AN INDISPENSIBLE MAN ON THE COMSTOCK

By Jack Harpster

As a seventeen-year-old living in the bucolic Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, Duane Leroy Bliss had been bitten by the gold bug. It was 1850, and two prior stints as a cabin boy on a sailing ship to South America had roused an adventurous spirit in the young man. When news of the Gold Rush in faraway California had reached his small village he immediately resigned his position as a schoolteacher and booked passage on the clipper ship Sarah & Eliza for Panama. In early 1851 Bliss arrived in San Francisco, and his life would never be the same again.

Bliss would spend a decade in California, first panning unsuccessfully for gold, then working in a mercantile in Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula. He got married and had two beautiful daughters; but fate would take his entire family from him due to various illnesses.

Awash in grief, and alone again, Bliss headed for Washoe in western Utah Territory where silver and gold had just been discovered on Sun Mountain on the eastern edge of the Truckee Meadows.

Bliss arrived on the Comstock on January 16, 1860, and soon after had a stroke of good fortune. He met Almarin B. Paul, a man with a lot of mining experience in both California and in the copper mines of Lake Superior, and he became Bliss’s mentor. Unlike California’s placer gold which could be plucked or panned out of the streams and outcroppings on the western face of the Sierra Nevada, the Comstock’s silver and gold ore was tightly bound up within its host quartz rock. Paul had developed a system for separating the ore from the quartz, the “Washoe Pan Process;” and he planned to build the first quartz mill on the Comstock. He hired young Duane Bliss to help in the construction work, and as soon as that mill was completed Paul began construction on a larger, sixty-four-stamp mill. He appointed Bliss plant foreman on the larger mill, and he soon sold twenty-eight-year old Bliss a partnership in the new mill.

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But mining the Comstock was an expensive undertaking, and soon corporations had taken over ownership of all of the important mines. Serious money was necessary to do the deep-pit mining that was required on the Comstock; so in 1863 Almarin Paul opened a bank in Gold Hill, and again offered Bliss a partnership in the business. Shortly thereafter Bliss, now well entrenched in the business community, returned to Massachusetts, married a young woman he had met there on a previous visit, and brought his new bride back to what would very soon become the State of Nevada.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Bank of California would soon become “King of the Hill” on Sun Mountain, buying and scheming its way to a near-monopoly—or combine as it was called—of the mines, mills and banks. When they bought Paul’s bank, Bliss stayed on as the assistant cashier, and became an employee of the Bank of California.

For the next six years Duane Bliss would become one of the bank’s most trusted lieutenants, a go-to guy who had proven he could handle any exigency. Thus in 1870 when the Comstock had used up all the old-growth trees in the nearby mountains and valleys—lumber and timbers were the one indispensible commodity for deep-pit mining—the bank again called on Duane Bliss to begin lumbering the Tahoe Basin.

This time Bliss would be one of the partners, not just an employee. Over the next twenty-five years he would go on to become one of a small handful of men who made a vast fortune from the Comstock.   

When the Comstock mines stopped producing in the mid-1890s, Bliss and his two partners divided the vast Tahoe Basin acreage they had assembled among the three families. The Bliss family ended up with the entire Glenbrook area, including miles of pristine shoreline, where they ran an exclusive but informal resort, the Glenbrook Inn and Ranch, until 1976 when it closed its doors. Meanwhile, the family sold most of the Glenbrook land. Today, William W. “Bill” Bliss, Duane Bliss’s great grandson, retains about seven acres of land and two houses in Glenbrook.

Adapted from Jack Harpster’s new book, Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode: The Life and Times of Duane L. Bliss, published by American History Press and now available at Sundance Books in Reno or at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

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