History of Sutro 1940 – 1945

1940 – 1945
By Francis West

I will start by giving some of the circumstances by which we arrived at Sutro in 1940. My Father and Mother (Albert and Lyla West), two Sisters (Corlene and Mary), and myself left Bridgewater, Vermont about Aug. 1, 1940 and arrived at Lakeview, Nevada around Aug. 20, 1940. I had several uncles living in Nevada at the time. One uncle (Lester West) was overseer of the Virginia City Water Co. and lived in the two story white house at Lakeview. Dad went to work for a company ( I believe the Nevada Light & Power Co.) building a high line from Silver City to Dayton for the dredging co. that nearly consumed one end of the town. I remember Dad telling me that he had replaced a man that had been electrocuted in the construction of that line.

Sometime about Oct. 1, 1940 Dad received an offer of a job working for the Sutro Tunnel & Drainage Co. James Leonard (a lawyer from New York) owned the Company at that time. James younger brother Franklin was vice-president and supervised the company in its operations. Franklin also had a Son named Hobart but I don’t think he was involved with the day to day operations of the tunnel. Franklin also owned the VC&GH Water Company so I think Hobart, whom he called Hobie, was part of that operation. I will refer to Franklin as Mr. Leonard in the furtherance of this article. Anyhow, Dad went to work as a laborer in the tunnel. I believe there was a crew of five or six with a foreman by the name of Frank Capanilla (of Italian nationality).

Sometime in early 1941 Frank left or was removed as foreman and Dad was made the overseer of the tunnel operation. I think Mr. Leonard later hired Frank for a job at the water station above Virginia City on Mt. Davidson. I really think Dad was a bit apprehensive of taking on the responsibility as foreman as he had worked underground only a short time.

A little history of the Sutro mansion as I recall. When we moved there it hadn’t been occupied for some time. Mom and Dad worked hard just to get it into a livable condition before we moved in. We lived on the first floor but there were three floors to the building. Dad later fixed up a guest room at the head of the stairs on the second floor. I remember there was a marble fireplace in every room except the bathrooms and kitchen. There was two huge chimneys so there must have been quite a network of pipes to connect all the fireplaces. On top there was a penthouse where we kids used to play and of course you could see up and down the valley for miles. I think the penthouse was about 15 x 15 in area. It had windows that were curved at the top as I think all the windows in the mansion were. I remember the downstairs rooms had 12 foot ceilings. As you entered the big hallway the stairs were straight ahead. To the left was a large parlor with the most beautiful Victorian furniture as was the furniture throughout the house. A library was to the right that had an untold number of books. Just past the library was a large walk in pantry that Mom had spent all summer filling with goods she had canned. Past the pantry a door opened into a hugh dining room. It had all the accommodations (hutches, serving tables, etc.) I remember the dining table could be extended to accommodate at least 24 people. Off the parlor (living room) there was a bathroom with a beautiful old time tub and lavatory. The commode had its water tank high up on the wall. When you pulled the chain you better be off or you would get a free bath. Behind the bathroom were two more rooms Dad turned into bedrooms. I think one had been a sewing room.
The kitchen and a storage room was off the dining room and I think was a add on to the mansion proper. In all probability it was built at the time the mansion was but it was one story. I remember Frank C. had a billy goat that was always getting on the kitchen roof and making my Mother mad. Also, it would chase me and get on the top of our car. Funny it never chased my sisters. Guess they were too mean. Getting back to the kitchen, there was a stove that must have been 10 to 20 feet long. Sort of like the old time hotel stoves. Dad installed us a regular cook stove. The second story of the mansion had several parlors and a couple of bedrooms. I’m not sure about the third story but think it was mostly bedrooms. I know the stairways were wide and winding. I loved to slide down the bannisters when Mom wasn’t looking. Outside was a small lawn on the left as you walked up to the big porch (ran the full length of the main house). There were guy rods from the ground up to the third story to keep the wind from blowing the thing away. These were located on the left and back side. They were made in sections and about an inch in thickness. When we moved there Dad refurbished the water system which had a tank up in back of the house. All the drinking water came from a spring about a mile back in the tunnel. The rest of the water flowing out the tunnel from the mines of Virginia City was not potable. More about the outflow later. There was a large reservoir located about half a mile farther up the hillside. I think this was originally designated as the water supply for all of Sutros fire protection system as there was hydrants sticking up all around the tunnel and grounds. This system hadn’t been activated for many years and perhaps the mansion might have been saved if it had. I know there was a large water tank up in the attic which would have been filled by the fire protection system The mansion originally had gas lights. There was a carbide generating plant located on the hill behind the house about 100 yards away. Dad wired (he had been a electrician by trade in Vt.) the first story for electricity and installed a DC generating waterwheel down by the pond. I remember we always had to leave one lightbulb burning and being DC current the lights would flicker somewhat. I think we lived in the mansion about 13 months.

