Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode:
The Life and Times of
Duane L. Bliss
(from Chapter 8, “The Carson & Tahoe Lumber & Fluming Company”)
The Carson Range is a spur of the Sierra Nevada. It splits from the main Sierra Nevada at the upper end of Hope Valley, about eighteen miles south of Lake Tahoe. It then arches northward around the eastern or Nevada, side of the lake, while the main Sierra Nevada runs along the western or California side of the lake. The Carson Range spur ends just above the small Nevada community of Verdi, which is a stone’s throw from the Nevada/California border.
By 1870 the Bank Ring’s monopoly-or combination-over the Comstock was almost total. They owned the vast majority of stock in most of the producing mines; they owned all of the successful mills; they owned the controlling interest in water rights held by the Virginia and Gold Hill Water Company; and they controlled the transportation of material and ore to and from the Comstock with the V&T Railroad. The only link in the manufacturing and supply chain that Ralston and Sharon didn’t completely control was the lumber required to build the mills, support the underground mines, and provide firewood for the mines’ and mills’ countless steam engines.
They did control a great deal of the lumber supply in the Carson and Washoe valleys by contractual agreement . . . But the meadows, ravines and hillsides of these nearby valleys were almost denuded of trees by this time, and the woodchoppers had begun to ascend the eastern slopes of the Carson Range for more lumber. It was only a matter of time before that area too would be barren, and the lumberjacks would have to move over the mountaintops to the heavily wooded western slopes of the Carson Range above Lake Tahoe. Trees on the western slope, although more difficult to transport to the Comstock, were larger and produced more timbers and building material because they received more rain than those on the eastern slope. Bill Sharon realized that developing new lumber sources to feed the Comstock mines’ voracious appetite would be a fulltime task, and one he did not have the time-or perhaps even the interest-in taking on himself.
This was a puzzling deviation from the Bank Ring’s normal way of doing business. Its history was to always hold all the important elements of its Comstock monopoly in the family, that is, to have it all controlled by wealthy Bank Ring members. William Sharon scholar Michael Makley suggests a number of reasons why Sharon was not anxious to take on this additional project in the early 1870s. Makley wrote that in addition to running the mines, the mills and the railroad, “He [Sharon] was involved in numerous law suits; was fighting to reduce taxes on mining; was fighting attacks against the Ring and himself in the V.C. [Virginia City] and San Francisco press . . . and was running [for the election of 1872] against [John P.] Jones for the U. S. Senate.” Eventually, Sharon would drop out of that race. For all these reasons, and perhaps too as a way of rewarding two of his able lieutenants for their past services to the Bank Ring’s operations, Sharon turned to Duane Bliss and Henry Yerington to solve the Comstock’s future lumber and cordwood problems. James A. Rigby already worked 640 acres of timberlands in the Carson Range’s Summit area for the Bank Ring, so why he was not chosen to head this new business venture is not certain. Rigby was in shaky financial condition personally, and perhaps this is why Sharon bypassed him. Still, later on Sharon would see that Rigby was taken care of by Bliss’s and Yerington’s new company. Bliss’s Bancroft interview verifies all this, stating that once Sharon realized that lumbering could be a profitable business, “Sharon suggested that Yerington and Bliss take hold of the business for themselves, and they did so.”
Bliss and Yerington were perfectly positioned to take on the added responsibility. Yerington was already in the lumber business, having participated in a number of lumbering ventures. In 1868 he became an absentee partner with six other men in the Summit Fluming Company, where they operated a sawmill and a shingle mill near Spooner Summit [today, near the junction of US 50 and SR 28, above Glenbrook.] The men also owned a four-and-a-half mile long V-flume that began near the headwaters of Clear Creek and ran part way down Clear Creek Canyon.
Bliss’s previous assignment for Bill Sharon had been to establish a supply line of lumber from the timberlands to the railroad, set up a wood storage yard nearby, and see to building a V&T spur to the wood yard. So given the two men’s backgrounds, Bliss and Yerington were well prepared to take on this new enterprise, one that would ultimately make both men very wealthy and powerful members of the Nevada and California business communities.