Duane L. Bliss: Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode By Jack Harpster

Duane Leroy Bliss (1833- 1907) was one of the most accomplished businessmen and admired residents in the Carson City/Virginia City/Lake Tahoe region for nearly a half-century. Despite that, most local folks recognize his name today only as the builder and one-time owner of Carson City’s Bliss Mansion, built in the late 1870s for his growing family, and recognized at the time as the largest and grandest estate in all Nevada. But the magnificent home, a portion of which still stands today at the corner of Robinson and Mountain Streets, was just one of many significant accomplishments in the state where he would spend most of his life.

Like thousands of other young men in 1849, seventeen-year-old Bliss left his Massachusetts home when news spread east about the Gold Rush in far off California; but like most of his contemporaries, after two years of hard labor he would discover that easy riches was only a pipe dream. So young Bliss took a job as a clerk in a mercantile in Woodside on the San Francisco Peninsula, where he would spend seven years. The mercantile still stands in the same spot today as the San Mateo County Woodside Store Museum. Bliss married a local girl, and they had two beautiful daughters; but tragically, by 1860 young Bliss had lost all three of them to various diseases. To escape all the dreadful memories that haunted him, Bliss left California and headed for the newly discovered Comstock Lode on Sun Mountain, part of the Virginia Range in neighboring Utah Territory, which would soon become Nevada Territory.

One historian called the avalanche of miners leaving the played-out California gold fields for the Comstock Lode in late 1859 and early 1860, The Rush to Washoe, the name attached to western Utah Territory at that time. And indeed it was. But these miners were ignorant of one important fact: in California the mining was done in shallow river and stream beds with little more than a gold pan and a rocker to separate the gold nuggets and flecks from the sand and gravel. The Comstock, on the other hand, was deep-pit mining where the silver and gold was embedded in thick quartz veins up to 3,200 feet below ground. The California miners and others who continued to come from the East and even from other countries had neither the expertise nor the money to mine in such an environment, so most left soon after arriving.

Bliss had arrived on Sun Mountain on January 26, 1860, and established himself in Gold Hill. Within a few months he had discovered the same truths that had driven the other hopefuls out, but Bliss was determined to stay. He got his first break when he met Almarin Paul, a New Jersey man ten years his senior, who had also come from the California gold fields. But Paul wasn’t a miner. With the mind, if not the training, of an engineer, Paul had invented the Washoe Pan Process while in California, a brand new method of separating precious metals from its quartz host once it had been brought to the surface.

It was the perfect answer for the Comstock’s biggest problem, and Paul intended to open the Comstock’s first quartz mill in Gold Hill. He hired Bliss to assist him in the project, and eventually promoted the young man to plant superintendent, and ultimately sold him a partnership in the business. Soon they built a larger mill, and by 1862 there would be seventy-four other quartz mills at work on or near the Comstock; but none ever approached the volume of Paul’s and Bliss’s giant mill. By 1863 Paul, another partner in the mill, and Duane Bliss had joined together to open the Almarin B. Paul & Company Bank in Gold Hill to assist other mine and mill owners who needed financing. Bliss had also invested in some mining stocks, and was so highly regarded that he had even been appointed an officer of a few of those companies. The young man from Massachusetts had done very well for himself on the Comstock; but even bigger things were on the horizon for the now thirty-year-old Bliss.

In 1864 Bliss returned to Massachusetts to marry a young lady he had met on an earlier trip back home, and he and his new bride returned to Gold Hill. But things were changing on the Comstock. San Francisco-based Bank of California had been amassing ownership of many of the under-funded mines and mills, and by 1865 they had achieved a near-monopoly, or combine as it was called in the day, of Comstock firms. “The Bank Ring” was what the small group of wealthy California investors was unofficially called. William Ralston, the president of the bank, and William Sharon, his man-on-the-ground on the Comstock, had even purchased the Almarin B. Paul Bank to add to their portfolio. They realized how important an asset they had in Duane Bliss, and offered him a chance to stay with the bank as an employee. He accepted the offer.

