Clampers honor Donovan Mill in Silver City

The “Clampers” as they are known, are an ancient and honorable fraternal society, dedicated to the preservation and study of the history of the American West. Their irreverent style has always included celebration, and they can be defined as both a “drinking and historical society.” Since the Snowshoe Thompson Chapter of E Clampus Vitus inception in 1956, they’ve placed 12 plaques in Alpine County honoring people and places of significance. The first was at Snowshoe Thompson’s homesite in Diamond Valley. They consider that location of such importance it was rededicated in the 1980s.

This ECV Chapter is based in Genoa and Alpine County. It covers a broad area in relation to history, choosing sites to erect plaques based on interest and significance. They’ve completed a total of 56 installations, with 4 more “in the works.” Asa Gilmore, John Pool, and Austin Wright maintain their website: It lists all the plaque locations, photos, text, and directions. It will also give you an overall idea of the good works and great times enjoyed by this Clamper group.

Under the direction of last year’s “Noble Grand Humbug” Brandon Wilding, five places were chosen to be honored. The most recent was Donovan Mill in Silver City. The Comstock Foundation for History and Culture is in the process of restoring buildings and machinery to showcase their original use. The idea is to make an interpretive center that will give a real-life experience of what it was really like to live in the mining culture of days long past.

Originally part of the land traversed by the Washoe Tribe, the possibility of riches drew gold seekers from far and wide. Silver City was settled in 1859, and Melville Kelsey built a 15-stamp mill bearing his name on the parcel in 1861. Kelsey used the Washoe Pan Amalgamation process incorporating mercury, salt, and copper sulfate. The Kelsey was eventually disassembled during the last of the Bonanza years.

Miner Felix Lacrouts had Virginia City liquor dealer Jean Dazet back the building of a new mill on the old Kelsey site in 1890. The remains of the Dazet Mill can still be seen at the current Donovan Mill property. In traditional wild-west fashion, there were disagreements among partners, guns being drawn, and court battles waged. The Dazet was eventually sold to Robert D. Jackson in 1895. He was a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno teaching mining practices, geology, and metallurgy.

Jackson modified the MacArthur-Forrest cyanide process so it could be used successfully on the Comstock. Jackson’s innovations made this the first time the cyanide process actually worked here. Because more of the precious metals were saved, the process replaced mercury amalgamation.

Chemistry Professor Dr. J. Warne Phillips became a partner at Jackson’s plant. Phillips was responsible for bringing in electrical power, motors, and a derrick and boom system. When profits fell in 1903, Phillips bought out Jackson, then sold to old Comstock miner William Donovan Sr. in 1912. Now called Donovan Mill, it entered a period of relative stability and prosperity. Donovan ran the mill with his sons, William Jr. and Charles, until moving to Reno in 1923. Silver City became a district of small mines and Donovan Mill made their operations possible.

After son Charles died a decade later, William Jr. was left in charge. He had graduated from the Mackay School of Mines with a solid understanding of new concepts and techniques in mining. Since the site was level, he began using a conveyor system to move the ore, and built 145,000-gallon cyanide leaching tanks. When the nearby Rock Point Mill closed in 1938, William Jr. used the parts to create a 30-stamp mill and began using the Merrill-Crowe cyanide process.

When William Jr. married, he made his new bride Gladys a full partner in the family business. Gladys was the first female mill owner not only on the Comstock and in Nevada, but the only one in the entire United States. This was enlightened behavior for the year of 1938, and a significant event in mining history.

Three years into World War II, a government production order forced the mill to close, but William Jr. was right there to reopen as soon as the conflict ended. The price of gold was low, and Donovan became the only mill to even keep its doors open. William Jr., Gladys, and their son Mike ran it together as a family business.

Even though Donovan Mill permanently closed in 1959 and the buildings were boarded up in 1975, this Silver City location has a life of its own. It was added to the Comstock Historic District and National Register of Historic Places, and then purchased by the Comstock Foundation in 2014.

Working to make the structures safe for visitors while maintaining historical integrity, this unique mill documents an intense and fascinating period in the unfolding of the Nevadan and American mining saga. On the right just as you are heading into Silver City, you can see both the tanks and the Clampers plaque from the road. If you take a minute to stop, you will find a place where history is constantly being created, recreated, and finally preserved for future generations.


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