Scalding water, plummeting cage elevators, cave-ins, fiery explosions, toxic air . . .
These were among the many hazards of silver ore mining on Nevada’s Comstock Lode in the 1800s—hazards that left people scarred, paralyzed, and dead. In the quest to mine silver ore, children were orphaned, women were widowed, and men were injured and unable to work to support themselves. The nature of mining society and the dangerous conditions in which miners worked in the mineshafts that ran beneath Virginia City and Gold Hill, Nevada, defined the needs of these Comstock Lode communities and shaped philanthropic efforts to address those needs.
From the 1860s until the mines went bust in the 1890s, the promise of silver lured men and women to the Comstock Lode on the slopes of Mount Davidson, 25 miles south of Reno, Nevada. Many of those people had been California goldminers and laborers. Immigrants from England, Ireland, Wales, Germany, Mexico, China, New Zealand, and other countries joined members of the Northern Paiute tribe and Anglo-Americans from across the Midwest and the East Coast to create the communities of Virginia City and Gold Hill, Nevada. In 1875, these two cities made up a bustling urban center populated by 25,000 people, including single men and women, families, and orphans, ranging from destitute people to millionaires.1
In 1871, William J. Evans, an English immigrant, was the victim of a mining accident that left him paralyzed and unable to work. The Ladies’ Mite Society of Gold Hill took special note of his case and organized a charitable ball for his benefit. Raising $370.00 in a single night, the Mite Society was able to send Evans “home to his family and friends in England in good style.” Evans’s story illustrates one of the challenges of being injured in a mining community: many people could not rely on a familial support system to care for them. While Evans returned to his family in England, many other injured miners relied on local giving to provide medical care.
In 1864, the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic religious organization devoted to providing spiritual and physical comfort to those in need, arrived in Virginia City. In response to the needs of this mining community, the sisters sought to establish a hospital and a combination orphanage and boarding school. Such ventures, however, required funding. During the sisters’ 30 active years in Virginia City, they relied on a core group of lay women—both Catholic and Protestant—to raise funds for their charitable work. By soliciting donations, selling raffle tickets, and encouraging public attendance at benefit dinners, dances, evening galas, and theater productions, these women used their own social networks to raise funds for both the sisters’ work and their own charitable causes.
Saint Mary Louise Hospital, opened in 1876 by the Daughters of Charity, was supported by such fundraising. At the time, it was the most modern hospital in the state of Nevada. Marie Louise Bryant Mackay, whose husband John was a wealthy mine owner, donated the land on which the four-story hospital was built. Other benefactors donated essential supplies and furnishings, including a kitchen range and ten tons of coal. Yet, it was the steady support of many members of the community that kept the hospital functioning. In addition, a Miners’ Union tax supported the hospital, where 20 percent of the patients in 1876 and 1877 were admitted for trauma.
Mining was a dangerous occupation plagued by accidents and injuries that affected not only male workers, but also women and children. The instability of mining communities—over 90 percent of people moved on within 10 years—also prompted some people to support groups like the Daughters of Charity who were willing to establish schools, hospitals, churches, and other community-based institutions that were considered essential to the long-term stability of a community. Despite their relatively long prosperity compared to most mining towns, mismanagement and depleted ore veins ultimately resulted in the decline of Virginia City and Gold Hill. In 1897, the Daughters of Charity shuttered their school, hospital, and convent. Yet, the hospital building itself still stands and continues to serve the community. Today, in the former wards where injured miners once recovered, St. Mary’s Art Center hosts exhibitions, workshops, and artists’ retreats.
About the author
Dr. Sarah Weicksel is a Project Historian for the Philanthropy Initiative in the Division of Work and Industry.
- C. Elizabeth Raymond, “‘I am Afraid We Will Lose All We Have Made’: Women’s Lives in a Nineteenth-Century Mining Town” in Comstock Women: The Making of a Mining Community, eds. Ronald M. James and C. Elizabeth Raymond (Reno: University of Nevada Pres, 1998), 7; Grant H. Smith, The History of the Comstock Lode (Reno: Nevada Bureau of the Mines and Geology in association with the University of Nevada Press, 1998).
- Territorial Enterprise, February 16, 1871, as quoted in: Anita Ernst Watson, Jean E. Ford, and Linda White, “‘The Advantage of Ladies’ Society’: The Public Sphere of Women on the Comstock,” in Comstock Women (1998), 188.
- Anne M. Butler, “Mission in the Mountains: The Daughters of Charity in Virginia City,” in Comstock Women, 152.
- Butler, 158.
- Anton P. Sohn, The Healers of 19th-Century Nevada: A Compendium of Medical Practitioners (Reno: Greasewood Press for University of Nevada, 1997), 28; 74.
- Butler, 163.