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Blasts from the Past: Major Henry G. Catlin and the Eureka-Croesus revival

Blasts from the Past: Major Henry G. Catlin and the Eureka-Croesus revival

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“That ain’t no bed-rock, Bud.”

"Yellow Pine Basin: The Story of a Prospector" by Henry G. Catlin (1897)

EUREKA -- “There is no more interesting character living among the old school of mining engineers than Major Henry G. Catlin.” That is how the Nevada Mining Press described the man who brought a once booming mining town back to life.

The year is 1919, silver prices are up and evidence of better days is everywhere in Eureka. The once failing Eureka-Palisade spur to the Western Pacific has a new owner; passengers now proudly ride the Eureka-Nevada Railway. The Davis National Bank on the corner of Clark and Main St. has opened its doors for new deposits. The livery stable next to the Courthouse bustles with the sounds of horses and mules prepared for a day of hauling rich lead-silver ores. A new mine is named for the wealthy ruler of ancient Lydia - King Croesus (pronounced KREE-sus). The sign on the brightly painted two-story building facing the Courthouse shares the same name, “Eureka-Croesus Mining Company.” The Catlin shaft of the Croesus Mine promises to produce wealth befitting mythical royalty.

At the mine site three miles south of town, a new gravity tram is under construction. From ore chutes below, trestles rise like a giant jungle gym to bring ore from the Catlin shaft to New York Canyon road thus eliminating the stiffest haul by ore teams. Together with a new rail head, this will bring Croesus bounty one mile and a half closer to the Eureka-Nevada Railway. Rumors circulate of plans to construct an aerial tram down nearby Goodwin Canyon to a new smelter further streamlining operations – the last smelter to operate in Eureka shut down in 1910 when silver prices were half. This time will be different; this time promises a return to the glory days of yore.

In the late-1800s, 1,000 men were employed in the Eureka smelters alone. 2,000 more labored as wood cutters and charcoal burners to feed the voracious appetite of the furnaces. The population of Eureka and nearby Ruby Hill exceeded 10,000 inhabitants who helped harvest several hundred million dollars of wealth from Eureka’s Prospect Mountain. Starting as a struggling mining camp in 1864, Eureka became the first big lead-silver enterprise in the world and for many years dominated the global market for lead. Its silver production was second only to Nevada’s Comstock Lode. Falling silver and lead prices, together with rising smelter and transportation costs, led to the eventual close of major mining endeavors. When Major Catlin returned to Eureka in 1917 the population had dwindled to less than 1,000. The good Major and former Nevada Senator John P. Jones of Comstock fame concocted a secret plan for Eureka’s revival years earlier; it was time to execute the plan.

By Jan. 14, 1920, the San Francisco Chronicle boasted, “The Eureka-Croesus mine at Eureka, Nevada, is the most remarkable mine in its class on the American continent. It contains a visible mass of medium-grade ores, interspersed with veins and pockets of extreme richness of a greater bulk and value, and of easier accessibility than any similar mine on earth. Its products are silver, lead and gold. Of these, lead bulks largest in volume; but the greater price of silver renders the proportion of that metal the most valuable output of the property.”

Enthusiastic support for the project came from all corners of the community. The same article quoted Judge Peter Bean of the Nevada Third Judicial District, “… every available mining claim in the district, as well as every vacant building lot in town, has already been taken up during the past few weeks …  Eureka will see the biggest boom that Nevada has known since the days of the Comstock.”

The boom was on.

Standing among Giants

For Nevada’s Sesquicentennial, I wrote about two mining pioneers who played critical roles in Eureka’s first mining boom – Major William W. McCoy and C.C. Goodwin (Spring and Fall 2014 editions of the Mining Quarterly). Major Henry Guy Catlin was their younger contemporary and would make his contribution to the mining district much later. Born July 21, 1843 in Burlington, Vermont, Catlin was junior to McCoy by 32 years; Goodwin, by eleven. All three came from the East, drawn to West by a sense of adventure and opportunity. Catlin and Goodwin eventually wrote popular books about the Wild West from personal experience. Catlin and McCoy drew leadership skills from their service in the military; the former in the Civil War and the latter, in the preceding Mexican-American War.

