From "A Peep at Washoe"
By J. Ross Browne
Harper's New Monthly Magazine 22 (December 1860)

. . . In the course of a varied existence it had been my fortune to visit the city of Jerusalem, the city of Constantinople, the city of the Sea, the City of the Dead, the Seven Cities, and others of historical celebrity in the Old World; and many famous cities in the New, including Port Townsend, Crescent City, Benicia, and the New York of the Pacific; but I had never yet beheld such a city as that which now burst upon my distended organs of vision.

On a slope of mountains speckled with snow, sage-bushes, and mounds of upturned earth, without any apparent beginning or end, congruity or regard for the eternal fitness of things, lay outspread the wondrous city of Virginia.

Frame shanties, pitched together as if by accident; tents of canvas, of blankets, of brush, of potato-sacks, and old shirts, with empty whisky barrels for chimneys; smoky hovels of mud and stone; coyote holes in the mountain-side forcibly seized and held by men; pits and shafts with smoke issuing from every crevice; piles of goods and rubbish on craggy points, in the hollows, on the rocks, in the mud, in the snow, every where, scattered broadcast in pell-mell confusion, as if the clouds had suddenly burst overhead and rained down the dregs of all the flimsy, rickety, filthy little hovels and rubbish of merchandise that had ever undergone the process of evaporation from the earth since the clays of Noah. The intervals of space, which may or may not have been streets, were dotted over with human beings of such sort, variety, and numbers that the famous ant-hills of Africa were as nothing in the comparison. To say that they were rough, muddy, unkempt and unwashed, would be but faintly expressive of their actual appearance; they were all this by reason of exposure to the weather; but they seemed to have caught the very diabolical tint and grime of the whole place. Here and there, to be sure, a San Francisco dandy of the "boiled shirt" and "stovepipe" pattern loomed up in proud consciousness of the triumphs of art under adverse circumstances; but they were merely peacocks in the barn-yard.

A fraction of the crowd, as we entered the precincts of the town, were engaged in a law-suit relative to a question of title. The arguments used on both sides were empty whisky-bottles, after the fashion of the Basilinum, or club law, which, according to Addison, prevailed in the colleges of learned men in former times. Several of the disputants had already been knocked down and convinced, and various others were freely shedding their blood in the cause of justice. Even the bull-terriers took an active part--or, at least, a very prominent part. The difficulty was about the ownership of a lot, which had been staked out by one party and "jumped" by another. Some two or three hundred disinterested observers stood by, enjoying the spectacle, several of them with their hands on their revolvers, to be ready in case of any serious issue; but these dangerous weapons are only used on great occasions--a refusal to drink, or some illegitimate trick at monte.

Upon fairly reaching what might be considered the centre of the town, it was interesting to observe the manners and customs of the place. Groups of keen speculators were huddled around the corners, in earnest consultation about the rise and fall of stocks; rough customers, with red and blue flannel shirts, were straggling in from the Flowery Diggings, the Desert, and other rich points, with specimens of croppings in their hands, or offering bargains in the "Rogers," the "Lady Bryant," the "Mammoth," the "Woolly Horse," and Heaven knows how many other valuable leads, at prices varying from ten to seventy-five dollars a foot. Small knots of the knowing ones were in confidential interchange of thought on the subject of every other man's business; here and there a loose man was caught by the button, and led aside behind a shanty to be "stuffed;" every body had some grand secret, which nobody else could find out; and the game of "dodge" and "pump" was universally played. Jew clothing-men were setting out their goods and chattels in front of wretched-looking tenements; monte-dealers, gamblers, thieves, cutthroats, and murderers were mingling miscellaneously in the dense crowds gathered around the bars of the drinking saloons. Now and then a half-starved Pah-Ute or Washoe Indian came tottering along under a heavy press of fagots and whisky. On the main street, where the mass of the population were gathered, a jaunty fellow who had "made a good thing of it" dashed through the crowds on horseback, accoutred in genuine Mexican style, swinging his reata over his head, and yelling like a devil let loose. All this time the wind blew in terrific gusts from the four quarters of the compass, tearing away signs, capsizing tents, scattering the grit from the gravel-banks with blinding force in every body's eyes, and sweeping furiously around every crook and corner in search of some sinner to smite. Never was such a wind as this--so scathing, so searching, so given to penetrate the very core of suffering humanity; disdaining overcoats, and utterly scornful of shawls and blankets. It actually seemed to double up, twist, pull, push, and screw the unfortunate biped till his muscles cracked and his bones rattled--following him wherever he sought refuge, pursuing him down the back of the neck, up the coat-sleeves, through the legs of his pantaloons, into his boots--in short, it was the most villainous and persecuting wind that ever blew, and I boldly protest that it did nobody good.

