Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter XXXV

The Miner

He had about exhausted his own funds by this time, and it was necessary that Orion should become the financier. The brothers owned their Esmeralda claims in partnership, and it was agreed that Orion, out of his modest depleted pay, should furnish the means, while the other would go actively into the field and develop their riches. Neither had the slightest doubt but that they would be millionaires presently, and both were willing to struggle and starve for the few intervening weeks.

It was February when the printer-pilot-miner arrived in Aurora, that rough, turbulent camp of the Esmeralda district lying about one hundred miles south of Carson City, on the edge of California, in the Sierra slopes. Everything was frozen and covered with snow; but there was no lack of excitement and prospecting and grabbing for “feet” in this ledge and that, buried deep under the ice and drift. The new arrival camped with Horatio Phillips (Raish), in a tiny cabin with a domestic roof (the ruin of it still stands), and they cooked and bunked together and combined their resources in a common fund. Bob Howland joined them presently, and later an experienced miner, Calvin H. Higbie (Cal), one day to be immortalized in the story of ‘Roughing It’ and in the dedication of that book. Around the cabin stove they would gather, and paw over their specimens, or test them with blow-pipe and “horn” spoon, after which they would plan tunnels and figure estimates of prospective wealth. Never mind if the food was poor and scanty, and the chill wind came in everywhere, and the roof leaked like a filter; they were living in a land where all the mountains were banked with nuggets, where all the rivers ran gold. Bob Howland declared later that they used to go out at night and gather up empty champagne-bottles and fruit-tins and pile them in the rear of their cabin to convey to others the appearance of affluence and high living. When they lacked for other employment and were likely to be discouraged, the ex-pilot would “ride the bunk” and smoke and, without money and without price, distribute riches more valuable than any they would ever dig out of those Esmeralda Hills. At other times he talked little or not at all, but sat in one corner and wrote, wholly oblivious of his surroundings. They thought he was writing letters, though letters were not many and only to Orion during this period. It was the old literary impulse stirring again, the desire to set things down for their own sake, the natural hunger for print. One or two of his earlier letters home had found their way into a Keokuk paper — the ‘Gate City’. Copies containing them had gone back to Orion, who had shown them to a representative of the Territorial Enterprise, a young man named Barstow, who thought them amusing. The Enterprise reprinted at least one of these letters, or portions of it, and with this encouragement the author of it sent an occasional contribution direct to that paper over the pen-name “Josh.” He did not care to sign his own name. He was a miner who was soon to be a magnate; he had no desire to be known as a camp scribbler.

He received no pay for these offerings, and expected none. They were sketches of a broadly burlesque sort, the robust horse-play kind of humor that belongs to the frontier. They were not especially promising efforts. One of them was about an old rackabones of a horse, a sort of preliminary study for “Oahu,” of the Sandwich Islands, or “Baalbec” and “Jericho,” of Syria. If any one had told him, or had told any reader of this sketch, that the author of it was knocking at the door of the house of fame such a person’s judgment or sincerity would have been open to doubt. Nevertheless, it was true, though the knock was timid and halting and the summons to cross the threshold long delayed.

A winter mining-camp is the most bleak and comfortless of places. The saloon and gambling-house furnished the only real warmth and cheer. Our Aurora miners would have been less than human, or more, if they had not found diversion now and then in the happy harbors of sin. Once there was a great ball given at a newly opened pavilion, and Sam Clemens is said to have distinguished himself by his unrestrained and spontaneous enjoyment of the tripping harmony. Cal Higbie, who was present, writes:

In changing partners, whenever he saw a hand raised he would grasp it with great pleasure and sail off into another set, oblivious to his surroundings. Sometimes he would act as though there was no use in trying to go right or to dance like other people, and with his eyes closed he would do a hoe-down or a double-shuffle all alone, talking to himself and saying that he never dreamed there was so much pleasure to be obtained at a ball. It was all as natural as a child’s play. By the second set, all the ladies were falling over themselves to get him for a partner, and most of the crowd, too full of mirth to dance, were standing or sitting around, dying with laughter.

