Buffalo Express
8 January 1870

Around the World: Letter No. 6

"Early Days" in Nevada


One of the curious features of Pacific Coast life is the startling uncertainty that marks a man's career in the mines. He may spring from poverty to wealth so suddenly as to turn his hair white and then after a while he may become poor again so suddenly as to make all that white hair fall off and leave his head as clean as a billiard ball. The great Nevada silver excitement of '58-'59 was prolific in this sort of vicissitudes.

Two brothers, teamsters, did some hauling for a man in Virginia City, and had to take a small segregated portion of a silver mine in lieu of $300 cash. They gave an outsider a third to open the mine, and they went on teaming. But not long. Ten months afterward the mine was out of debt and paying each owner $8000 to $10,000 a month -- say $100,000 a year. They had that handsome income for just about two years -- and they dressed in the loudest kind of costumes and wore mighty diamonds, and played poker for amusement, these men who had seldom had $20 at one time in all their lives before. One of them is tending bar for wages, now, and the other is serving his country as Commander-in-Chief of a street car in San Francisco at $75 a month. He was very glad to get that employment, too.

One of the earliest nabobs that Nevada was delivered of wore $6000 worth diamonds in his bosom, and swore he was unhappy because he couldn't spend his money as fast as he made it. But let us learn from him that persistent effort is bound to achieve success at last. Within a year's time his happiness was secure; for he hadn't a cent to spend.

Another Nevada nabob boasted an income that often reached $16,000 a month; and he used to love to tell how he had worked in the very mine that yielded it, for $5 a day, when he first came to the country. Three years afterward he attained to the far more exceeding grandeur of working in it again, at four dollars a day.

The silver and sage-brush State has knowledge of another of these pets of fortune -- lifted from actual poverty to affluence almost in a single night -- who was able to offer $100,000 for a position of high official distinction, shortly afterward, and did offer it -- and a little over a year ago a friend saw him shoveling snow on the Pacific Railroad for a living, away up on the summit of the Sierras, some 7,000 feet above the level of comfort and the sea. The friend remarked that it must be pretty hard work, though, as the snow was twenty-five feet deep, it promised to be a steady job, at least. Yes, he said, he didn't mind it now, though a month or so ago when it was sixty-two feet deep and still a snowing, he wasn't so much attached to it. Such is life.

Then there was John Smith. That wasn't his name, but we will call him that. He was a good, honest, kind-hearted fellow, born and reared in the lower ranks of life and miraculously ignorant. He drove a team, and the team belonged to another man. By and bye he married an excellent woman who owned a small ranch -- a ranch that paid them a comfortable living, for although it yielded but little hay, what little it did yield was worth from $250 to $500 in gold per ton in the market. Presently Smith traded a few acres of the ranch for a small undeveloped silver mine in Gold Hill. He opened the mine and built a little unpretending ten-stamp mill. Eighteen months afterward he quit raising hay, for his mining income had reached a most comfortable figure. Some people said it was $30,000 a month, and others said it was $60,000. Smith was very rich any how. He built a house out in the desert -- right in the most forbidding and otherwise howling desert -- and it was currently reported that that house cost him a quarter of a million. Possibly that was exaggerated somewhat, though it certainly was a fine house and a costly one. The bed steads cost $400 or $500 apiece.

And then the Smiths went to Europe and traveled. And when they came back Smith was never tired of telling about the fine hogs he had seen in England, and the gorgeous sheep he had seen in Spain, and the fine cattle he had noticed in the vicinity of Rome. He was full of the wonder of the old world, and advised every body to travel. He said a man never imagined what surprising things there were in the world till he had traveled.

One day, on board ship, the passengers made up a pool of $500, which was to be the property of the man who should come nearest to guessing the run of the vessel for the next twenty-four hours. Next day, toward noon, the figures were all in the purser's hands in sealed envelopes. Smith was serene and happy, for he had been bribing the engineer. But another party won the prize! Smith said:

"Here, that won't do! He guessed two miles wider of the mark than I did."

The purser said, "Mr. Smith, you missed it further than any man on board. We traveled two hundred and eight miles yesterday."