As for the fire that consumed the mansion I didn’t get to see much. I remember my Mom getting us kids up while Dad tried vainly to carry a five gallon bucket of water up to the roof. By the time he got up there the whole roof was ablaze. You can imagine how dry the structure must have been as old as it was. I remember briefly looking out the folks bedroom window and seeing the reflection of the fire on the hillside. We three kids were taken to some neighbors home as to be out of danger. Some furniture was saved but all our personal effects were burned. Mom was really hurt with all her pictures and things of her earlier family life gone. As I think back on that great old historical place I am proud to have been a part of it if ever so briefly.

1940 -1945
By Francis West

As the tunnel was the center of operations at Sutro, I will try to recollect the period as I remember it. My sisters and myself were not allowed to go into the tunnel but did play around the portal and would wander inside several hundred feet. It was always a cool place to be in the summer time as there was always cooler air heading for the mines of Virginia City. All directions I give will be as one would give facing the portal. The dimensions of the tunnel as I recall them are as thus: The length of the main shaft was about four miles, then divided into two smaller shafts about one and a half miles in length each. This made a total of about seven miles. The shape was almost like a Y with the right toward Virginia City and the left toward Gold Hill. There were air shafts at several locations along the length of the main shaft. These rose to the surface as large pipes and probably were mainly for the original excavation. At the portal the width was about twelve feet and was about ten feet high. I believe these dimensions were about the same for the length of the main shaft. At the portal the main shaft was shored with large uprights and cross beams (at least 10 X10s) and covered with planking (3 X 12s). I was told some parts of the tunnel were bored through solid rock and therefore contained no shoring. At the time we lived at Sutro there was one set of rails going in on the left side with the water drainage from the mines coming out the right side. Originally I think there were two sets of rails, one on each side, with a ditch in the center. At the portal there was a small building that housed carbide for the workers lamps and perhaps explosives if needed. It was built of masonry material and had a solid steel door that was kept locked.

Mules were used to pull the railcar that carried the workers and a timber car if needed. I remember three mules. Two mules were named Ramona and Peggy. Another that was used as a training mule was named Grandma. She was old and retired as far as working in the tunnel was concerned. The mules were very smart. If a plank between the rails had broken for some reason they would stop and not walk on that plank. Horses would not have worked in a environment of that nature. The mules would have two carbide lights, one on each side, while each worker carried one large carbide light (not the small ones worn on a safety hat). When the mules were unhitched at the end of the day after coming out from the tunnel, they would roll and roll in the dust of the corral out by the barn. I guess they were taking a bath as the men would after the heat of the days work.

I was told there was a complete machine shop located in a room dug out several miles into the tunnel. It was not being used and probably the machines were in a rusty condition from the damp air. There was talk of bringing the equipment out to sell for scrap metal for the war effort but this was not done at least from the Sutro end. Also, there was a change house located in the tunnel that the men used to change clothes. The damp, hot working conditions necessitated a change at the end of a shift, otherwise it would be very cool returning out to the portal.

The one time I was allowed to go into the tunnel for any distance was the occasion of a cave-in located a couple of miles in. After supper one summer evening Dad noticed the water had almost stopped in the drainage ditch. He let me get on the electric car (used for inspections and tours) with him to go in for a look see. You can imagine the excitement of a young lad not knowing what was beyond the headlight beam of that electric car. I not only was able to see a partial cave-in (it didn’t completely fill the tunnel) but I got to see some of the tunnel I had only heard about. I saw the massive doors that were installed when the mine owners decided not to pay for drainage rights shortly after the tunnel was built. I guess when the tunnel was closed off and flooded their mines they were glad to pay (even higher rates I was told). I understand one of the reasons for the tunnel was the steam pumps of that period could only pump water so high. The mines were going so deep they were having trouble getting the water to the surface. As to the mines that were drained through the tunnel I seem to remember the names of a couple of them. The Ophir and the Savage I recall, but I know there were several others. I remember Dad telling me about one mine that was so deep that the men could only work for a short period of time. They would have to go to a cooler place and rest. Can’t remember the name of that mine but believe they had hit a underground stream of thermal water. Another bit of history Dad relayed to me was the time Virginia city had a terrible blizzard. People couldn’t get in or out and was running low on supplies. They were able to bring food and goods through the tunnel for their relief.

