Trial and error in Eureka

Most of the west was not affected by the Civil War that raged back east, thus prospectors and miners from many other places were moving a bit eastward following the discovery of silver-lead ores in the Prospect Mountain area around Eureka in 1864. In addition, some miners came up from Austin.

The Union forces need the lead and the silver for numerous war-related materials, although Nevada was just a territory at the time, not becoming a state until Oct.31, 1864.

Nonetheless, word spread and mining camps sprung up quickly, just like had occurred in California, and would again in the Klondike gold rush in Alaska and the Yukon Territory in about another 30 years.

Around Eureka, separating the silver and the lead was not an easy process, hard work was involved, and it would be several years before better processing techniques would be able to successfully separate the silver ore from the lead often mixed with it. There was a period of trial and error.

Trial and error however eventually led to success and by 1870 a new process for smelting was developed. Because of that the camp of Eureka began to grow. More miners came in. Some even brought families which helped create a real community, or at least the beginning semblance of one.

By 1871, production was up substantially and the Eureka district was beginning to outdistance both Austin and Ely. Even Hamilton felt the pinch. Eureka didn’t grow as much as Hamilton, but that was alright, because the prosperity lasted longer.

As the Comstock district around Virginia City began to decline in the early 1880s, the Eureka district was the most productive camp in the state.

In 1873, the state legislature split Lander County in two, north and south, and created Eureka County. The mining camp was now officially named Eureka and designated as the County seat. The 1880 U.S. census puts the population of Eureka County at just over seven thousand. However, by 1890, the population had dropped almost 54 percent.

Eureka was spared, for the most part, some of the heavy violence that a number of other mining towns experienced, most notable, Pioche, with its influx of lawlessness, gunslingers, hired guns, etc. Local law abiding citizens had more of the upper hand. But that’s a story for another time.

Eureka did not escape violence completely. Lawlessness in mining towns is going to be found anywhere.

The one event that comes to mind more readily was what came to be known as the “Charcoal Burner War” in 1879.

The ore mine in the Eureka district needed to be smelted in furnaces at extremely high temperatures to be able to melt out both the lead and silver ores. For that need, charcoal, which burns around 4,890º F, was in great demand.

Large groups of men made their living chopping down pine and juniper trees in the surrounding mountains to provide wood for the special outdoor burners that turned the wood into charcoal.

The operation is so delicate that it was generally left to colliers (professional charcoal burners). They often lived alone in small huts, or in small groups a fair distance away from towns, in order to tend their wood piles.

The need of this charcoal wasn’t just for the smelting plants in Eureka but in other places as well. However, the need in Eureka was particularly significant.

In his book, The Nevada Adventure, James Hulse, he writes that in August, 1879, Eureka’s mine and smelter owners wanted to reduce the price of charcoal they were buying from 30 cents a bushel basket to 27½ cents. The Charcoal Burners Association rejected the reduction and decided to prevent charcoal from being delivered to the smelters in Eureka.

Tensions ran high along with the summer temperatures that August as the days passed. Gossip and rumors, as always, spread quickly and some of the Eureka residents feared the charcoal burner workers were planning to attack the town and destroy buildings and businesses.

The Sheriff was alarmed also and sent a telegram to Carson City asking Governor John Kinkead to send a detail of soldiers to keep the peace.

As Hulse notes, the charcoal burners did nothing, but a riled-up (maybe liquored up) Sheriff’s posse did. They attacked the Fish Creek charcoal camp about 30 miles south of town and killed five workers while suffering no casualties of their own.

Hulse does not say if the posse was ever charged with a crime or even prosecuted, nor does he say if the charcoal price per bushel was lowered.

(Story adapted from James Hulse, The Nevada Adventure, UNR Press, 1981)

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