Q is for… well, just keep reading

comstock5Q is for… We’ll get to that in a minute – Miners, next to the cowboy there may be no more iconic character than the miner of the Old West, panning for gold or climbing the hills with his burrow and pickaxe. Claims and claim jumpers fill the pages of dime novels. A shepherd, Henry Comstock, jumped the claim of two dead brothers named Grosh in 1857. Unable to find gold in all the infernal, Nevada, blue clay he dug up, Comstock sold the claim. He would eventually die penniless by his own hand. Ironically, those who bought his claim would leave his name intact.

The Comstock Lode, the greatest strike of silver ore ever found in the US, was contained in all that blue clay. Virginia City, Nevada became so prosperous as a result of the silver strike that the population grew over 500% from 4,000 in 1862 to 25,000 by 1874. Nevada was organized into a US Territory in 1861 and a state by 1864. In the first 15 years of production the mines paid well in excess of $200 million and financed the North’s defeat of the South in the US Civil War. Silver became so plentiful that in 1873 the US Congress outlawed its coinage and use as legal tender. This created a financial panic and started the Free Silver movement which propelled William Jennings Bryan to prominence as the nation’s first Populist Party politician. I know you want to know what all this has to do with the letter “Q” – in a minute, but first, back to all that blue clay.

The clay itself contained the richcomstock1 silver and rested atop an entire mountain of the blue ore. The mines were dangerous and subject to cave in. Superheated groundwater burst out in steam vents, the scene right out of Dante’s Inferno. How to extract the silver from the ore was the problem. Mercury was the solution – around 15 million pounds of mercury to be exact. The rock was pulverized. The crushed dust was mixed with salt, mercury and water in heated vats. The mercury and heavy silver combined into an alloy and separate from the other dusty material. But mercury boils at very low temperatures so, apply a little heat to the alloy and the mercury evaporates leaving solid silver. This pan amalgamation process was invented by the Spanish in Bolivia at the turn of the seventeenth century. I know, I know – you still want to know what this has to do with “Q”. Be patient.

The mines played out long ago. Today the once booming Virginia City of 25,000 residents, which claimed the only building with an elevator between Chicago and San Francisco, is a ghost town of around 800 residents. They serve the tourists who come to see this relic of the Old West. So the claim jumper lost his fortune, composed of enough silver to win the Civil War and change the comstock3American economy and political landscape for the next hundred years. Until 1968 US Silver Certificates (left) offered an alternative  to Federal Reserve Notes as legal tender. The West became a booming and settled part of the country more for the discovery of silver than for gold and that silver would not have been available if not for the use of mercury – or as the miners more commonly called it, Quicksilver. So there you have it. Q is for quicksilver, the metal that won the west!                          (Virginia City today)comstock4

Today the amounts of quicksilver (mercury) in the Comstock are 25 times acceptable standards.


6 thoughts on “Q is for… well, just keep reading

  1. Fascinating story! Now I know how mercury came to be known as quicksilver. 🙂
    I have to wonder about the effect all that evaporating mercury had on the miners. Ever heard the term ‘mad as a hatter’? It refers to dementia caused by mercury poisoning from the mercury used in the production of felt hats in England.
    Cool stuff. 🙂

    1. Mad as a hatter was a topic at dinner the other night. It was posed in reference to the new cfl light bulbs and would we be seeing mad hatters again. Great tie in. Thanks for the comments.

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