It was the afternoon of a hot, dusty August day when a worn, travel-stained pilgrim drifted laggingly into the office of the Virginia City Enterprise, then in its new building on C Street, and, loosening a heavy roll of blankets from his shoulders, dropped wearily into a chair. He wore a rusty slouch hat, no coat, a faded blue flannel shirt, a Navy revolver; his trousers were hanging on his boot tops. A tangle of reddish-brown hair fell on his shoulders, and a mass of tawny beard, dingy with alkali dust, dropped half-way to his waist.
Aurora lay one hundred and thirty miles from Virginia. He had walked that distance, carrying his heavy load. Editor Goodman was absent at the moment, but the other proprietor, Denis E. McCarthy, signified that the caller might state his errand. The wanderer regarded him with a far-away look and said, absently and with deliberation:
“My starboard leg seems to be unshipped. I’d like about one hundred yards of line; I think I am falling to pieces.” Then he added: “I want to see Mr. Barstow, or Mr. Goodman. My name is Clemens, and I’ve come to write for the paper.”
It was the master of the world’s widest estate come to claim his kingdom:
William Wright, who had won a wide celebrity on the Coast as Dan de Quille, was in the editorial chair and took charge of the new arrival. He was going on a trip to the States soon; it was mainly on this account that the new man had been engaged. The “Josh” letters were very good, in Dan’s opinion; he gave their author a cordial welcome, and took him around to his boarding-place. It was the beginning of an association that continued during Samuel Clemens’s stay in Virginia City and of a friendship that lasted many years.
The Territorial Enterprise was one of the most remarkable frontier papers ever published. Its editor-in-chief, Joseph Goodman, was a man with rare appreciation, wide human understanding, and a comprehensive newspaper policy. Being a young man, he had no policy, in fact, beyond the general purpose that his paper should be a forum for absolutely free speech, provided any serious statement it contained was based upon knowledge. His instructions to the new reporter were about as follows:
“Never say we learn so and so, or it is rumored, or we understand so and so; but go to headquarters and get the absolute facts; then speak out and say it is so and so. In the one case you are likely to be shot, and in the other you are pretty certain to be; but you will preserve the public confidence.”
Goodman was not new to the West. He had come to California as a boy and had been a miner, explorer, printer, and contributor by turns. Early in ’61, when the Comstock Lode27 was new and Virginia in the first flush of its monster boom, he and Denis McCarthy had scraped together a few dollars and bought the paper. It had been a hand-to-hand struggle for a while, but in a brief two years, from a starving sheet in a shanty the Enterprise, with new building, new presses, and a corps of swift compositors brought up from San Francisco, had become altogether metropolitan, as well as the most widely considered paper on the Coast. It had been borne upward by the Comstock tide, though its fearless, picturesque utterance would have given it distinction anywhere. Goodman himself was a fine, forceful writer, and Dan de Quille and R. M. Daggett (afterward United States minister to Hawaii) were representative of Enterprise men.28
27 [Named for its discoverer, Henry T. P. Comstock, a half-crazy miner, who realized very little from his stupendous find.]
28 [The Comstock of that day became famous for its journalism. Associated with the Virginia papers then or soon afterward were such men as Tom Fitch (the silver-tongued orator), Alf Doten, W. J. Forbes, C. C. Goodwin, H. R. Mighels, Clement T. Rice, Arthur McEwen, and Sam Davis — a great array indeed for a new Territory.]
Samuel Clemens fitted precisely into this group. He added the fresh, rugged vigor of thought and expression that was the very essence of the Comstock, which was like every other frontier mining-camp, only on a more lavish, more overwhelming scale.
There was no uncertainty about the Comstock; the silver and gold were there. Flanking the foot of Mount Davidson, the towns of Gold Hill and Virginia and the long street between were fairly underburrowed and underpinned by the gigantic mining construction of that opulent lode whose treasures were actually glutting the mineral markets of the world. The streets overhead seethed and swarmed with miners, mine owners, and adventurers — riotous, rollicking children of fortune, always ready to drink and make merry, as eager in their pursuit of pleasure as of gold. Comstockers would always laugh at a joke; the rougher the better. The town of Virginia itself was just a huge joke to most of them. Everybody had, money; everybody wanted to laugh and have a good time. The Enterprise, “Comstock to the backbone,” did what it could to help things along.
It was a sort of free ring, with every one for himself. Goodman let the boys write and print in accordance with their own ideas and upon any subject. Often they wrote of each other — squibs and burlesques, which gratified the Comstock far more than mere news. 29 It was the proper class-room for Mark Twain, an encouraging audience and free utterance: fortune could have devised nothing better for him than that.
29 [The indifference to ‘news’ was noble — none the less so because it was so blissfully unconscious. Editors Mark or Dan would dismiss a murder with a couple of inches and sit down and fill up a column with a fancy sketch: “Arthur McEwen”]
He was peculiarly fitted for the position. Unspoiled humanity appealed to him, and the Comstock presented human nature in its earliest landscape forms. Furthermore, the Comstock was essentially optimistic — so was he; any hole in the ground to him held a possible, even a probable, fortune.
His pilot memory became a valuable asset in news-gathering. Remembering marks, banks, sounding, and other river detail belonged apparently in the same category of attainments as remembering items and localities of news. He could travel all day without a note-book and at night reproduce the day’s budget or at least the picturesqueness of it, without error. He was presently accounted a good reporter, except where statistics — measurements and figures — were concerned. These he gave “a lick and a promise,” according to De Quille, who wrote afterward of their associations. De Quille says further:
Mark and I agreed well in our work, which we divided when there was a rush of events; but we often cruised in company, he taking the items of news he could handle best, and I such as I felt competent to work up. However, we wrote at the same table and frequently helped each other with such suggestions as occurred to us during the brief consultations we held in regard to the handling of any matters of importance. Never was there an angry word between us in all the time we worked together.
De Quille tells how Clemens clipped items with a knife when there were no scissors handy, and slashed through on the top of his desk, which in time took on the semblance “of a huge polar star, spiritedly dashing forth a thousand rays.”
The author of ‘Roughing It’ has given us a better picture of the Virginia City of those days and his work there than any one else will ever write. He has made us feel the general spirit of affluence that prevailed; how the problem was not to get money, but to spend it; how “feet” in any one of a hundred mines could be had for the asking; how such shares were offered like apples or cigars or bonbons, as a natural matter of courtesy when one happened to have his supply in view; how any one connected with a newspaper would have stocks thrust upon him, and how in a brief time he had acquired a trunk ful of such riches and usually had something to sell when any of the claims made a stir on the market. He has told us of the desperadoes and their trifling regard for human life, and preserved other elemental characters of these prodigal days. The funeral of Buck Fanshaw that amazing masterpiece — is a complete epitome of the social frontier.
It would not be the part of wisdom to attempt another inclusive presentation of Comstock conditions. We may only hope to add a few details of history, justified now by time and circumstances, to supplement the picture with certain data of personality preserved from the drift of years.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00