One hundred fifty years ago on Oct. 18, 1869, work on the Sutro Tunnel began. This year on Oct. 18 the Friends of Sutro Tunnel is having a Sesquicentennial Celebration Banquet in Carson City at the Plaza Hotel Events Center at 211 East 9th St., to commemorate this important event in Nevada history and create an awareness of their project to save the historic Sutro Tunnel site. Tickets are $100 per person and donations will be encouraged through raffles, silent auction and contributions,
In 1863, 33-year-old Adolph Sutro believed that a tunnel excavated to intersect with the lower levels of the Comstock would drain and ventilate the mines. One of the richest silver deposits in the world, the Comstock Lode, had been discovered in 1859, and it quickly became the focus of the most intensive mining in the American West.
Sutro’s plan called for an excavation of nearly four miles in length at a grade of one and a half percent between the tunnel entrance near Dayton and Virginia City’s mines at the 1,640-foot level. North and South laterals connected most of the mines to the main tunnel.
Sutro’s vision was to drain the water impeding underground mining operations to avoid the need for expensive pumping and to move men, ore and supplies to and from the mines, greatly reducing transportation costs. Sutro announced in April 1866 that 23 of the leading companies on the lode had entered a contract to pay a fee of $2 per ton of ore extracted once the tunnel reached their mines for drainage and ventilation. Additional services were made available at a fare of 25 cents per person for traveling through the tunnel.
On April 7, 1869, a fire occurred in the Yellowjacket mine at Gold Hill, which cost the lives of 37 men. This disastrous event provided Sutro the opportunity to gain support of the Comstock miners. He argued that such a devastating event as the loss of so many men could have been prevented if the tunnel would have been in operation at the time. Sutro then obtained a pledge of $50,000 from the Miners Union, which enabled him to start work on the Tunnel.
On Oct. 19, 1869, Sutro commenced tunnel operations. Workers dug through dirt laden with solid rock to reach the Comstock Lode Mining District. It took nine years to complete the 3.8-mile long tunnel after Sutro secured European capital.
The engineering of the tunnel applied calibration with reflected sunlight every noon to ensure the tunnel would be straight. Tunnel workers broke into the Savage mine within a foot of the planned target. A success, as Sutro promised, the tunnel drained some 4 million gallons of water from the mines each day. In March 1879, the mine companies agreed to pay the $2 a ton charge if the ore was valued at more than $40 a ton and $1 a ton less for ore valued less than $40.
Unfortunately, the tunnel was completed 10 years too late. By 1878, the rich sections of the Comstock Lode had been tapped out, and the mines began a steady decline in profitability. In addition, several shafts of the “Big Bonanza” era were below the level of the tunnel when it reached the lode. Sutro was, however, able to sell his stock for a profit of about $1 million and departed the Comstock for San Francisco where he invested much of his wealth.
Today the tunnel entrance and the remaining buildings include a mule barn, warehouse, wood shop and machine shop that sit on roughly 28 acres. Many of the original larger pieces of drilling, conveyance and mining equipment are still onsite. This property is now maintained by the Friends of Sutro Tunnel, a group of local business people and historians working to save this significant part of Nevada’s mining history by restoring the Historic Sutro Tunnel Site. Their goal is to not only preserve the site’s historical integrity, but to also make it safe and accessible for visitors.
Phase one of the project is currently underway with the focus on site cleanup, grounds maintenance and protecting the remaining structures and equipment from further deterioration. Previous donations and skilled volunteers have made it possible, but so much more is needed to make this significant piece of Nevada history available for future generations to come. For information about the project and the Sesquicentennial Celebration Banquet, contact the Friends of Sutro Tunnel, Kit Weaver, at 775-224-1546.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.