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Dennis Cassinelli

Dennis Cassinelli

When I was a student at the University of Nevada in the early 1960s, I sometimes spent my weekends exploring and poking around the ruins of the Comstock and surrounding areas. On one of these excursions I paid a visit to the old townsite of Sutro to see the tunnel and explore what was left of the old town. At that time there was not a single person anywhere around the site, so I had a chance to check things out undisturbed.

I was unable to enter the tunnel, since there was a heavy gate at the entrance, but I could see inside and the way was further blocked by piled up soil. There was a small stream of water exiting the tunnel and forming a small creek down the hill outside the tunnel portal.

I then turned my attention to the then still standing stamp mill that was the largest building at the site. I climbed in and around the old mill and examined the bank of stamps that had once processed the ores that were brought out through the tunnel from the Comstock mines. Remember, I was young and foolish in those days, and I do not suggest anyone go poking around private property today to explore any of the remaining old buildings. Not only are the ruins dangerous to explore, but you may acquire a fatal dose of lead poisoning from an irate property owner.

Adolph Sutro first made an appearance on the Comstock in March of 1860. While in Virginia City, he came up with the idea to construct a tunnel that would theoretically drain the water from the deep mines that were developing along the face of the Comstock Lode. Sutro developed and operated an ore mill in nearby Dayton. He continued to push for the idea of a tunnel and obtained a legislative mandate for his Sutro Tunnel Company to excavate a nearly four-mile tunnel from near Dayton to connect to the deep mines of the Comstock.

Sutro argued the scheme would cut costs, but it was apparent that he had other motives including charging the mines for drainage and ore transport to his own mill for processing. He also proposed the route as a transportation corridor for commuting and freight.

After the 1869 disastrous Yellow Jacket fire, Sutro argued that the tunnel would provide an escape route for miners in case of an emergency. The influential Miner’s Union backed him in this argument and he was finally able to obtain financial support to begin construction of the tunnel in 1869.

It took another nine years of digging to excavate the tunnel through three miles of solid rock to reach the Savage Mine on September 1, 1878. Sutro’s dream of making huge profits from the venture never did materialize. The Virginia and Truckee railroad made transportation of ores to the Carson River mills less expensive than a tunnel route to Sutro’s town and stamp mill. The mine shafts of the major Comstock mines had been dug far below the level of Sutro Tunnel, thereby making drainage quite impractical.

Adolph Sutro was quick to realize he would never become wealthy operating the tunnel as he had originally planned. Fortunately for him, he found a buyer and sold his interest in the venture and moved back to San Francisco. There he became very successful in real estate and became quite wealthy. He developed the famous Sutro Baths, The Cliff House restaurant and the Sutro Library. Eventually, he became the mayor of San Francisco and lived a comfortable life until his death in 1898 at sixty-eight years old.

The Sutro Tunnel did become a route for drainage water from the mines, but the water had to be pumped up from the lower levels to a higher level of the tunnel. It also did serve as a transportation corridor on some occasions. On October 27 through 30, 1879, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant and his entourage visited the Comstock and were entertained at Adolph Sutro’s mansion in the town of Sutro. After dinner, the group returned to Virginia City through the Sutro Tunnel and up the C. & C. shaft. Comstock king, James G. Fair, came up from San Francisco to be with the party even though he was in poor health.

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Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.

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