Of course Mr. Sutro had much greater plans for his tunnel besides draining the mines. He wanted the rich ore from the mines to be transported out through the tunnel to his mills. These were to be built on the Carson River. Here he would have an abundant water supply and an easier access to wood for power. He would make a fortune in drayage and refining operations as well as the drainage fees. The mine owners evidently didn’t agree and Sutro sold out shortly after the tunnel was completed.

I will try to describe some of the buildings around the tunnel as I remember them. To the left and back away from the portal was the assay shop. When we moved there it was pretty run down but did contain a small furnace with a high metal chimney protruding from the roof. After the mansion burned Dad converted it into living quarters for our family. It was pretty crowded at first for a family of five. Later Dad added on a bedroom and a bathroom. There was a large metal tank up behind the house for water that came from the spring in the tunnel. With running water Dad installed some coils of pipe in the cook stove along with a hot water tank so we had hot water. When the water got to hot the steam would come out a pop off pipe at the end of the house up under the eaves. Mom and us kids really enjoyed the indoor bathroom as it was no fun going out to the two holer in the wintertime. Sometime in 1942 my Grandfather (Francis Hadley) cane to live with us from Vermont, so Dad added a lean-to bedroom on the back where Grandpa and myself slept. Grandpa later went to work for the Virginia City Water Company at the Tank Station up in the Sierras above Lakeview. I remember we had one of those old time hand crank telephones. We were connected to the switch board at the Water Co. in Virginia City. They could get us to the outside world but anything connected to that switch board was on a party line. When you rang someone up you could hear receivers being lifted off the hook all along the line.

Across the roadway from the house stood a long warehouse with a loading platform running the full length. It had quite of bit of odds and ends of material. Exactly what I don’t remember. I remember on the end facing the house there was two rooms downstairs and one upstairs that had probably been offices. These had been converted to a living area and was lived in for awhile by a young single man I only remember as Johnny. I remember after Johnny moved out we kids used to play in the warehouse. Upstairs there was a door leading out onto a loft where there was some boxes of old books about Sutro. I would love to get my hands on some of those books today but am sure they are long gone.

Beyond the warehouse was the house that Frank C. lived in. I think that building had probably been offices at one time, the way the building was shaped. It had several gable roofs indicating it had been added on to more than once.

Out beyond that house was a building that contained a steam plant. It had a lean-to shed on the back that we used as a chicken house. The chicken house was right on the edge of the ore dump. We had white leggon (sic.) hens that I took care of for spending money. I sold the eggs to Mr. Braums grocery store in Dayton. That’s how I earned money for a bicycle, scouting equipment etc. I remember the old steam boiler was still there when we moved away. I suppose
this plant provided steam power for the entire Sutro operation including some of the equipment used in the tunnel during the time of its construction.

There was a garage type of building near the steam plant. It was locked and we kids were not allowed in. I think it contained some old mining equipment such as muckers, wheel drills etc. but I can’t be certain. Also, there was a little one car garage near our house. Don’t think Dad kept our 37 Ford in there much as it was pretty dilapidated (the building).

There was a mill for processing ore directly out from the tunnel portal. It was located down over the ore dump with a ramp running out to the top story. This ramp was just wide enough for dump trucks to back out and unload. I think the mill was built sometime after the turn of the century as there was no evidence of rail tracks going out to it. I know that when we moved to Sutro there was a gas powered shovel at the one ore dump to the left as you came up the hill to Sutro. I have wondered if those tailings were milled there at that mill. I know it was a stamp mill as I used to slide down a chute under a blocked up stamp. We kids had a lot of fun playing in that old gold mill. I remember It was powered by two diesel engines.

At the right of the portal was a large machine shop. I remember it was in pretty bad condition and was torn down while we were living there. Only one story but as high as a two story building, there were many shaft extensions and flat belted wooden pulleys all around the upper part. There was a lean-to cover across the front. Just inside there was a shaft that went down at least sixty feet to a water wheel. From the wheel there was a tunnel that carried the water out to the flats below the ore dump and gold mill. I believe not only waterpower but steam power was used to power the machine shop. All of the machinery had been removed before we arrived at Sutro. I really think this was one of the first buildings built when Mr. Sutro dug his tunnel. We kids were told to stay out of the building as it might fall in at any time.

Across the road from the machine shop was a complete blacksmith shop. I remember it had a dirt floor which I thought was strange. It contained two forges with big round hoods to let out the smoke. I guess with forges and someone working with red hot metal you wouldn’t want a wooden floor. I remember that all the blacksmith tools were still in there. The shop wasn’t used while we were there but in previous times with a lot of mules and horses it must have been a busy place.

