Remembering the 'King of the Comstock South'

The old Chalmers Mansion still stands in Alpine County a monument to the history of mining. Karen Dustman photo

The old Chalmers Mansion still stands in Alpine County a monument to the history of mining. Karen Dustman photo

It stands as a sentinel, a portal between past and present, as you wind up the narrow and remote roadway known as Ebbetts Pass. Although there were other owners, the stately two story white house is still called “Chalmers’ Mansion” by the locals, acknowledging the most dynamic period in its history. It was a time when the intrigue of ledges, tunnels, boundaries, ore samples, and assay tests made the rumors of coming great wealth float on every breeze.

“He was part charming con man, part resourceful entrepreneur, part silver-tongued dreamer.” writes Karen Dustman in her new book ‘King of the Comstock South: The Life, Letters, and Legacy of Lewis Chalmers.’”

The discovery of the true details of Chalmers’ story came in an unusual way. In 2005, the curator of the Alpine County Museum called Karen and her husband Rick to see if they would assist in picking up a donation. The Whitmores were moving and had furniture and documents that had been in the mansion when they lived there. The furniture was nothing spectacular, but Dustman writes that, “the donor pulled out three large, battered cardboard boxes, stuffed to overflowing with leather and cloth-covered volumes. The boxes smelled as if they had spent the last century in a damp basement. They probably had, but oh, the books inside. Letterbooks and ledgers compiled by Chalmers himself—decades worth of them.”

In pre-copier days, after composing a letter in water-based ink, you would wet a page of the copybook, and place your document beneath it. The two would be firmly held together in a press, transferring ink from the letter to the backside of semi-transparent, tissue thin paper. This perfect duplicate was then placed in the bound letterbook.

After deciphering his unusual handwriting, this remarkable find took Dustman years to transcribe and type up thousands of pages. It was a slow and laborious process, but through it Dustman learned about the intricacies of early local mines, and about Chalmers himself. “From 1868 to 1885, Chalmers truly was king of the Alpine mining region.” writes Dustman, “He touted it as a ‘Second Comstock’ and promoted his Isabelle Tunnel as a ‘Second Sutro.’ For almost twenty years, Chalmers invested both his own hopes and a flood of British money into a flurry of ambitious mining ventures.”

The eldest of eight children, Chalmers was born in the far northeast corner of Scotland and showered with all the benefits that wealth and connections could provide. Winning prizes in Greek, Latin, and writing, Chalmers excelled at Marischal College. At 22 years of age, he became a lawyer like his father. A series of both business related and personal events led him off the expected trajectory that his upbringing suggested.

He lost his first wife to complications in childbirth, and his second to tuberculosis. And then financial disaster struck. After these tragedies, he became interested in the news of untold mining riches in our area. He left his seven children in the care of his widowed sister-in-law, and came to Alpine County in 1868 at age 39.

He was alone in an unfamiliar environment in a strange and alien land, but he was a mining capitalist who had hopes and aspirations. He had enough confidence in himself and his judgment that he felt he could make a fortune. He settled first at Bulliona, at the base of today’s Monitor Pass, moving to be near whatever mine he was running, until his company eventually bought Davidson’s Mill, which included what was to become known as Chalmers’ Mansion.

He started with the Imperial Gold & Silver Quarries mine, then moved on to the Exchequer and I.X.L., the Isabella Tunnel project, and finally the Morning Star. Even when the tax authorities here charged his mine as though it were producing, he fought it, but found no relief through legal channels. Finally he resorted to “The Golden Key,” banding together with other mine owners to bribe officials to cut their tax bills in half. He was nothing if not resourceful.

He continually studied new developments, including how to create better ventilation, use pneumatic drills, state-of-the-art amalgamating machinery, stamp mills, and new forms of explosives. He not only did assay work but acted as his own surveyor.

He married the beautiful widow Antoinette Laughton in 1880. She was about 27 years old at the time; he was 55. She had a son from a previous marriage, and they had two children together. Lewis Jr. drowned in the creek that runs below the rugged and terrifying cliff behind the mansion. Their daughter Laura disappeared many years later, leaving Alpine for places unknown.

Lewis Chalmers spent two decades chasing silver 60 miles from the original Comstock Lode. He weathered miners strikes, financial disasters, and grave personal loss, traveling back and forth to London over and over to secure continued funding. He lived with an intensity in these mountains, never thinking for a second that he would fail.

Chalmers survived, and even thrived for a time, ordering fine whiskey and cigars when things looked positive, but it could not be maintained. Always wanting the best, at one point in the 1880s they even had a telephone. When nothing else could be done here, he left Antoinette and went back to London in 1885, when he was 60, to try and reverse their fortunes.

Alone, Antoinette struggled. Eventually, she sold the mansion to the Whitmores, and went to look for her estranged daughter, but she could not be foundShe committed suicide in Oakland a few days after Christmas in 1913. Her sorrows were too much for her to bear.

In her extensive writings on local history, Dustman has been somewhat of “time-traveler,” finding and reporting on events and people so that these long-forgotten, or previously undocumented stories could come to life for the reader. Her work puts us firmly in the midst of our past, painting a picture of how and why things might have happened, and throwing a light on our present circumstances.

Spreading her wings into a new genre, separate from her historical writings, Dustman has just published four books of historical fiction under her pen name of Abby Rice. Three are time-traveling fiction set in Carson Valley, Virginia City and Glenbrook. They have proved to be wildly popular. All are available on Amazon, along with King of the Comstock, which can also be purchased in person at the Markleeville General Store.


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