CEO BLOG – June 18, 2020
After this article appeared in the Comstock Chronicle in May, we received a request for more information on the restoration project at the Donovan Mill. See below for a continuation of an exceptional article series.
Our popular and very local newspaper, The Comstock Chronicle, recently ran parts three and four of the four-part submission on the history of milling in Silver City, Nevada, from a remarkable contributing writer and historian, Ms. Laura Tennant, a native Silver City, Nevadan who now resides in Dayton, Nevada. We are re-issuing the article, in its entirety, with permission from Ms. Tennant, and the Chronicle’s editor, Ms. Tiffany Mazza. We previously posted parts one and two, on the June 5, CEO Blog. If you would like to receive the Comstock Chronicle, and this type of quality historical writing, and/or just staying in touch with all the happenings in and about the unique communities of the Comstock Lode, please contact Ms. Mazza and order your own weekly Comstock news!
Annual Subscriptions are only $55.00 and can be
processed through email, phone and postal mail at:
PO Box 530
Virginia City, NV 89440
The Comstock Foundation for History and Culture, a tax exempt, 501c3 not-for-profit organization, was formed in 2013, and acquired the Donovan Mill in 2015, in part, out of fear that the former owners were considering selling certain cultural components of the mill. The mill foundation has been stabilized, the interior cleaned out, and certain structural components stabilized. The project envisions a public reopening that will feature an interpretive museum to showcase the Donovan Mill’s tremendously important historical and cultural significance. Here is the amazing history of the mill operations down the Comstock Lode, told beautifully by the wonderfully talented Ms. Tennant.
William Donovan, Sr. Establishes a Family Legacy
BY LAURA TENNANT
(Article first appeared in Comstock Chronicle as Part III, June 5, 2020 and Part IV, June 12, 2020)
In Part II, William “Bill” Donovan, Sr. had taken ownership of the Dazet Mill in 1912 when the Comstock milling big-money era had ended due to the decline in the Big Bonanza’s ore values and much of the Donovan Mill technology had been converted from a mercury reduction of ore process to a cyanide process, the latest innovation in metallurgy that better refined the Comstock Lode’s rich tailings. Bill Donovan, Sr. had also sold stock-piled silver from tailings he milled during WWI, invested in other milling and mining ventures, retired, moved to Reno, leaving his son Bill, Jr. in charge. Bill, Sr. passed in 1930. (This is the accurate year of his death, not 1935, as noted in Part II.)
Depression Days of 1930s brought a new surge of mining and milling in Silver City
While the rest of the Donovan family had moved to Reno by the 1930s, William “Bill” Jr. remained in Silver City to manage the milling plant and the other Donovan mining interests. After the nation’s decline in the 1920s, and moving into the Great Depression in the 1930s, surprisingly, gold mining surged out West in the 1930s, particularly on the Comstock. In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt raised the purchase price of gold from $20 per ounce to $35, Silver City prospered again. The fact that so many mines in Silver City were owned by residents, individual or small groups, who also leased them to others, the Donovan plant stayed busy, doing custom work for the town’s miners, as well as working their own claims and helped keep mining aglow again. By the mid1930s, around 200 miners along Gold Canyon operated small mining claims, and the Donovan Mill and other local mills were happy to mill their orebodies, using the most modern chemical agents available then.
Bill, Jr. continued enlarging and expanding the mill’s capacity throughout the 1930s and all went well economically in those depression years in Silver City; however, WWII took its toll and Silver City, along with the Donovan Mill, took a hit and closed in October 1942 as did other mills since gold or silver were not essential minerals needed for the war effort. Bill had married Gladys in 1938 and the couple had three children, Mike, Sheila and Terry. At times, Bill’s daughter, Lois Ruth, lived at the lovely white house at the upper end of Main Street just below Devil’s Gate.
The Donovan family, the mid 1940s in Silver City: L to R, Mike Donovan,
State Senator Charles F. Wittenburg, Nye County, his granddaughter
Sheila Donovan, his wife, Olive, Lois Ruth Donovan, Gladys Wittenburg Donovan,
with daughter, Terry and Bill Donovan. (Laura Tennant Collection.)