The Comstock would have its share of ups and downs, as most nineteenth century mining enterprises did. However, there were two thorny problems that continued to hinder the Bank RingÕs operation, and added to their staggering costs of doing business. The first was transportation. Getting men, equipment, and supplies up Sun Mountain to the mines, and unprocessed ore back down the mountain to the Carson River to where the mills had been relocated, was frightfully expensive, as independent teamsters, with their ponderous mule- or oxen-driven wagons, charged exorbitant rates. The second problem was acquiring enough timber and lumber to build the massive underground support system that deep-pit mining requires, and to construct the necessary mine and mill buildings, warehouses, homes, churches, and stores that the mines and the mining towns of Virginia City, Gold Hill and others required. Eventually, the Bank Ring would turn to Duane Bliss to help them solve both problems, and eventually make him as prominent and wealthy as the richest of the Bank Ring mining investors themselves.

The Bank Ring decided to tackle the transportation problem by building the Virginia & Truckee Railroad, or the V&T as it was commonly called. The little V&T would not only serve the Comstock’s needs but would eventually grow into an extremely profitable 89.2-mile line that also connected Virginia City to Nevada state capitol Carson City and to nearby Reno. The Bank Ring selected two men, Duane Bliss and Henry Marvin Yerington, to build the V&T. Neither man was a member of the Bank Ring and neither had the money or the political clout for that, but both were trusted lieutenants of the multi-millionaires who were members.

By 1869, charter in hand, Bank Ring leaders got the project under way. Bliss’s first job was to secure all the necessary rights-of-way for the V&T’s track; and following that he was appointed superintendent of construction at the Virginia City end of the line, while Yerington took a similar position at the Carson City end. Eventually Yerington would be made general superintendent of the entire railroad, as the Bank Ring had another job in mind for Bliss. But before that happened Bliss would also serve as paymaster, general supply agent, and eventually a member of the board of directors of the railroad. He was also dispatched to Carson City to handle the arrangements for devising and building a massive lumber storage yard south of the city, where today the marvelous Nevada State Railroad Museum sits.

In early 1870 the V&T Railroad was up and running, and its eventual success would surprise even its most jaded critics. Today, at the Railroad Museum mentioned above, the V&T Railroad still lives on; and tourists and locals alike can enjoy a wonderful Old West ride aboard the most successful and romanticized short line railroad in the U.S.

With the completion of the V&T and the resulting solution to one of its two major problems, Bank Ring leaders were ready to tackle its second thorny problem: securing sufficient lumber, timber, and cordwood to keep the mines and mills moving forward and to provide fuel for all the steam-driven machinery.

In its first decade of operation, the Comstock mines and mills had contracted with lumbering and milling firms in the surrounding Carson and Washoe valleys. But by 1870 these sources had been virtually denuded of usable trees; and wood choppers had begun to work the eastern slope of the Carson Range, an outlier of the Sierra Nevada. It would only be a matter of time until they had to move over the mountaintops to the heavily wooded western slope of the Lake Tahoe basin. Once again Bank Ring leaders turned to Duane Bliss and Henry Yerington, and one of their own members, the wealthy, well-connected California banker, Darius Ogden Mills. In a puzzling deviation from their normal method of operation when starting a new subsidiary like the V&T, where Bank Ring members owned almost all the stock the Carson & Tahoe Lumber and Fluming Company (C&TL&FC) was incorporated with three almost equal partners, Mills, Bliss and Yerington. Bliss, however, would own slightly more stock than the other two men, and would become the president and operating head of C&TL&FC.

On August 11, 1870 Bliss purchased 160 acres of timberland in the Lake Tahoe basin, and additional acreage would be added over the next three years. For the first few years, as with the V&T, Bliss and Yerington would both be involved in establishing the company. Mills was always a silent partner but eventually Yerington would go back to running the railroad and Bliss would run C&TL&FC. At its pinnacle, the company employed an estimated 3,000 people; and maintained its headquarters, the mammoth lumber storage yard, and a box and planing mill in Carson City. The company also owned extensive millworks in Glenbrook on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, and it built and operated four logging and freight railroads and a fleet of steam-driven tugs and barges to move logs from around the lake to the mills. It also operated an extensive network of wood camps and flume camps; auxiliary mills; an expansive system of flumes and reservoirs; and a labyrinth of haul roads, skid trails, and log chutes.

