Mile-high fever: silver mines, boom towns, and high living on the Comstock Lode

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St. Martin's Press, Jul 7, 2009 - History - 282 pages
7 Reviews

In the rip-roaring, true saga of the Comstock Lode, Dennis Drabelle skillfully brings to life silver-mining in the late-nineteenth-century American West. The immense wealth extracted from the Lode spurred the growth of San Francisco, and Virginia City, the hell-raising town that sprang up above the mines, was the inspiration for the TV series “Bonanza.” Innovations in Comstock mining—the use of underground “cubes” to avoid cave-ins and of elevators to bring ore to the surface—was adapted to make possible the modern skyscraper. The boom also accentuated less positive themes in American history. The growth of Virginia City brought ruthless treatment of Native Americans. The risks and expenses of deep mining lent themselves to stock-market manipulations and fraud on a grand scale. To opportunists such as William M. Stewart, a mining lawyer and future U.S. Senator with a tenuous grasp of ethics, the Comstock experience meant that the West belonged to the crafty and the strong. Perhaps the boom’s most lasting legacy, however, was the education it gave to a great American writer: Mark Twain. In Virginia City, the young journalist learned the value of plain but salty Western speech and saw how he might use the vivid reality of the frontier in the great books of his future. Full of colorful characters and get-rich-quick schemes, Mile-High Fever brings to light one of the least-known but most pivotal episodes in American history.

Dennis Drabelle has written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Film Comment, Civilization, and Smithsonian. He is a contributing editor for The Washington Post Book World and won the National Book Critics Circle's Award in 1996 for excellence in reviewing. He lives in Washington, D.C.

In this rip-roaring, true saga of the Comstock Lode, Dennis Drabelle skillfully brings to life silver-mining in the late-nineteenth-century American West. The immense wealth extracted from the Lode spurred the growth of San Francisco and Virginia City, the hell-raising town that sprang up above the mines and was the inspiration for the TV series “Bonanza.”

Innovations in Comstock mining—the use of underground “cubes” to avoid cave-ins and of elevators to bring ore to the surface—were adapted to make possible the modern skyscraper. The boom also accentuated less positive themes in American history. The growth of Virginia City brought ruthless treatment of Native Americans. The risks and expenses of deep mining lent themselves to stock-market manipulations and fraud on a grand scale. To opportunists such as William M. Stewart, a mining lawyer and future U.S. Senator with a tenuous grasp of ethics, the Comstock experience meant that the West belonged to the crafty and the strong.

Perhaps the boom’s most lasting legacy, however, was the education it gave to a great American writer: Mark Twain. In Virginia City, the young journalist learned the value of plain but salty Western speech and saw how he might use the vivid reality of the frontier in the great books of his future. Full of colorful characters and get-rich-quick schemes, Mile-High Fever brings to light one of the least-known but most pivotal episodes in American history.

“We know of the Gold Rush, the hunt for El Dorado, even Hernando de Soto's wild search for a passage to China. But in Mile-High Fever, Dennis Drabelle brings us the little-known Silver Rush, told in full technicolor, seasoned with wisdom, and rendered with all history's shadows in tow.”—Marie Arana, author of American Chica, Cellophane, and Lima Nights

“It's rare that you find so much shameless misbehavior between two covers! Fraud, larceny, downright theft, untrammeled greed, not to mention fancy women, gambling dens, demented journalists—all adding up to incredible fun. The Comstock Lode is no longer with us, but you can still visit it in this wonderful, wacked-out book.”—Carolyn See, author of Making a Literary Life

"Mile-High Fever provides vivid insight into the mines and the world of Western newspapering . . . Drabelle's book has a pithy, well-judged feel."—Richard Rayner, The Washington Post Book World

"Drabelle brings to life the drama surrounding a large Nevada silver vein called the Comstock Lode, which through the 1860s and '70s yielded $300 million in ore. A central figure is opportunistic Nevada lawyer Big Bill Stewart, who helped develop the lode, bilked investors and 'occupied center stage of the [1861] litigation pageant' over mine claims. Drabelle describes conflicts with Native Americans and the early sightings of silver, sinking shafts, the influx of settlers and fortune seekers, Virginia City's brief heyday as 'a Babylon of the Great American Desert,' while relating the importance of Comstock for American history and culture. It played a role in the launching of the Hearst publishing empire, railroad expansion and technological advances from cable cars to elevators. Mark Twain, who sojourned in Comstock country, mined 'outcast lingo' to create a new direction for frontier humor and American prose. Drabelle introduces a vast cast of colorful characters as he explores how fortunes were won and lost, skillfully recreating the boom-and-bust atmosphere of this period in American history."—Publishers Weekly

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LibraryThing Review

User Review  - knightlight777 - LibraryThing

Having lived near Virginia City and visiting often the site of such a lively history, this book attracted my attention always looking for more on the subject of The Big Bonanza. The book I found was ... Read full review

Review: Mile-High Fever: Silver Mining at Comstock Lode

User Review  - Hal - Goodreads

Having lived near Virginia City and visiting often the site of such a lively history, this book attracted my attention always looking for more on the subject of The Big Bonanza. The book I found was ... Read full review

Contents

Heavy Metal
25
The Nature of the Beast
43
Working Low Living High
65
Copyright

6 other sections not shown

Common terms and phrases

About the author (2009)

DENNIS DRABELLE has written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Film Comment, Civilization, and Smithsonian. He is a contributing editor for The Washington Post Book World and won the National Book Critics Circle's Award (1996) for excellence in reviewing. He lives in Washington, DC.