The Civil War interrupted Major Catlin’s studies at the University of Vermont delaying a career in mine engineering until 1870, shortly after McCoy and Goodwin made their initial marks in Eureka. Major McCoy developed the first commercially successful smelter to reduce the district’s difficult ores and Goodwin operated the first profitable mine along the rich Ruby Hill Fault. Catlin never worked with these early mining entrepreneurs but would later leverage their accomplishments.

Instead, Major Catlin struck up a close friendship with Clarence King, acknowledged dean of American mining engineers and first director of the United States Geological Survey. King who was employed by British capitalists whose mining interests extended globally and Catlin eagerly joined the team. Major Catlin’s duties took him to the Rio Tinto mine in Spain, to Africa and South America. In the United States, their employers owned the Eureka Richmond mine and smelter as well as other properties on Prospect Mountain. As a consequence Catlin became very familiar with the district from 1878-1879 and speculated with King on the nature and whereabouts of ore bodies yet to be exploited. Clarence King believed that wide mineral belts extended throughout Prospect, with greater concentration and value at greater depth. In particular, Catlin remembered the unlocked wealth on the east side of the two high ridges that form Prospect Mountain as great fortunes were withdrawn from Ruby Hill on the west.

A Deathbed Pact

When the English sponsors withdrew from the Eureka Richmond and its smelters closed, Major Catlin joined Senator John P. Jones of Nevada to explore mining interests in Mexico. In the early-1890s, Catlin made the Senator aware of the existence of certain ore bodies and claims along New York Canyon southeast of Ruby Hill. Senator Jones, who had already richly profited from silver mining on the Gold Hill side of the Comstock Lode, commissioned the Major to secure options on the Dunderberg, Home Ticket and Atlas mines. All three and adjacent properties were noted for their high grade ore on the easterly slope of Prospect Mountain.

Since others also suspected opportunity among these old diggings, it took the tenacious Major many years to accomplish his mission. He eventually secured 18 patented and 16 unpatented claims in the desired area. During this effort, a fall severely injured the Senator in Washington, D.C. He was taken to the home of Eugene Davis, his wealthy friend and business associate. Confined to bed there for several months, Senator Jones confided to Davis, “If Catlin succeeds in getting hold of these mines and anything happens to me, I want you to go into the enterprise with him.”

Although Catlin was well acquainted with Davis from the days of mining operations in Mexico, the Senator previously warned him to say nothing of the Dunderberg mines. Senator Jones passed away November, 1912. Sometime later, Davis called Catlin on the phone when both men were in New York. They met for lunch in a Manhattan hotel and Catlin nervously broke his silence on the secret scheme. He told Davis that he had succeeded in securing an option on the Dunderberg mines but, with the death of the Senator, had no funds to pay an installment on the deal due that day. Given the death bed pact with Jones, Eugene Davis covered the financing before ever seeing the properties. Both were amused to find that neither knew of the other’s knowledge of the plan. By 1917 all claims were under their control and the Eureka-Croesus Mining Company formed.

A Bulletproof Business Plan

The Eureka-Croesus business plan is a model of perfection for modern mine operators. The properties were based on proven mines with lineage to America’s foremost geologist, a senior and globally experienced mining engineer and a U.S. Nevada Senator of mining fame. A well-known financier covered startup costs with more capital on the way from investors in New York and San Francisco. Media promotion included feature articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, Salt Lake Mining Review and an edition of the Nevada Mining Press dedicated to the project.