Out from the blacksmith shop there was a building with a big metal water tank. The men filled their water coolers here before going into the tunnel to work. Next to this was a bath house with a wooden open top tank on top. The sun was used to heat the water for the showers inside. I remember about half of the folks in Dayton came out to Sutro to get their drinking water at the time they had the typhoid epidemic about 1942 or 43. That was the best and purest water that came from a spring deep within the tunnel.

Next door was the shed for the electric car used for inspections and tours of the tunnel. There was a V-8 Ford 60 engine hooked to a generating charger that was used to recharge the batteries on the electric car. When we moved there the electric car was not in operation as was the Ford engine and charger. Dad worked about a year in his spare time getting every thing going.

The barn was probably one of my favorite places as there was where the mules, our horses, a cow, and rabbits were kept. I remember there were several stalls and a hay loft where they stored alfalfa for the animals in the winter time. On the back was a long shed where our horses and a cow were sheltered. Rabbit pens were located along the side opposite the corrals. A ditch in front was there to divert water from the tunnel going into the pond. It would have allowed the water to flow out over the ore dump into a dry wash toward the Carson River but was not used as far as I can recollect. Dad controlled the height of the water in the pond by letting water out through the large pipe that went under the ore dump into the irrigation ditches.

On the subject of water and irrigation, some of the finest alfalfa was raised from the warm mineral water that flowed from the tunnel. I can’t estimate the size of the fields but do know enough alfalfa was raised to keep all the animals at both Sutro and the Virginia City Water Company. The fields were surrounded by magnificent cottonwood trees and between the ore dump and the fields was a nice apple orchard. Next to the orchard we had an excellent garden (which I hated to weed). All these entities were watered by a series of irrigation ditches and gates.

I will try to describe a little of the area in general. The ore dumps extended for some distance out to the right and left of the tunnel. Sutro could be plainly seen as you came over the hill from Dayton (on the old road) and from several miles down the valley. It was said you could see the mansion from twenty miles away. Behind the barn were quite a few old wagons we kids liked to play on. Some were large wagons with high seats. I think several were ore wagons as they had high and wide tires. Also, I believe a couple were freight wagons as the sides were not so high. There was also a hay stacker that was used while we were there.

Dominic Laxall used to winter his sheep around Sutro and would give us lambs that had been orphaned. We would raise them and hated when it came time to butcher them. My sisters wouldn’t eat lamb if they knew that’s what Mom had cooked. They didn’t want to eat one of their pets. Early in the years we were there Mr. Laxall gave us a dog (sheep dog of course) that we had for years after we left Sutro. We named him Basco and he was forever herding our chickens. I had the privilege of going out to visit the sheep herder many times after school. We couldn’t understand each others language (they were mostly Basque in nationality) but they seemed to enjoy the company. A real treat was if they invited me to stay for a supper of stew. The sheep dogs never bothered me but I had to watch out for the goats that led the sheep. The sheep used to water at the pond and it was a sight to see several thousand sheep gather around that pond to drink.

I once saw a map of the layout of the town of Sutro, also, a plan of the tunnel. The main street ran straight out from the tunnel as I remember and had well planned side streets. As I recollect it was to be a rather large city but I have no idea how much was actually built. All that was remaining at the time we were there were two old outside domes that were ovens for a bakery and two graves with a wooden fence around them. I was told these were two of the workers that had been killed in building the tunnel. I can’t remember if the map I saw was in the mansion before it was consumed by fire or if it was something Dad had gotten from Mr. Leonard.

We moved from Sutro to a ranch in Southern Oregon the first part of July, 1945. The mines in Virginia City were closed by the WWII effort and I figure the mine owners weren’t willing to pay for drainage of mines that were not operating. In closing out this reminiscence I want to say these recollections are over fifty years later. The years of a lad at age seven through twelve are full of wonders and dreams. I have tried to give facts and some history of Sutro as accurately as I can remember. If historians or old-timers of that period of history can disprove my statements and recollections it won’t hurt my feelings whatsoever. I know in my heart that the period of 1940 to 1945 was a wonderful part of my life. I am proud to have been a part of the history of Sutro even if a small part.

Francis A. West

One comment

  1. Mr. West,

    You have some really wonderful stories here! Thanks so much for sharing them with us, I lived at Sutro for a few months during the winter of 1967-68 and had a great time. I’m going to be posting some memories and photos on my blog, “Pete’s Place”, along with a few songs I recorded from Dayton’s Town Marshall, Rocky Adamson back then.
    You can see a view of Sutro in my photograph here. https://bluegrasswest.com/wordpress/

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