Q: I was recently driving up to Virginia City, and noticed a sign on the old Donovan Mill in Silver City, referencing a restoration by the Comstock Foundation for History & Culture. What are they actually doing in there?
A: Hello, thank you for the inquiry. It’s a pleasure for us to share this information. Perhaps some history first?
Our popular and very local newspaper, The Comstock Chronicle, recently ran the first two parts of a 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. We are re-issuing the article, in its entirety, with permission from Ms. Tennant, and the Chronicle’s editor, Ms. Tiffany Mazza. If you would like to receive this this type of quality historical writing, and/or just stay 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! Contact information is included at the bottom of this Blog.
The Comstock Foundation for History and Culture (https://comstockfoundation.org) was formed in 2013, and acquired the mill in 2015, because 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 an ultimate public reopening that enables an interpretive museum that serves a 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.
Milling Started in Silver City in 1861
The Donovan Mill Has Stood the Test of Time
BY LAURA TENNANT
(article first appeared in Comstock Chronicle as Part 1 on May 22, 2020 and Part 2 on May 29, 2020)
After the world’s largest silver discovery in 1859, the Comstock Lode drew hordes of prospectors, miners and speculators who swarmed Virginia City, Gold Hill and Silver City. Although history does not always acknowledge it, Silver City soon became a milling town as well as a residents’ mining town throughout 1860-1870. Yet, over the last 150 years, about the only visible milling-days’ landmark left in town is the Donovan Mill, its outbuildings and large cyanide tanks at the south end of Main Street, which is also State Route 342.
Today, devoted volunteers with the Comstock Foundation for History and Culture, have been diligently working for the last seven years to rehabilitate this rare Nevada historical site. Many observers snickered to think anyone could save this treasure and yet hour by hour, day by day, month after month and year after year, the project is still in the works and it is impossible to quantify what has been accomplished with the sweat of the brow of these volunteers who number more than 60, laboring on different projects over the years and completing a couple of major projects recently.
(More information about the Comstock Foundation and its projects will be described in following Parts of this article.)
Foundation Executive Director Steven Saylor commended Elaine and Don Bergstrom of Dayton whose dedication and hard work, including physical labor, has led the way to success with the rehabilitation of the Donovan Mill and its history. To understand the Bergstrom’s, Saylor’s and other volunteers passion regarding this formidable project, step back to 1861 to when the quartz mills were first built here and to the technology and metallurgical advancements made in the fields of mining and extracting the minerals from the ore, including that the first successful cyanide plants in Nevada operated at the Donovan Mill.
I recently read the detailed mining and milling history of the Comstock Mills, including Silver City, written by Robert L. Spude and it includes the names of the Comstock era entrepreneurs, representing men from different walks of life, who risked their bank rolls to strike it rich – some did and some did not. The Kelsey Mill: 1861 The site of where the Donovan Mill stands today, dates to February 20, 1861 when Melville Kelsey, a merchant, bought a 150’ by 200’ foot piece of property at the Gold Canyon Creek site in Silver City for $1,500, and Kelsey and his partner, a California miner, S.W. Collins, built the Kelsey Mill on the west hillside of the parcel at the end of Main Street (St.Rte. 342) and he set up a 15 stamp mill. His partner Collins, the operator of a metallurgical works in Sacramento, bought a 40 horse power boiler from the Goss & Lombard’s Iron Works, also in Sacramento, the Herman amalgamation pans and stamps from the Vulcan Iron Works, San Francisco and built the Kelsey quartz mill that led to the operation of the Donovan Mill in later years. And Kelsey, who speculated in land, mines and dwellings, set up an office on the Silver City ‘plaza.’
The mill was installed with the most modern milling equipment of the time. Although the Brevoort (later the Bacon) and Trench mills, operating near the Kelsey, had cost around $40,000 to $50,000 each to build, the cost of erecting the Kelsey remains unknown; however, one would assume the cost to set up the Kelsey would have been similar. Though records indicate the Kelsey was a successful venture; it was sold for $10,000 to the New York & Nevada Mining & Milling Company that was formed in New York by Kelsey and a number of speculators who had made big money from Civil War contracts and were investing in Pennsylvania oil and Comstock silver and gold. The mill was dismantled in later years.
Bank of California gets Involved Two years later, 1867, the mill sold for $21,000 and became the Sherwood Mill operated by the illustrious Bank of California, under William Sharon’s control, and the operation thrived when they began milling the rich Yellow Jacket Mine ore.
The Yellow Jacket in Gold Hill produced $4,000,000 between 1866-67 but no record exists as to how much of that ore was milled at the Kelsey. In 1868, Sharon formed the Union Milling and Mining Company and eventually monopolized the custom milling businesses, running 17 quartz mills, between Gold Hill and into Silver City, including the Kelsey, Silver City: Favorable location for mills Due to its location on the Comstock ledge, Silver City was in a favorable geologic position for milling and the place enjoyed a continuous prosperity. The string of mills included, the Devil’s Gate, Pioneer, Hope, Horn, Sherman, Bacon, Trench, Kelsey and Excelsior, all of which, kept busy between 1870-1878. During these prosperous days for Silver City, the high grade ore practically laid on the surface of the ground and Spude said, when a resident needed money, he or she took a shovel, staked a claim, and dug out enough silver and gold to live on. Besides the existence of the major investors who owned the large mills, many Silver City residents also operated small mills of their own.