"Well sir," said Smith, "that's just where I've got you, for I guessed two hundred and nine. If you'll look at my figgers again you'll find a 2 and two naughts, which stands for 200, don't it? -- and after em your find a 9 (2009), which stands for two hundred and nine. I reckon I'll take that money, if you please."

Well, Smith is dead. And when he died he wasn't worth a cent. The lesson of all this is, that one must learn how to do everything he does -- one must have experience in being rich before he can remain rich. The history of California will prove this to your entire satisfaction. Sudden wealth is an awful misfortune to the average run of men. It is wasting breath to instruct the reader after this fashion, though, for no man was ever convinced of it yet till he had tried it himself -- and I am around now hunting for a man who is afraid to try it. I haven't had any luck so far.

All the early pioneers of California acquired more or less wealth, but an enormous majority of them have not got any now. Those that have, got it slowly and by patient toil.

The reader has heard of the great Gould & Curry silver mine of Nevada. I believe its shares are still quoted in the stock sales in the New York papers. The claim comprised 1200 feet, if I remember rightly, or may be it was 800 and I think it all belonged originally to two men whose name it bears. Mr. Curry owned two-thirds of it -- and he said that he sold it out for twenty-five hundred dollars in cash, and an old plug horse that ate up his market value in hay and barley in 17 days by the watch. And he said that Gould sold out for a pair of second-hand government blankets and a bottle of whiskey that killed nine men in three hours, and that an unoffending stranger that smelt the cork was disabled for life. Four years afterward the mine thus disposed of was worth on the San Francisco market seven million six hundred thousand dollars in gold coin.

In the early days a poverty-stricken Mexican who lived in a canyon right back of Virginia City, had a stream of water as large as a man's wrist trickling from the hillside on his premises. The Ophir Company segregated 100 ft. of their mine and swapped it to him for the stream of water. The 100 ft. proved to be the richest part of the entire mine; four years after the swap, its market value (including its mill), was $1,500,000. I was down in it about that time, 600 ft. under the ground, and about half of it caved in over my head -- and yet, valuable as that property was, I would have given the entire mine to have been out of that. I do not wish to brag -- but I can be liberal if you take me right.

An individual who owned 20 feet in the Ophir mine before its great riches were revealed to men, traded it for a horse, and a very sorry looking brute he was too. A year or so afterward, when Ophir stock went up to $3000 a foot, this man, who hadn't a cent, used to say he was the most startling example of magnificence and misery the world had ever seen -- because he was able to ride a 60,000-dollar horse and yet had to ride him bareback because he couldn't scare up cash enough to buy a saddle. He said if fortune were to give him another 60,000-dollar horse it would ruin him.

The shiftless people I have been talking about have settled sedimentally down to their proper place on the bottom, but the solid mining prosperity of California and Nevada continues -- the two together producing some $40,000,000 annually in gold and silver. White Pine is giving birth to the usual number of suddenly created nabobs, but three years hence nearly every one of them will be scratching for wages again. Petroleum bred a few of these butterflies for the eastern market. They don't live long in Nevada. I was worth half a million dollars myself, once, for ten days -- and now I am prowling around the lecture field and the field of journalism, instructing the public for a subsistence. I was just as happy as the other butterflies, and no wiser -- except that I am sincerely glad that my supernatural stupidity lost me my great windfall before it had a chance to make a more inspired ass of me than I was before. I am satisfied that I do not know enough to be wealthy and live to survive it. I had two partners in this brilliant stroke of fortune. The sensible one is still worth a hundred thousand dollars or so -- he never lost his wits -- but the other one (and by far the best and worthiest of our trio), can't pay his board.

ROUGHING IT ICON I was personally acquainted with the several nabobs mentioned in this letter, and so for old acquaintance sake, I have swapped their occupations and experiences around in such a way as to keep the Pacific public from recognizing these once notorious men. I have no desire to drag them out of their retirement and make them uncomfortable by exhibiting them without mask or disguise -- I merely wish to use their fortunes and misfortunes for a moment for the adornment of this newspaper article. -- Mark Twain

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