Forever thinking ahead and a hard-working promoter too, Donovan changed his line of work to contract for other mines, including a tungsten operation and he also delved into road construction while he and his brother James operated a machinery salvage company based in San Francisco. When the war ended, Donovan reopened the mill but rising costs, labor shortage and drop in the market price of gold thwarted the effort and the post war economy hindered mining and milling industries, yet, the Donovan was the only mill operating at the end of the 1930s decade!
The troubles never ended it seemed and after the driver of one of Bill’s trucks backed over him in the late 1940s or early 1950s, he was left with crippling injuries and this is when his wife Gladys and son Mike took over the operation along with a partner, Don Jacobs, to raise money by milling orebodies from the Silver Hill Mine near Devil’s Gate and the Bullion they produced was shipped to the San Francisco Mint, just like in the silver and gold rush days.
Sadly, though, Mike closed the mill in 1959.
As far as Stony knows, he and his mining partner, Bob Hopper, Dayton might be the last ones to run the stamp mill at the Donovan when they milled tungsten ore with Bill one wintry day in 1967.
Most importantly, through the Donovan’s thick or thin economic times, for some reason, they did not give up and dismantle their mill like the others did, and I believe that it will one day become an international heritage site that will be a tribute to the ingenuity of the men and women who mined and milled the world-renown Comstock Lode, of which, the Donovans definitely played a significant role to preserve an astonishing era in Nevada history.
Meanwhile, Bill Donovan, strived to save Nevada mining history by serving on the Nevada State Museum Board and was instrumental in preserving, creating and constructing the underground mine at the Museum in the old Carson City mint building. He served on the Board until his death in November 1972. His wife Gladys was a partner in the business and did community service as the head of the Community Chest and United War Chest until her death on April 3, 1975.
William “Bill” Donovan, Sr., a well-respected businessman on the Comstock, made the headline in black bold print in the August 31, 1931 Nevada State Journal:
WILLIAM DONOVAN CAUGHT IN MINE CAVE and the subheads: CAVING STOPE BURIES MINER BENEATH THE EARTH and “Rescue Crew Labors Courageously to Remove Rock.”
“Buried in caved ground today at the Silver Hill mine, where he was held prisoner 30 feet beneath the surface for nearly three hours while death threatened from every side, William Donovan, widely known mill and mine operator, was rescued late this afternoon practically unharmed. With only his head protruding from the loose earth and rocks, and a supply of air provided by a crevice in the surface, formed between the hanging wall of the vein and the caved material, Donovan remained apparently unperturbed by his perilous situation and directed the rescuers in their work. It was a most exacting task that faced the anxious crew of men, with moving ground to deal with and with the greatest care required to prevent further run of earth.”
Donovan helped dig himself out near the end of the rescue mission.
The accident happened when Donovan and his brothers began repairing the collapse of an old stope near the highway to Virginia City near the Lucerne pit to keep the roadway intact when the earth gave way. Donovan’s body dropped straight down, feet first; otherwise he would have been crushed by the earth’s weight. Despite their efforts, the highway remained closed for a short time.
Donovan Mill: A living history of Nevada ’s Big Bonanza days
BY LAURA TENNANT
In Part III, the Donovan Mill story included the Great Depression years of the 1930s that bolstered the Silver City economy when President Roosevelt raised the market price of gold from $20 to $35. The Donovan plant stayed busy with their own mines’ work, and took custom contracts for other small gold miners around town; however, when the federal government closed gold and silver mining activities to focus on strategic materials for the WWII effort, times were hard. When the war ended, Bill Jr. reopened the mill but rising costs, labor shortages and declining gold prices hindered Silver City’s milling industries; yet, the Donovan family kept the mill running during the 1940s into the 1950s until Mike Donovan, Bill’s son, shuttered it in 1959 and thousands and thousands of dollars of milling equipment and the building continued to deteriorate until the Comstock Foundation For History and Culture bought the mill around 2013 and restoration is in full force today. Dayton’s old history, including the men and women who built it, is complicated, and tying it to Silver City’s intriguing history between 1849-2020 has been a challenge to summarize. I lucked out because Elaine and Don Bergstrom provided me with enough information to write a book, which I hope someone tackles soon.
