold to outfit them. The ground was poor and they were almost ready to quit when they dug into a layer of rich black sand, nor realizing it contained silver ore.
In January. 1859. Old Virginia persuaded three of his friends at Johntown to go with him to the head of the canyon, later to become Gold Hill, to prospect some yellow dirt he had seen along the top of a low ridge. The dirt was not rich, but when they began to work there with rockers in the spring, they dug down to the top of what became known as the famous Old Red Ledge.
Thus, the Comstock Lode was discovered, both on its north and south ends, in the spring of 1859 by two groups of placer gold miners, working a mile apart, who had no thought of finding silver ore. Although the Comstock Lode had been discovered, it was not until assays were taken that the full significance was realized and that the ore was richer in silver than in gold. Before long there was another rush for riches when miners from California came back over the hill to participate in the Nevada silver mining boom.
This article is edited from Dennis Cassinelli’s book "Chronicles of the Comstock” Now in short supply, it is now available from Amazon as an e-book.