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Sutro Tunnel

The entrance to the Sutro Tunnel in the late 1800s.
Courtesy Wikipedia
The entrance to the Sutro Tunnel in the late 1800s.

It was 150 years ago that construction began on the Sutro Tunnel. It had quite an impact … and didn’t amount to much. If that sounds contradictory, well, bear with us.

Adolph Sutro was an immigrant from Prussia. He and his family came to America after the revolution of 1848. Sutro worked his way to the Gold Rush, where he was successful in, among other things, the tobacco business. Like a significant number of those involved in the Gold Rush, he went east across the Sierra Nevada after the Comstock Lode was discovered.

One of the biggest problems on the Comstock was water. The deeper they dug, the more flooding there was, and the greater danger of cave-ins. Philipp Deidesheimer, a German engineer, would invent square set timbering to shore up the mines. Another German, Sutro, had another idea: a tunnel to pump out or drain the water. He planned for the tunnel to go more than three miles, and link Virginia City with the Carson River Valley.

Sutro set out to raise money. He won the support of William Sharon, the Virginia City branch manager of the Bank of California, which arrived in 1864 and became the dominant financial institution on the Comstock. William Morris Stewart was the attorney for Sharon and other big mine owners. He chaired the board when Sutro incorporated his tunnel company in 1865. But soon Stewart was out of there and Sharon withdrew his support. It didn’t help that Sutro had plans for a new town at the base of the tunnel. The town presumably would detract from Virginia City and leaders like Sharon. It also didn’t help that the new town would be named Sutro.

What did help Sutro was a tragedy. In April 1869, a fire began in the Yellow Jacket Mine in Gold Hill. At least thirty-five miners died. That event brought Sutro’s effort added support, since a tunnel might have averted the disaster. Construction began and went on for nine years. Finally, on September 1, 1878, the tunnel crew reached the Savage Mine in Virginia City. The tunnel worked: it drained the water. In fact, it still drains water from the mines.

But by the time Sutro’s tunnel was available for use, the Comstock Lode had entered a decline. In the early 1880s, Nevada entered a twenty-year depression, and mining on the Comstock never regained its former glory.

But Sutro did very well, indeed. He left his own company a year after the tunnel began operating amid bickering between him and his fellow investors. He returned to San Francisco and invested in real estate. He wound up owning about ten percent of the land in the city. He became a civic leader, even serving a term as mayor. He donated some of his land to be used for higher education, and part of the University of California, San Francisco is on what was known as Mount Sutro. He opened an aquarium and a public swimming complex. Some of his good works are part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. When he died in 1898, he was remembered as a philanthropist, and deservedly so. But he fit into another trend in nineteenth-century Nevada: money made in mining leaving the state.