August 4, 1863: Silver Mountain
[Today] we went into the town. Professor Whitney examined the mines. I took observations for altitude.Silver Mountain (town) is a good illustration of a new mining town. We arrive by trail, for the wagon road is left many miles back. As we descend the canyon from the summit, suddenly a bright new town bursts into view. There are perhaps forty houses, all new (but a few weeks old) and as bright as new, fresh lumber, which but a month or two ago was in the trees, can make them. This log shanty has a sign up, “Variety Store”; the next, a board shanty the size of a hogpen, is “Wholesale & Retail Grocery”; that shanty without a window, with a canvas door, has a large sign of “Law Office”; and so on to the end. The best hotel has not yet got up its sign, and the “Restaurant and Lodgings” are without a roof as yet, but shingles are fast being made.
On the south of the town rises the bold, rugged Silver Mountain, over eleven thousand feet altitude; on the north a rugged mountain over ten thousand feet. Over three hundred claims are being “prospected.” “Tunnels” and “drifts” are being run, shafts being sunk, and every few minutes the booming sound of a blast comes on the ear like a distant leisurely bombardment.Perhaps half a dozen women and children complete that article of population, but there are hundreds of men, all active, busy, scampering like a nest of disturbed ants, as if they must get rich today for tomorrow they might die. One hears nothing but “feet,” “lode,” “indications,” “rich rock,” and similar mining terms. Nearly everyone is, in his belief, in the incipient stages of immense wealth. One excited man says to me, “If we strike it as in Washoe, what a town you soon will see here!” “Yes—if,” I reply. He looks at me in disgust. “Don’t you think it will be?” he asks, as if it were already a sure thing. He is already the proprietor of many “town lots,” now worth nothing except to speculate on, but when the town shall rival San Francisco or Virginia City, will then be unusually valuable. There are town lots and streets, although as yet no wagons. I may say here that it is probably all a “bubble”—but little silver ore has been found at all—in nine-tenths of the “mines” not a particle has been seen—people are digging, hoping to “strike it.” One or two mines may pay, the remaining three hundred will only lose.
It was a relief to meet Mr. Bridges, an old rambler and botanical collector, well known to all botanists. For twenty years he rambled in South America and explored the Andes for plants for the gardens and herbariums of Europe. He first sent seeds of the great Amazon water lily to Europe. He spent three months on the island of Juan Fernandez, came to California, and has been supplying the gardens of England and Scotland with seeds, and the herbariums with plants, from this coast, for the last few years. It was a relief to meet him and talk botany; yet, even he is affected—he has dropped botany and is here speculating in mines.
“Mining fever” is a terrible epidemic; when it is really in a community, lucky is the man who is not affected by it. Yet a few become immensely rich.