Infrastructure problems that plagued the early mines had modern solutions. Expanding on C.C. Goodwin’s early example of vertical integration, Eureka-Croesus planned to own and operate all aspects of transportation and ore reduction. There would eventually be an aerial

to transport ore directly to a new smelter. A railhead to the smelter would connect to their Eureka-Nevada railway and to the mainline railroad in Palisade, Nevada. The San Francisco Chronicle stated the ultimate goal of the Eureka-Croesus management, “…at no time shall the ore ever be touched by human hands after the shot has been fired. From that time on, everything will be handled automatically.”

Courtesy of Richard Baker

The ores shipped in 1919 assayed from $50 to $300 per ton with a promise of $350 to $1,000 from the “Bonanza winze” in the deepest workings of the mine. Prior to completion of the aerial tram and smelter, haulage, freight and smelting charges exceeded $23 per ton. The San Francisco Chronicle stated, “When the Eureka-Croesus Smelting Works are opened, these expenses will be reduced by over $20 per ton, and the $25 ore will be actually more valuable to the company than $40 ore is today.”

With preparations underway to locate the deeper wealth hypothesized by Clarence King, the Eureka-Croesus could remain profitable from just processing the enormous dumps of medium-grade ores cast aside by old-timers. In the early days, no mineral worth $50 per ton was judged worthy of haulage. The San Francisco Chronicle continued, “Some 300,000 tons of that erstwhile waste, now worth an average of more than $25 a ton, is piled high on the slope of the canyon, requiring no labor other than a steam shovel to scoop it up and load it on to the cars that will carry it straight to the crucible.”

What could possibly go wrong?

The Catlin Shaft

On the Eureka-Croesus properties, mineralization typically occurs along fault fractures where Dunderberg Shale (Cd) comes in contact with Hamburg Dolomite (Ch). The replacement deposits occur in vertically oriented pipes and chutes.Replacement deposits in limestone on the Eureka-Croesus properties were oriented vertically into pipes along fault fractures. Major Catlin contented richer ore could be found by following these ore bodies to greater depth. In addition, medium-grade ores recovered were recoverable from the stopes, fills and winzes of the old workings.

The Catlin or main shaft was sunk on the Connelly claim at a depth of 400 feet, with drifts at the 100-foot, 200-foot and 400-foot levels. From these, the long-abandoned workings of the Dunderberg, Home Ticket and Atlas mines were re-entered. Progress was slow at first due to the World War I scarcity of material such as steel rails. However, Catlin’s memory of the old workings proved correct and the assays promising.

The years following cessation of hostilities in late-1918 proved a blessing and later a curse for the project. On the positive side, mine equipment and supplies were more readily available and the Company outfitted the power-house with the best. The equipment included a double-drum air hoist, an Ingersoll-Rand 2-stage compressor connected to a 60 horsepower Fairbanks-Morse distillate engine and two Chicago single-stage air compressors. Mining tools such as jackleg drills were powered by compressed air piped underground. Other buildings included a blacksmith shop, tool house and on-site housing for the mine superintendent. About one half mile below the mine in New York Canyon was a bunk and cookhouse for the miners (near the cutover to Goodwin Canyon).

By late-1919, six new ore bodies had opened and the Catlin shaft delivered 500-1,500 tons of ore per month. New equipment was in place to drill to greater depths and exploit the full riches of the Bonanza winze and other promising locations -- the outlook for the Eureka-Croesus Mining Company was never better.

The Silver Crash of 1920

Storm clouds gathered over silver prices during the first Eureka mining boom and would soon return for the second. The Coinage Act of 1873 enacted by the U.S. Congress demonetized silver. Eventually referred to as the “Crime of ‘73” by Western mining interests, it began decades of political battles and legislative countermeasures to address falling Treasury demand and declining prices. When Major Catlin began his mining career in 1870, a dollar and a half bought an ounce of silver. The white metal traded in a range of 50-75 cents after the turn of the century.

The postwar boom following World War I provided an impetus for prices with a rather modern ring. Suddenly there was high demand for the products of India and China. China reacted to this windfall by importing silver to put into their monetary system; India bought silver for ornamentation. This increase from two of the world’s largest silver consumers against a backdrop of declining supply rallied prices. The maximum quotation for silver in New York peaked at $1.375 per ounce November, 1919 just as the Croesus mine found its legs. Actual sales in San Francisco were transacted at even higher prices and London prices peaked the following February 5.

