Monday, September 14, 2009

Exploring A Legendary Lode: 'Mile-High Fever' At Washington College

Chestertown – The Old West comes east to Chestertown when Dennis Drabelle, author of Mile-High Fever: Silver Mines, Boom Towns and High Living on the Comstock Lode, offers a talk and book-signing at Washington College’s Litrenta Lecture Hall on Monday, September 21, at 7:30 p.m.

The talk is presented by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

Mile-High Fever is the rip-roaring, true saga of the Comstock Lode, the legendary silver-mining windfall of the late 19th-century American West.

The immense wealth extracted from the Lode spurred the growth of San Francisco, and Virginia City, the hell-raising town that sprang up above the mines, was the inspiration for the TV series “Bonanza.”

Innovations in Comstock mining—the use of underground “cubes” to avoid cave-ins and of elevators to bring ore to the surface—was adapted to make possible the modern skyscraper.

The boom also accentuated less positive themes in American history. Virginia City’s rapid growth created tension with the neighboring Northern Paiute Indians. The risks and expenses of deep mining lent themselves to stock-market manipulations and fraud on a grand scale.

To opportunists such as William M. Stewart, a mining lawyer and future U.S. Senator with a tenuous grasp of ethics, the Comstock experience confirmed that the West belonged to the crafty and the strong.

Perhaps the boom’s most lasting legacy, however, was the education it gave to a great American writer. In Virginia City, a young Mark Twain learned the value of plain but salty Western speech and saw how he might use the vivid reality of the frontier in the great books of his future.

In reviewing Mile-High Fever, Publishers Weekly enthused, “Drabelle introduces a vast cast of colorful characters as he explores how fortunes were won and lost, skillfully recreating the boom-and-bust atmosphere of this period in American history.”

Drabelle has written for The Atlantic Monthly, GQ, Film Comment, Civilization and Smithsonian. He is a contributing editor for The Washington Post Book World and won the National Book Critics Circle's Award (1996) for excellence in reviewing.

Litrenta Lecture Hall is located in the John S. Toll Science Center. Admission to Drabelle’s lecture is free and open to the public.

About the C.V. Starr Center

The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience explores our nation’s history – and particularly the legacy of its Founding era – in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large. From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown’s colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. Its guiding principle is that now more than ever, a wider understanding of our shared past is fundamental to the continuing success of America’s democratic experiment. For more information on the Center and on the Patrick Henry Fellowships, visit

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