A Photo Visit to the Sutro Tunnel

It’s been well over a century since the last mining car filled with ore from the Comstock rolled out of Sutro Tunnel. By the time the Tunnel was completed in 1878, the Big Bonanza was winding down, and the best guess is that the last batch of Comstock ore came through about 1880. But just three years ago, workers began converging at the old Sutro site once more.

The Sutro Tunnel entrance as it looks today, with the brick candle house on the right. Just visible on the hillside between the two upright posts is a survey marker, used as the tunnel was built to make sure it ran straight. Work commenced October 19, 1869 and the tunnel was completed July 8, 1878. What looks like “1888” in the arch above the tunnel is actually “1869”. (Rick Dustman photo).

The Sutro Tunnel entrance before restoration. (Photo courtesy of Dan Webster). 

No, they’re not miners. In 2017, a determined group of volunteers began working to preserve and restore the old buildings and artifacts that still remain here from the Sutro’s hey-day. It’s now privately owned. But thanks to restoration volunteer Dan Webster, we were fortunate enough to be invited to visit the site!

The tunnel mouth remains the most prominent feature of the site. Volunteers have re-plastered the brick entry wings and repainted the markings, restoring it to the way it looked when the tunnel was new. Water still flows out of the tunnel, thanks to its gently sloping design.

Back in Sutro’s day, the tunnel stretched 3-1/2 miles underground to connect first with the Savage Mine at Virginia City. From there, additional tunnels branched out to connect with other Comstock mines.

Interior of the tunnel, viewed through the bars. (Rick Dustman photo)

The original theodolite base is still visible, where surveyors set up their transit equipment to ensure the tunnel ran straight to its intended destination. Survey markers are still in place on the hillside above (see first photo, above).

Fixed metal base for anchoring the theodolite (survey transit). (Rick Dustman photo)

Sutro himself once had a mansion on the hillside to the right of the tunnel entrance. Completed and occupied in late 1872, the house was a mansion indeed, featuring gas lighting and indoor plumbing. Sutro’s wife and children lived here until – well, as the story goes, until Sutro was caught with another woman, after which the wife departed for San Francisco. Sutro, too, eventually moved to San Francisco as his tunnel prospects faded. Sadly, the mansion was destroyed in a fire in 1941, thought to be arson committed by a disgruntled former employee.

The Sutro Mansion (now gone). Photo courtesy of Dan Webster.

To the right side of the tunnel entrance stands the brick candle house. One side has been caved in by falling rocks from the hillside, but its original bricks have been saved to allow it to be rebuilt eventually.

The candle house, which held candles to provide the tunnel workers with light. (Rick Dustman photo).

Next door, the old machine shop has been cleaned and its floors oiled. Photographs and artifacts are being assembled inside, and it’s hoped this will one day become a museum, helping to acquaint visitors with the history of the site. Still visible in the floor are tracks that once allowed mining equipment to be rolled into the building for repair.

The inside of the machine shop at the mouth of the Sutro Tunnel in days gone by. (Photo courtesy of Dan Webster)

Outside, a cluster of iron ore cars that once rattled along the tracks of the tunnel still stand a silent vigil. Markings on some of the wheels show they were cast at the V&T foundry in Carson City. (Fun fact: the V&T foundry provided not only machinery for the railroad, but also for mines and mills all over Nevada.) The car bodies themselves were built on site here at the machine shop. Each ore car could haul 2-1/2 tons of material.

Ore cars, built using wheels cast at the V&T foundry in Carson City, on a restored section of rail in front of the machine shop. (photo courtesy of Julie Michler).

Next door is the mule barn, where mules for the tunnel work were stabled. And there’s even tack still hanging inside (see photos, below).

Mule barn including interior stalls, with tack still hanging, and its well-used wooden floors. (Karen Dustman photos)

This is thought to be a second mule barn, built in the early 1900s; the first was said to have burned in a fire. The roof of this mule barn had begun to sag sadly before renovations began in 2017. It was stabilized and additional roof support added by volunteers just last year (2019).

Once the warehouse for Sutro’s Tunnel, this became a bar and dance hall in the 1960-1970s. (Rick Dustman photo)

To the left of the tunnel mouth, a large warehouse (below) once held supplies during Sutro’s day. In the 1960s and ‘70s, hippies turned the former warehouse into a bar and dance hall.