Salvaging an Antique Blacksmith Shop
In 2019 the Donovan Mill volunteers were able to procure equipment from an early 1900s Dayton blacksmith shop that had been housed in Wadsworth since 1965,preserved by Paul Keife and it has been moved to the Donovan Mill in Silver City, where the equipment has been documented and installed. Keife had bought the equipment and a building from Dayton native, Will Scott and his wife, Bertha, whose private residence on 1st Street from around 1940 had been at the same location as the Nevada Mining Reduction and Power Works, where Will Scott worked in early years. The Nevada Mining Reduction yard faced Pike Street and the entire block on 1st and 2nd Streets and included a blacksmith shop near 2nd Street. One of Dayton’s 1874 pioneer blacksmiths, Silas Cooper, and a Mr. Box operated a blacksmith shop where the Dayton Inn is today. Their partnership did not last. Silas Cooper stayed the course during Dayton’s boisterous years, possibly working for NMR.
Dayton pioneer inventor and entrepreneur Herman Davis settled in Dayton in 1892, was associated with numerous successful Dayton mining and milling ventures and by the early 1900s he owned the NMR&PW business, which included the Rock Point Mill and changed its name to the Nevada Reduction Mill. In 1910, Davis sold the mill and moved to Reno. Bill Donovan bought the dormant Nevada Reduction Mill around 1930 and moved the small stamp mill and a building to Silver City to continue to expand the Donovan Mill operation.
Donovan Mill Projects, 2016 – 2020
Commendations to the volunteers who have continually kept the Donovan Mill restoration project on track through thick, thin, brain and brawn. Besides installing the black smith shop, accomplishments include:
- Clampers and volunteers removed two 40-yard dumpsters of debris from the machine shop, surroundings and replaced 60 panes of glass windows.
- Organized boxes of documents found in office vault. The office was painted, linoleum removed, floors refinished, cabinets placed in the office to store a Nevada book collection donated by Daniel Bowers and the vault exterior was sealed and painted.
- Portions of the original 1890 Dazet Mill ore bin columns had deteriorated enough to jeopardize the stability of the structure and tons of ore were removed.
- The conveyor drive pulley, reducer and motor were moved to a stable location. Nevada Structure Movers installed three support cribs and I-beams and raised the ore bins. Seven cubic yards of concrete footings and piers were placed under the column and steel connection pieces fabricated and installed, connecting new timbers, provided by the Truckee-Tahoe Lumber Company to existing ore bin columns and exterior wall columns.
- Stamp mill experts Charlie Connell and crew from Phoenix documented the condition of the stamp mill equipment and structures. Charlie gave stamp mill operating classes to volunteers and are providing continuing guidance for the Donovan Mill restoration and operation.
- Nevada Structure Movers raised the deteriorated valley gutter wall with 6×6 beams provided by
- Tahoe-Lumber Co. The platforms around the tanks had collapsed, were rebuilt and fastened to new columns.
- Frank Pedlar removed two 60-foot cottonwoods and hauled and replaced the area with riprap to protect the mill. And a hog valley, which is a low-pitched or flat roof formed where two pitched roofs join, was constructed above the new interiors valley gutter wall to assure proper roof drainage.
- Briggs electric finished the electrical work in the machine shop, office and refinery.
- WESCO Distribution supplied the remainder of the material and Clampers removed the old wiring.
- Stairs built leading to the crusher and other levels cleared.
- Burdick Excavating donated and assisted with installation of a
- 50-foot long, eight-foot wide wood walkway bridge over Gold Canyon Creek with preparation by Frank Pedlar, Silver City native.
- Built a retaining wall between the office vault and mill. Omaha Track donated 80 railroad ties for construction.
Comstock Foundation for History & Culture (CFHC) co-founder and Chairman, Corrado DeGasperis commented:
“Of all the amazing preservation and restorative work the CFHC has accomplished, the incredible advancements in the Donovan Mill in Silver City are, by far, the most remarkable (although the Yellow Jacket Joist and Chute work restoration was pretty amazing too). What strikes me most profoundly, in the volunteerism, love and caring that the community has poured into this precious cultural treasure. Our goals are for this to be a public treasure, interpreted, preserved and available for all to treasure. Two of the most meaning examples of this are these articles written by so wonderfully by Ms. Tennant, and the “Photo-phono Immersive Exhibit” displayed by Valery Lyman, that so honestly portrayed the realities of America’s boom-bust experiences, including the Comstock Lode (photos below).”