Diagrams to explain the square-set timbering technique

Famed mining engineer Philipp Deidesheimer, Thompson & West History of Nevada, courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers

While writing THE BONANZA KING, I became fascinated with the techniques and technology of Comstock mining. Here are some diagrams to help explain the square-set timbering technique invented in late 1860 by mining engineer Philipp Deidesheimer that made it possible to extract the Comstock Lode’s colossal ore bodies. (Clicking on the images should enlarge them for more detailed examination.) The internal structure of a honeycomb gave Deidesheimer the crucial inspiration.

This diagram clearly shows how “wall plates” and “angle braces” were used to shore a “dipping” ore body:

Thompson & West, History of Nevada, courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers

This next one shows how miners could use the square set technique to stope out ore in depth, on multiple “floors” (each line of square sets) and “levels” (from each of the shaft stations, generally at 100 foot intervals) at the same time.  Comstock miners thus gutted an ore body with speed that would have astonished previous generations of miners:

Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, Vol. III, Mining Indus-
try, 1870

Here is a standard Comstock mineshaft as they were constructed once “second line shafts” started going down. (Those were the shafts that were sunk east of the “croppings,” prime examples being the Gould & Curry’s “Bonner Shaft,” the Savage’s “Curtis Shaft,” and the “Fair Shaft” at the Hale & Norcross. Those three were named for the men who superintended their “sinking.”) They had three or four compartments. Two compartments for hoisting, one for pumping, and one for sinking. Three compartment shafts omitted the sinking compartment, the one through which the work of sinking the shaft to another station was done. It’s apparent that Deidesheimer’s square set technique inspired their construction. If you look carefully, you can see the “guide rods” running down the sides of the two hoisting compartments and the sinking compartment. The guide rods were embraced by the “ears” of the cage frames, iron flanges that guided the cages up and down the shafts. (I’ll go into greater detail on the shafts, cages, and hoisting and pumping apparatuses in another post.)

Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, Vol. III, Mining Industry, 1870



Final resting place of THE BONANZA KING

Of the man. Hopefully not the book. ;-)

Yesterday, Scribner Associate Editor Sarah Goldberg made a pilgrimage out Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery to pay her respects to THE BONANZA KING, John William Mackay.

The bluff old miner would appreciate how hard Sarah and Editor-in-Chief Colin Harrison worked on the book. Both deserve heaps of credit. Both have my everlasting gratitude. Sarah forwarded these photos this morning. Clicking on the images enlarges them nicely. According to her, Mackay has by far the most impressive mausoleum in the cemetery, atop a shady hill.


Thanks, Sarah!

Booklist reviews THE BONANZA KING

Booklist, 6/1/2018: 

“In the history and mythology of the American West, the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill and subsequent California gold rush have iconic status. However, in terms of concentrated precious-metal wealth, the so-called Comstock Lode in the Sierra Nevada was unmatched in the nineteenth century, yielding more than $300 million in gold and silver. A chief developer and promoter of this treasure trove was an Irish immigrant, John Mackay. Raised in poverty in New York, he spent eight years digging unsuccessfully in California, then crossed the mountains to Nevada in 1859. When he died, in 1902, Mackay’s net worth, in adjusted terms, was well over $10 billion. According to Crouch (China’s Wings, 2010), Mackay was no robber baron. As one who had worked claims himself, he understood the needs and aspirations of his workers. In an age of industrial turmoil, he maintained harmonious relations with his employees, contributed heavily to charities, and fought against various monopolies as his business interests expanded. Crouch presents a well-written and laudatory biography of a remarkable and admirable man.” 

I’ll forgive them the few errors for that last sentence. However, the Comstock Lode is in the Virginia Range, not the Sierra Nevada; the modern emotional impact of Mackay’s net worth is more like $40-$60 billion (measured as an equivalent slice of GDP); and China’s Wings published in 2012.

“How to Read Nature” by Tristan Gooley, reviewed by Gregory Crouch

Here’s “What’s Written in the Wind,” my review of How to Read Nature by Tristan Gooley for The Wall Street Journal, December 16 & 17, 2017.



“[Mr. Gooley] leaves us with the shining insight that although it’s expected that we find “wonder in a vast mountain landscape,” and “a more serious challenge” to find it in a hill, “it is a great achievement to find it in a molehill.””

Click the image below to enlarge it for easy reading.

Here’s the full list of the 30 books I’ve reviewed for The Wall Street Journal (16), The Washington Post (4), The New York Times (1), NPR (3), and others (6).

“It Takes a Tribe” by Will Dean and Tim Adams, reviewed for the WSJ by Gregory Crouch

Here’s “Things You Don’t Tell Your Mudder,” my review of It Takes a Tribe by Will Dean and co-author Tim Adams in The Wall Street Journal, Friday, October 13, 2017.

Credit to National Geographic photographer and good friend Stephen Alvarez for his classic quip, “What could possibly go wrong?” We’ve done trips together to Oman and Iran, both with sky-high fiasco potential.

Clicking the image below should enlarge it to readable size.

Here’s the full list of the 29 books I’ve reviewed for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR, and others.