What a child he always was — always, to the very end? With the first break of winter the excitement that had been fermenting and stewing around camp stoves overflowed into the streets, washed up the gullies, and assailed the hills. There came then a period of madness, beside which the Humboldt excitement had been mere intoxication. Higbie says:

It was amazing how wild the people became all over the Pacific coast. In San Francisco and other large cities barbers, hack-drivers, servant-girls, merchants, and nearly every class of people would club together and send agents representing all the way from $5,000 to $500,000 or more to buy mines. They would buy anything. in the shape of quartz, whether it contained any mineral value or not.

The letters which went from the Aurora miner to Orion are humanly documentary. They are likely to be staccato in their movement; they show nervous haste in their composition, eagerness, and suppressed excitement; they are not always coherent; they are seldom humorous, except in a savage way; they are often profane; they are likely to be violent. Even the handwriting has a terse look; the flourish of youth has gone out of it. Altogether they reveal the tense anxiety of the gambling mania of which mining is the ultimate form. An extract from a letter of April is a fair exhibit:

Work not yet begun on the “Horatio and Derby”— haven’t seen it yet. It is still in the snow. Shall begin on it within 3 or 4 weeks — strike the ledge in July: Guess it is good — worth from $30 to $50 a foot in California. . . .

Man named Gebhart shot here yesterday while trying to defend a claim on Last Chance Hill. Expect he will die.

These mills here are not worth a d — n — except Clayton’s — and it is not in full working trim yet.

Send me $40 or $50 — by mail-immediately. I go to work to-morrow with pick and shovel. Something’s got to come, by G — before I let go here.

By the end of April work had become active in the mines, though the snow in places was still deep and the ground stony with frost. On the 28th he writes:

I have been at work all day blasting and digging, and d — ning one of our new claims —“Dashaway”— which I don’t think a great deal of, but which I am willing to try. We are down, now, 10 or 12 a feet. We are following down under the ledge, but not taking it out. If we get up a windlass to-morrow we shall take out the ledge, and see whether it is worth anything or not.

It must have been hard work picking away at the flinty ledges in the cold; and the “Dashaway” would seem to have proven a disappointment, for there is no promising mention of it again. Instead, we hear of the “Flyaway;” and “Annipolitan” and the “Live Yankee” and of a dozen others, each of which holds out the beacon of hope for a little while and then passes from notice forever. In May it is the “Monitor” that is sure to bring affluence, though realization is no longer regarded as immediate.

To use a French expression, I have “got my d —-d satisfy” at last. Two years’ time will make us capitalists, in spite of anything.

Therefore we need fret and fume and worry and doubt no more, but just lie still and put up with privation for six months. Perhaps 3 months will “let us out.” Then, if government refuses to pay the rent on your new office we can do it ourselves. We have got to wait six weeks, anyhow, for a dividend — maybe longer — but that it will come there is no shadow of a doubt. I have got the thing sifted down to a dead moral certainty. I own one-eighth of the new “Monitor Ledge, Clemens Company,” and money can’t buy a foot of it; because I know it to contain our fortune. The ledge is six feet wide, and one needs no glass to see gold and silver in it. . . .

When you and I came out here we did not expect ’63 or ’64 to find us rich men — and if that proposition had been made we would have accepted it gladly. Now, it is made. I am willing, now, that “Neary’s tunnel” or anybody else’s tunnel shall succeed. Some of them may beat us a few months, but we shall be on hand in the fullness of time, as sure as fate. I would hate to swap chances with any member of the tribe . . . .

It is the same man who twenty-five years later would fasten his faith and capital to a type-setting machine and refuse to exchange stock in it, share for share, with the Mergenthaler linotype. He adds:

But I have struck my tent in Esmeralda, and I care for no mines but those which I can superintend myself. I am a citizen here now, and I am satisfied, although Ratio and I are “strapped” and we haven’t three days’ rations in the house. . . . I shall work the “Monitor” and the other claims with my own hands. I prospected 3/4 of a pound of “Monitor” yesterday, and Raish reduced it with the blow-pipe, and got about 10 or 12 cents in gold and silver, besides the other half of it which we spilt on the floor and didn’t get. . . .

