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Knowing Nevada: Saving Sutro Tunnel

Inside of Sutro Tunnel. Photo courtesy of Dan Webster.
Inside of Sutro Tunnel. Photo courtesy of Dan Webster.
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Nevada in the 19th century saw innovators leave the marks. Miners, builders, and businessmen alike took advantage of the newest state in the union to find ways of personal profits.

One man named Adoph Sutro, a Prussian engineer, drafted a project which would become a four-mile stretch of drainage from the top of the Virginia City mines down the Carson River Valley (which we know today as Dayton, NV).

The idea came when Sutro heard the call from miners about water flooding into the Comstock Lode. Sutro put his expertise in design ingenuity to work and proposed something that would put gravity to the gravel.

The mines were deep, which meant physically pumping out the flood water would cost a fortune. Sutro proposed this tunnel at the bottom of the highlands where water would drain out into the valley.

There was pushback from mine owners who assumed Sutro would 'rob them' of mineral rights if he connected this tunnel to their claims. This resulted in Sutro busting his back to secure funds to begin this pursuit.

Finally, construction began on October 19, 1869. It took almost ten years to build since the tunnel stretched for almost four miles at about 20,489-feet long. Sutro says the tunnel could hold more than four million gallons of water at once, according to news clippings. Other reports say it was 'practically the building of a new mine'.

It wasn't until September of 1878 when the tunnel finally connected to its meeting point at the Savage Mine, even though they missed their target location by a few feet. That wasn't the only issue.

By the late 1870's, the dust from the mining boom had settled in Virginia City. The tunnel was complete, but was used by only a few mining operations.

Sutro then sold his shares from the tunnel and moved off to San Francisco, with his lions share of $1 million-dollars from the project.

The few years after Sutro left, the tunnel was still in operation. The land around the mouth of the tunnel became the town of Sutro, NV. It had decent sized population for a while. Since then, it's become an empty plot of a ghost town.

That's where this history becomes a mystery.

Many of the buildings on the property are still standing. Some burnt down like the Sutro mansion and the Sutro mill. There's an old bar that used to be the 'rondeaux' point for famous names like Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead.

The above picture shows what it looked like when a current crew of historical heroes showed up to take care of this property in 2018.

"You should've seen it. Weeds, water, and waste everywhere, "says Dan Webster, one of the volunteers.

A historical group chose to do what they could put this area back into a respectable condition; much like it was in the 1870's. It took a lot of historical research, picture finding, and plenty of arm strength to do so.

They relocated the mine carts and wagons, uncovered several feet of connecting iron tracks, repurposed much of the brick and wood buildings around the mouth of the tunnel, and locked the gate to the tunnel so no trust passers would wander into its dangerous (and caved in) caverns.

They even redid the interior the machine shop to serve as a museum with photos and trinkets found in the tunnel and around the ghost town.

"Dan finds the historical photos but I'm documenting the restoration project," says Julie Michler, another volunteer.

The soon-to-be museum of Sutro Tunnel is slowly being put back together. Volunteers say it will take some more time and they're still searching for investors to fund the reconstruction projects.

While the area remains off limits, keep in mind there's people busting their backs rebuilding history which will soon let folks from around the world come see the engineering marvel that is Sutro's Tunnel.

Knowing Nevada is a historical heritage series that highlights some of the interesting, unknown, and known, tales about the state of Nevada. This series is researched and put together by our own native Nevadan, Miles Buergin. If you have any suggestions for our next Knowing Nevada, please e-mail him at:

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