A small red house off to one side has its own fascinating history. Not original to the site, it was moved here from Carson City in the 1960s from the area that’s now the Nugget parking lot. According to local lore, this humble cabin used to be the home of famous prostitute Rosa May!

Okay, it’s anecdotal. But what a fun anecdote! According to local lore, the small red house at the rear of this photo used to be Rosa May’s in Carson City! (Rick Dustman photo)
This old Victorian home was also moved from Carson City to the property near the Sutro Tunnel. (Karen Dustman photo)

A two-story Victorian home is also on site – and it, too, was moved. This once was the home of John and Helen Schulz in Carson City. Here at the Sutro site it was occupied by tenants until very recently, but now is vacant.

Just over the hill below the tunnel mouth, a ten-stamp cyanide-process mill was erected in 1900 by Mr. Leonard, then president of the Sutro Tunnel Company, and is thought to have run sporadically through the early 1940s. It was originally water-powered, using pelton wheels. That power source was replaced by two diesel engines, probably in the 1930s. Ore from various Comstock mines was initially trucked to the mill. Later, a tailings pile west of the mill was worked,  using a steam shovel to load dump trucks, and the tailings material was then gravity-fed to the stamps.

The old wooden mill building itself burned in 1967. But much of the large metal mill equipment can still be seen, some pieces still showing signs of distortion from the fire.

Metal parts from the mill are collected on site. Some show bends from the heat of the fire that destroyed the mill. (Rick Dustman photo)
Remnants of a large old wagon. (Rick Dustman photo)
An old saw. (Rick Dustman photo)

Below the mill once sat the Town of Sutro, a neatly-laid-out company town where workers and their families once lived. Crops were grown there using water from the mine for irrigation. Sutro himself brought in German Cottonwood trees, and had them planted in nice, straight rows to line the streets.

The former Town of Sutro, complete with a grid of tree-lined streets, once sat on this plain below the tunnel. (Rick Dustman photo)

Volunteers are continuing to work hard to restore the buildings and preserve the extensive artifacts at the Sutro Tunnel site. Eventually, they hope public tours may help raise money to assist with restoration efforts — and share the amazing story of Sutro himself and his famous tunnel!

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Story copyright Karen Dustman 2020. Unlawful to use without prior written permission.

The Adventuresome Samuel Chapin

The sign on the tall, blue house in Virginia City caught our eye as we whizzed past one recent afternoon: “The Chapin House.” It’s an unusual last name — and one we recognized from old letters in Alpine County.

So, just who was Samuel A. Chapin? We tracked down a few pieces of his life story puzzle — and what a life he had!

Born in Northbridge, Massachusetts on September 2, 1811, Samuel Austin Chapin was the fifth (out of eight) children of Henry and Abigail Chapin. His family moved to Michigan Territory in the spring of 1830, and Samuel’s early adulthood was spent in White Pidgeon. He would later recount “startling and amusing” tales of “roughing it” there, and serving as sheriff of St. Joseph County, Michigan.

Samuel joined other Michigan volunteers during the Black Hawk War of 1832, quickly rising to the rank of Brigadier General with the Michigan State Militia. In 1840, he went on to serve as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives for one session.

Exciting as all that must have been, nothing could quite rival the excitement of finding gold! Chapin eagerly joined some of the earliest Gold Rush crowds to California, though exactly when he arrived there is unclear. He once claimed to plainly remember the day that “we of ’49” arrived at San Francisco Bay. Other accounts, however, peg the actual date of his arrival as May 20, 1850. Even so, that date still puts him among the earliest eager Argonauts.

Ads like this one lured passengers bound for the gold fields to a “first-rate clipper ship.” Vague promises included: “The voyage will probably be made in a few months.”

Chapin’s adventurous journey included a “rough passage” aboard the vessel Empire City; a “raging fever”  on the Chagres River; and an unexpected hiccup in Panama when the expected continuation vessel Sarah Sereds failed to arrive. Chapin and his companions managed to book substitute passage aboard the steamship Oregon for $500 a head — procuring a berth in steerage along with a thousand other eager travelers.

Once aboard ship again, Chapin was said to have “organized a mess” with fellow passengers William Smith, former governor of Virginia, and L.B. Benchley, of San Francisco — political connections that helped render the rest of his passage “comparatively comfortable.”

San Francisco, about the time Chapin arrived.