Looking North toward Mount Davidson from Main Street in Silver City
PART 2: The Dazet and the Donovan Mills Stay the Course
William Donovan, Sr., establishes a family legacy
Last week, Part I of this column featured the history of the quartz mills in Silver City that operated at today’s Donovan Mill site between 1861 and 1890, and included information provided by Robert L. Spude,
Comstock Lode milling and mining historian. This week, the rest of the Donovan Mill story continues after the original Kelsey Mill failed to produce, was eventually dismantled and the Dazet Mill took its place at the site of today’s Donovan Mill, an historical landmark now being renovated by the Comstock Foundation of History and Culture’s volunteers and supporters.
In 1890, a Virginia City liquor dealer, Jean B. Dazet, a French emigrant, and Silver City independent miner, formed a partnership with Felix Lecrouts and Napoleon Landry of Silver City. Together, they build the 5-stamp Dazet Mill at the former Kelsey site and worked gold ore taken from five miles west of the mill. The Dazet enlarged to 10 stamps in 1892 and an African- American Henry W. Lockerman, a Silver City barber, and now a partner, leased the mill for that season; in 1894, the Dazet Mill processed ore from the Hale & Norcross mine in Virginia City, and one year later, with the mined ore values decreasing, Professor Robert Jackson, University of Nevada, bought the Dazet Mill to work its tailings and erected an experimental cyanide plant next to the mill, the first successful cyanide plant in Nevada. Jackson’s University of Nevada students learned the cyanide process and due to their knowledge, found employment worldwide. Jackson continued using cyanide to work silver tailings, a breakthrough in the milling processes, and he bought the Dazet Mill outright, later partnering with Professor J. Warner Phillips and in 1904,
Jackson sold to Philips who later sold it to William Donovan, Sr. The Donovan’s: Miners and mill operators William Donovan, Sr. hailed from Ireland’s County Cork in Skibbereen and arrived in Gold Canyon around 1883. He met his wife, Margaret Smith, a Gold Hill native, also from Skibbereen. The couple had five children, four boys, Jim, Brendon, Charlie and William “Bill” and daughter, Mae. After his father retired, Bill, who had worked in the mill since he was 15 years old, and in 1923 he enrolled in the Mackay School of Mines and received his degree in three years, returned to the mill to make $100,000 per year with a profit of $250,000 during the 1930s; however, the federal government shut them down at the beginning of WWII. The Donovan’s had owned the Silver Hills mine, located just north of Devil’s Gate above Silver City, formed the Silver Hill Mining Company and had filed claims on four other mines, including the Lucerne around 1872 and William, Sr., was this companies superintendent from then until his death in 1935.
In 1912, William, Sr. was also running a small cyanide plant in Silver City and he bought Professor Jackson’s 30-ton capacity cyanide plant from Professor Phillips. Donovan, Sr. and his sons Charles and William “Bill” Donovan, Jr., ran the plant from 1912 to 1959. In the latter years, Gladys had been made a full partner and she ran the stamp mill herself with son Mike’s help.
“This was an unparalleled time span for early Nevada milling operations.” Said Spude, noting, “William continued to expand the plant in the 1930s, making it a fully integrated cyanide milling operation. Today, these layers of technology and metallurgy are testimony to the dedication of the Donovan family, specifically for their long-term operation and maintenance of the custom mill and the 19th and 20th Century Comstock quartz mill operators before them.”
And Spude revealed this incredulous piece of Nevada milling history: “Wrapped within the Donovan Mill cyanide complex are a grand 1890s California stamp mill, so rare today, and an 1890s—early 1900s cyanide complex of the first generation in cyanide metallurgy and as the first level of significance; a major portion of the Rock Point Mill amalgamation and concentration mill, representative of the type, and rare as well, and the envelope around and attached to these, the creative 1930s amalgamation-cyanide mill that the Donovan’s’ preserved.” (The Rock Point Mill in Dayton provided employment for residents between 1860-61 into the 1930s, when the last of its rare, historical milling equipment was moved to the Donovan Mill. The Rock Point site is now a Nevada State Park and contains an historical kiosk that relates the mills’ history.)
Spude concludes: “The history of the Donovan Mill is exceptional. It reaches back to the beginning of mining settlements in what would be Nevada, evolved through the late 19th Century and as a custom mill sustained a community of small operations, some called them tributers, after the old country tradition, well into the 20th Century.
“Professor Jackson pioneering further development of the cyanide process at the Dazet, and his affiliation with Professor Phillips, their experimentations in the plant and in the field, preparing UNR students for careers in the expanding mining industry also helped sustain the community of Silver City’s mines and mills through the early 20th Century.” During the years that Bill kept the Donovan going, he had invested more wisely than many other miners and mill men because he owned the mines and was able to process the ore from his mines at his mill. Many Dayton men walked back and forth to Silver City to work at the Donovan Mill, especially during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Long before then, Ray Walmsley, whose grandfather,
Thomas R. Hawkins, settled in Georgetown high up in the Pine Nut Mountains south of Dayton in 1859, and settled permanently in Dayton soon after, said his father, Zenas, walked to Silver City daily to work in the mills.
…TO BE CONTINUED: PART 3 and PART 4 – more about the Donovans and the Comstock Lode.