By March, 1920 silver prices declined rapidly, anticipating the end of the postwar boom as demand for the products of India and China slackened and their ability to absorb the white metal on a large scale lessened. By June of that year, silver fetched 80 cents per ounce and closed the year at 70 cents – a near 50 percent drop from the 1919 peak. Following the fateful 1929 crash in equity markets, New York silver plumbed a low of $0.2575 in 1930.

Boom to Bust

The silver crash of 1920 had a devastating impact on the Eureka-Croesus Mining Company. Quickly abandoned were plans for the aerial tramway and smelter, and operation was eventually transferred to lessees. To its credit, the Croesus mine shipped 4,800 tons of ore from 1917 to 1920 at a very respectable net value of $65 per ton. By comparison, the Dunderberg and Connelly mines had their greatest production in the 1870s and 1880s totaling 56,000 tons at $36 per ton.

The ores were largely oxidized carrying gold, silver and lead with arsenic in amounts typically less than 1 percent. The main vertical shafts were the Catlin at 400 feet and the older Atlas at 800 feet. Development consisted of an impressive six miles of old workings. Smelter returns of ore processed in 1936 provide a sample of the quality: gold 0.4 ounce per ton and silver 19.0.6

The Croesus mine site today includes the power-house and upper ore chute. The small tramway to the ore chute, Catlin head frame and the mine superintendent’s house are no longer standing. A large wooden ore chute can be found near the New York Canyon road. There is scant evidence of the gravity tram that transported ore from near the small tram and upper chute to the larger one by the roadway. The power-house, which nearly doubled in size after 1919, still contains the double-drum hoist and Ingersoll-Rand air compressor and other bits of mine equipment.

Major Henry G. Catlin Remembered

When Catlin and Davis opened the doors of the Eureka-Croesus Company, the Major was 74 years old. He had served in the Civil War and already enjoyed a successful 47-year career in mine engineering. Major Catlin experienced firsthand the boom years of Eureka, Nevada and is largely responsible for bringing a second boom to the mining district. The ill fate of the Croesus mine had to do with the volatility of silver prices after the Great War and not the shortcomings of its principal engineer. From 1917 to 1920, Catlin delivered on the untapped wealth remembered from exploring the Dunderberg mines and the promise of riches envisioned by Clarence King beneath the original workings.

Major Catlin died February 17, 1925 without seeing his Eureka dream come to fruition but left a proud legacy behind. His Croesus concept was bold and envisioned a level of automation never before seen in Nevada mining. A two-mile aerial tram to a modern smelter eliminated ore teams and reduced ores on location for direct transport by rail to the main east-west line. Crashing silver prices precluded the advanced elements of his plan. However, the ability to put modern air-powered mine equipment to use to produce considerable tonnage of high quality ore in only a few years validates Catlin’s leadership, engineering skill and competence. A more forgiving silver market would have likely enabled similar successes for the construction and operation of the aerial tram, smelter and railway.

Like Eureka’s legendary C.C. Goodwin, Major Catlin also immortalized the life and experiences of the West’s mining pioneers in fiction. "Yellow Pine Basin: The Story of a Prospector" (1897) follows the adventures of prospectors Bud and Zeb in the California gold fields. Viewing the ores of the Bonanza winze for the first time, Catlin may very well have uttered this column’s headline quote from the "Yellow Pine Basin."

Legendary King Croesus went from wealth to ruin after he was attacked and captured by Persians. It is tempting to draw a parallel with the eponymous mining company. The end of one mythical account is most intriguing -- as King Croesus is led alive to his funeral pyre, Apollo snatches the sovereign away to safety. Will the Croesus mine and have a future savior, another chance to prove its hidden wealth?

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Richard P. Baker is the author and editor of The Eureka Miner’s Market Report at


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