In the early 1870s Bliss decided he needed to move closer to C&TL&FC’s Carson City headquarters, so he purchased a home on the northwest corner of Minnesota and Telegraph streets. The population in Carson City had grown to about 3,000 people, and the small city was thriving. Before the end of the decade it would boast a federal post office; a central plaza surrounded by government offices, stores, and hotels; a new U. S. Mint facility; the Nevada State Orphans Home; the Nevada State Prison built of stone from an on-site quarry; and the impressive neoclassical Italianate Nevada State Capital Building. The V&T Railroad headquarters were also there with offices, maintenance facilities, and a huge rectangular engine house with nearly a dozen large bays for maintaining and repairing the railroad’s growing stable of locomotives.

By the late 1870s the Bliss’s Carson City home had become too small for the growing family, which now included four sons and a daughter. Bliss decided he would have a special house built that would reflect his and Elizabeth’s tastes, and also the high station in life his success had earned him. The west side of Carson City, a hillside shaded by huge trees, had become the city’s premier residential area, and large, expensive homes were being put up by wealthy mine and mill owners and operators from Sun Mountain.

In 1879 Duane Bliss built a large, comfortable home on the west side at 402 North Mountain Street for his growing family. The 8,500 square foot, three-story mansion was the largest home in Nevada at the time, and has since become known as the Bliss Mansion. The stately home would become a social center in the state capital, boasting a large ballroom on the third floor that was also used by the Bliss children as a roller skating rink. The house was also the first in the state entirely piped for gas lighting.

By 1880 the Comstock’s glory days were over, but it would be fifteen more years before mining completely shut down. By that time the mines had produced $400 million worth of silver and gold, and the lumber companies had stripped about $100 million of wood from the Tahoe forests, mostly on the Nevada side of the lake.

In the waning years of the nineteenth century, with the Comstock behind him, Bliss wanted to start a family business that would include all of his now-grown sons, each of whom had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. He envisioned a tourism-based company that would extend Lake Tahoe’s tourist draw from regional to national, and perhaps even international, visitors. When C&TL&FC had disbanded, the three partners, Bliss, Yerington and Mills, had split the company’s assets among themselves, including the Lake Tahoe basin land and all the logging and railroad equipment and supplies. Bliss had come out of the arrangement with the entire Glenbrook area, on the Nevada side of the lake, which in intervening years has become the creme de la creme of Tahoe property, and most of the four logging railroads, extensive track and equipment. Glenbrook had always had a few small hotels that attracted regional tourism, and Bliss wanted to expand on that in a big way.

Over the next few years, Bliss would incorporate a number of new companies, with 100 percent of the stock tightly held within the Bliss extended family. Included in the plans were the largest and most luxurious passenger ship plying Tahoe waters; a massive hotel and resort in Tahoe City named the Tahoe Tavern; and a narrow-gauge railroad from the resort to nearby Truckee that would forge a connection with the transcontinental railroad and bring vacationers to Lake Tahoe. The enterprise would eventually be everything Bliss had hoped for; and would earn him the moniker throughout western Nevada and eastern California as The Grand Old Man of Lake Tahoe.

Duane L. Bliss died two days before Christmas in 1907, having built a reputation as one of Nevada’s most accomplished and admired businessmen.

(Article adapted from Lumber Baron of the Comstock Lode: The Life and Times of Duane L. Bliss, by Jack Harpster, published by American History Press, Staunton, VA, 2015.)

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Jack Harpster retired 15 years ago following a 43-year career on the business management side of the newspaper industry. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1959 with a BS degree in Journalism and worked on newspapers in southern California and Las Vegas. Following retirement he wrote nine non-fiction books, five published by scholarly publishers, four by trade publishers, along with dozens of journal and magazine articles, all in the biography and history genres. He s a member of Biographers International and Western Writers of America.
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