RENO, Nev. (AP) - From 1922 until 1926, the United Comstock Merger Mill in Virginia City was the biggest and most sophisticated operation of its kind in the United States.
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. But unlike lots of other abandoned American landmarks, the mill didn’t fade away after it closed.
It just took on a new purpose, different from the job of using cyanide to process gold and silver from the Comstock Lode that defined the structures for their first five years of existence.
In the ensuing eight-plus decades, it turned into, among other things, a gritty sightseeing attraction, a romantic rendezvous location, a party zone, an iconic ruin photography subject and perhaps Nevada’s single greatest canvas for graffiti art.
“There is much mythology about American Flat,” said Bert Bedeau, district administrator for the Comstock Historic District Commission. “It was sort of the last great push to make low grade ore mining work in the 1920s. It failed. As a result, this fabulous ruin was left for us to enjoy.”
Now it’s about to turn to dust. The Bureau of Land Management, which owns the American Flat Mill, recently issued a notice to proceed to Reno-based Building Solutions, Inc., to dismantle, crush and bury what’s left of the massive mill.
That means demolition can start once the contractor obtains necessary permits, said Dan Erbes, a BLM geologist working on the project.
“They’re authorized to proceed starting now,” said Erbes of the contractor, which won the job with a bid of about $1.3 million for demolition. That figure doesn’t account for restoring natural vegetation to the site once the mill is crushed and buried. Final restoration is scheduled to begin late next year.
Erbes said concrete and rebar remnants of the mill, where large chunks of Nevada ore were once crushed, refined and filtered to make gold and silver bars, will be ripped apart using a machine that looks like the jaws of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, ground into dust and returned to the earth.
Even Erbes, who is charged with helping to carry out the BLM’s controversial decision to demolish the site, acknowledges there is some sadness that goes with the job.
“People who know it is here, really, are kind of attached to it,” he said during a recent tour of the site.
But he’s also aware of rampant littering, vandalism, fires and at least one death associated with people going onto the unsupervised site, much of which in recent years has been closed to the public.
“If our closure was respected, (the mill) would probably remain,” he said. “It is very obvious it is not.”
To offset the loss, the BLM is sponsoring a documentary film about the mill and Erbes said there will be an online repository of photography and other information on the site that’s available to the public. He said the research has been extensive.
“There is going to be more known about the site after it is gone than there ever was before,” Erbes said. “In a couple of months, hopefully, you will be able to go online and tour the whole thing.”
During its heyday, the mill employed about 250 workers and processed about $7.5 million in silver and gold, an amount that equals about $104 million in today’s money.
The mill was also the product of politics, Bedeau said. By the time it was constructed in 1922, high-grade silver and gold veins had long disappeared from the Comstock, where mining began in earnest in 1859.
There were various attempts in subsequent decades to use technology to make mining lower-grade earth more feasible, including the Merrill-Crowe process that uses a cyanide solution to extract valuable components from the soil.
But it wasn’t until the 1918 Pittman Act, named for Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada, subsidized the price of domestic silver that building the mill at American Flat became something eastern investors would finance.
“It was a typical political deal,” Bedeau said.
Unfortunately for the people at the mill, the political wind shifted in the early 1920s and the act wasn’t renewed.
“The price of silver falls right through the floor,” Bedeau said. “As a result, the mill out there cannot process and make a profit.”
There’s been plenty of mining in the area since, but nothing of the magnitude of the Comstock’s peak and certainly nothing as elaborate as the United Comstock Mill - hence its status as the “last gasp” of the Comstock.
“It never really got back to anything approaching what it was in the 19th Century,” Bedeau said.
But the value of the mill didn’t disappear when the mining stopped.
Over the years, it has become a tourist attraction for historic Virginia City. It’s frequented by off-road riders, sightseers, graffiti artists, filmmakers, photographers and others. The hillside mill is also a highlight on the route of the sightseeing Virginia & Truckee Railroad, which carries as many as 80,000 riders per year.
“The riders on the V&T enjoy hearing the story of the Comstock,” said Stephen Drew of the V&T Railroad Historical Society. “It is quite a distinction for western Nevada, it is a major landmark … and it is a very unfortunate loss.”
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com
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