During his earliest days in California, Chapin operated a hardware business. He also managed to become a member of the San Francisco Board of Education, helping select property upon which to build future schools, and made friends with the influential editor of the Evening Bulletin.

By 1860 the Gold Rush had largely petered out — but the Silver Rush now was on! And once again, Chapin was in the forefront of adventurous pioneers.

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Chapin acquired a mill site on the Carson River, four miles from Silver City, in July, 1860. That same month he had a survey done on land in Steamboat Valley — property that included not only a mill site but also valuable timber and water rights. And his political instincts evidently remained as sharp as ever; Chapin soon was tapped to serve as a member of the two Constitutional Conventions working to frame Nevada’s state constitution.

Naturally, Chapin had a finger in several early mining pies. He acquired interest in the quartz mines of Mariposa County. His name appears in May, 1863 among the list of incorporators of the Buckeye No. 2 Gold & Silver Mine in Scandinavian Canyon  (soon to become Alpine County). And he also acquired an interest in mines on the Comstock. In 1865, Chapin issued a “report” extolling the merits of his “Gold Hill Front Lodes” at Gold Hill, Nevada — two parallel claims happily situated between the Yellow Jacket and the Justice Mines. This “report” (actually a sales brochure) was, of course, heavily leavened with “affirmations and statements from various persons” about the value of these two mines.

Letters show that not all was sweetness and light in Chapin’s mining business, however. In 1869, Ahnarin B. Paul wrote Alpine County mine promoter O.F. Thornton: “I saw Chapin to-day — he can’t get the [ore-processing] settler to produce the electricity which must be had for precipitating the mercury.” And by 1872 Chapin was back in San Francisco, still trying to sell his mining claims. He wrote to Thornton offering a mining claim near Devil’s Gate for a hefty $100,000 (likely the same two Gold Hill Front lodes), touting his “great expectations” for the property. But his “Hope Mining Co.” at Silver City, he acknowledged, had recently become “embarrassed” and (as he put it) “went to the wall.”

Chapin House (1862) still boasts great architectural details like this arched window at the peak.
The front of Chapin House, with the Savage Mansion in the background.

Chapin’s stately 15-room house at 311 South “C” Street was constructed in 1862, during Virginia City’s mining heyday, and may originally have been built for him as a private residence. But by 1880, Chapin House had been converted into a boarding house, with a Mrs. Cavanaugh acting as the proprietor.

Chapin’s tall, stately house on “C” Street, on a recent rainy afternoon.

Meanwhile, back east, one of Chapin’s sisters had married a Wheaton, and was living in Norton, Massachusetts. Samuel was apparently her favorite brother. In 1884, Samuel and his wife retired and moved back to Massachusetts to live with the sister. There, he would serve as a Trustee of Wheaton College from 1889-1890.

By now 78 years old, Chapin conceived the notion of revisiting “scenes of his early life,” and eagerly joined a group of fellow pioneers for a trip back to California. It would be his last big adventure.

Chapin died suddenly of a heart attack while in San Bernardino, California on April 17, 1890. Stopping there with his fellow pioneers on their way to San Francisco, Chapin had just finished delivering a rousing address to the crowd at a reception. The last words to fall from his lips were: “God bless the noble State and the dear people of California!”

Chapin’s body was placed in an “elegant coffin,” said to be identical to the one in which General Grant had been buried. It lay in state briefly in San Bernardino, with solemnities conducted by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the San Bernardino Pioneers, before being loaded on a train for return to Boston. Both Chapin Hall at Wheaton College and Chapin Street in Alameda, California would later be named in his honor.

As for Chapin House, it continues to keep its silent vigil, looking down over the town of Virginia City from its lofty perch on “C” Street.

As you make your way down Gold Canyon, keep an eye out for this historic marker for “Johntown” below Silver City. Johntown was Nevada’s very first mining town, established in 1853, and the spot where Eilley Orrum (the “Seeress of Washoe” and the future Mrs. Sandy Bowers) had her boarding house. Other early residents included the Groch brothers and the iconic H.T.P. Comstock himself. We thought it was so appropriate that when we visited, someone had left an old shovel here!

And here’s the last, fun snippet to this story: boardinghouse-keeper Mrs. Cavanaugh — or perhaps even Samuel himself — may not entirely have vacated the premises. Visitors have been said to “complain of an uneasy feeling,” as if there’s a ghost in the house!

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