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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXXV. The Miner
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|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
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
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
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
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
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
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.