Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode: The Life and Times of Duane L. Bliss
is the biography of an extraordinary, yet little known man who helped shape the Pacific West.
Bliss’s dual career as a successful entrepreneur in both the lumbering and tourism industries
in the latter half of the 19th century and the opening years of the 20th century allows the reader
to follow the arc of the nation’s mindset from Western expansion-at-any-cost to the dawning
of conservation consciousness.
After a decade in California unsuccessfully panning for gold as a 49er and clerking in a mercantile,
Massachusetts-born Bliss cut his business teeth as a trusted lieutenant of William Ralston and
William Sharon. These two men forged the Bank of California’s notorious “Bank Ring”
that tightly controlled the fabulous flow of silver and gold from the Comstock Lode in the 1860s.
By the early 1870s Bliss was on his own, with the Bank Ring’s blessing, building the largest
lumbering operation in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The company supplied the vital timbers needed to shore
up the Comstock’s underground mines; the lumber to build Virginia City and other burgeoning
towns on Sun Mountain in Nevada; and the firewood to warm the homes and fuel all the steam-driven
machinery that was necessary for underground mining.
Carson City Lumber Yard, 1866.
The vital role played by lumbering-and specifically by Bliss’s lumbering firm-during the
Comstock era is largely an untold story. Yet the full historical significance of the Comstock era
cannot be fully understood until this critical piece of the puzzle is added. It is estimated
that two-thirds of the Lake Tahoe Basin was stripped of its trees during the four decade period
beginning in 1860, accounting for between 400 and 500 million board feet of lumber. While the mines
of the Comstock produced about $400 million in wealth, lumber to support the mining effort
produced $90 million, a remarkable statistic. Despite that, both modern and contemporary accounts
of the Comstock era either ignore the lumbering aspect altogether, or give it scant attention at best.
One of the themes in the book is the decimation of the Tahoe forest and the shifting concern for
conservation of the forests by Duane Bliss and others during this process.
At the end of the Comstock era, Bliss entered the next phase of his career: turning Lake Tahoe into
a national and even international summer tourist destination. He built a railroad to bring the
tourists in, the grand Tahoe Tavern resort to house them, and a fleet of lake
steamers to entertain them. With his encouragement, two of his sons built the rustic
Glenbrook Inn & Ranch to accommodate families of more modest means. Both of Bliss’s enterprises
were built using a business management principle called “vertical integration.”
The development of this principle, still important today, is credited to steel baron Andrew
Carnegie in the 1870s. However, the book posits the argument that vertical integration was
actually developed on the Comstock in the 1860s, which is another of the book’s major themes.
It is impossible the fully understand the Comstock era and its importance to the growth of the
Pacific West without reading this book.