Yet, in the midst of the general wreck and crash of matter, the business of trading in claims, "bucking," and "bearing" went on as if the zephyrs of Virginia were as soft and balmy as those of San Francisco.

This was surely--No matter; nothing on earth could aspire to competition with such a place. It was essentially infernal in every aspect, whether viewed from the Comstock Ledge or the summit of Gold Hill. Nobody seemed to own the lots except by right of possession; yet there was trading in lots to an unlimited extent. Nobody had any money, yet every body was a millionaire in silver claims. Nobody had any credit, yet every body bought thousands of feet of glittering ore. Sales were made in the Mammoth, the Lady Bryant, the Sacramento, the Winnebunk, and the innumerable other "outside claims," at the most astounding figures--but not a dime passed hands. All was silver underground, and deeds and mortgages on top; silver, silver every where, but scarce a dollar in coin. The small change had somehow gotten out of the hands of the public into the gambling saloons.

Every speck of ground covered by canvas, boards, baked mud, brush, or other architectural material, was jammed to suffocation; there were sleeping houses, twenty feet by thirty, in which from one hundred and fifty to two hundred solid sleepers sought slumber at night, at a dollar a head; tents, eight by ten, offering accomodations to the multitude; any thing or any place, even a stall in a stable, would have been a luxury. . . .

In truth, wherever I turned there was much to confirm the forebodings with which I had entered the Devil's Gate. The deep pits on the hillsides; the blasted and barren appearance of the whole country; the unsightly hodge-podge of a town; the horrible confusion of tongues; the roaring, raving drunkards of the bar-rooms, swilling fiery liquids from morning till night; the flaring and flaunting gambling-saloons, filled with desperadoes of the vilest sort; the ceaseless torrent of imprecations that shocked the ear on every side; the mad speculations and feverish thirst for gain--all combined to give me a forcible impression of the unhallowed character of the place.

What dreadful savage is that? I asked, as a ferocious-looking monster in human shape stalked through the crowd. Is it--can it be the--No; that's only a murderer. He shot three men a few weeks ago, and will probably shoot another before night. And this aged and decrepit man, his thin locks floating around his haggard and unshaved face, and matted with filth? That's a speculator from San Francisco. See how wildly he grasps at every "indication," as if he had a lease of life for a thousand years! And this bull-dog fellow, with a mutilated face, button-holing every by-passer? That fellow? Oh, he's only a "bummer" in search of a cocktail. And this--and this--all these crazy-looking wretches, running hither and thither with hammers and stones in their hands, calling one another aside, hurrying to the assay-offices, pulling out papers, exchanging mysterious signals--who and what are all these? Oh, these are Washoe millionaires. They are deep in "outside claims." The little fragments of rock they carry in their hands are "croppings" and "indications" from the "Wake-up-Jake," "Root-Hog-or-Die," "Wild-Cat," "Grizzly Hill," "Dryup," "Same Horse," "Let-her-Rip," "You Bet," "Gouge-Eye," and other famous ledges and companies, in which they own some thousands of feet. Hold, good friend! I am convinced there is no rest for the wicked. All night long these dreadful noises continue; the ears are distracted with an unintelligible jargon of "croppings," "ledges," "lodes," "leads," "indications," "feet," and "strikes," and the nostrils offended with foul odors of boots, old pipes, and dirty blankets--who can doubt the locality? If the climate is more rigorous than Dante describes it--if Calypso might search in vain for Ulysses in such a motley crowd--these apparent differences are not inconsistent with the general theory of changes produced by American emigration and the sudden conglomeration of such incongruous elements.

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