I tried to break a handsome chunk from a huge piece of my darling “Monitor” which we brought from the croppings yesterday, but it all splintered up, and I send you the scraps. I call that “choice”— any d —-d fool would.

Don’t ask if it has been assayed, for it hasn’t. It don’t need it. It is simply able to speak for itself. It is six feet wide on top, and traversed through with veins whose color proclaims their worth.

What the devil does a man want with any more feet when he owns in the invincible bomb-proof “Monitor”?

There is much more of this, and other such letters, most of them ending with demands for money. The living, the tools, the blasting-powder, and the help eat it up faster than Orion’s salary can grow.

“Send me $50 or $100, all you can spare; put away $150 subject to my call — we shall need it soon for the tunnel.” The letters are full of such admonition, and Orion, more insane, if anything, than his brother, is scraping his dollars and pennies together to keep the mines going. He is constantly warned to buy no claims on his own account and promises faithfully, but cannot resist now and then when luring baits are laid before him, though such ventures invariably result in violent and profane protests from Aurora.

“The pick and shovel are the only claims I have any confidence in now,” the miner concludes, after one fierce outburst. “My back is sore, and my hands are blistered with handling them to-day.”

But even the pick and shovel did not inspire confidence a little later. He writes that the work goes slowly, very slowly, but that they still hope to strike it some day. “But — if we strike it rich — I’ve lost my guess, that’s all.” Then he adds: “Couldn’t go on the hill to-day. It snowed. It always snows here, I expect”; and the final heart-sick line, “Don’t you suppose they have pretty much quit writing at home?”

This is midsummer, and snow still interferes with the work. One feels the dreary uselessness of the quest.

Yet resolution did not wholly die, or even enthusiasm. These things were as recurrent as new prospects, which were plentiful enough. In a still subsequent letter he declares that he will never look upon his mother’s face again, or his sister’s, or get married, or revisit the “Banner State,” until he is a rich man, though there is less assurance than desperation in the words.

In ‘Roughing It’ the author tells us that, when flour had reached one dollar a pound and he could no longer get the dollar, he abandoned mining and went to milling “as a common laborer in a quartz-mill at ten dollars a week.” This statement requires modification. It was not entirely for the money that he undertook the laborious task of washing “riffles” and “screening tailings.” The money was welcome enough, no doubt, but the greater purpose was to learn refining, so that when his mines developed he could establish his own mill and personally superintend the work. It is like him to wish us to believe that he was obliged to give up being a mining magnate to become a laborer in a quartz-mill, for there is a grim humor in the confession. That he abandoned the milling experiment at the end of a week is a true statement. He got a violent cold in the damp place, and came near getting salivated, he says in a letter, “working in the quicksilver and chemicals. I hardly think I shall try the experiment again. It is a confining business, and I will not be confined for love or money.”

As recreation after this trying experience, Higbie took him on a tour, prospecting for the traditional “Cement Mine,” a lost claim where, in a deposit of cement rock, gold nuggets were said to be as thick as raisins in a fruitcake. They did not find the mine, but they visited Mono Lake — that ghastly, lifeless alkali sea among the hills, which in ‘Roughing It’ he has so vividly pictured. It was good to get away from the stress of things; and they repeated the experiment. They made a walking trip to Yosemite, carrying their packs, camping and fishing in that far, tremendous isolation, which in those days few human beings had ever visited at all. Such trips furnished a delicious respite from the fevered struggle around tunnel and shaft. Amid mountain-peaks and giant forests and by tumbling falls the quest for gold hardly seemed worth while. More than once that summer he went alone into the wilderness to find his balance and to get away entirely from humankind.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00