State historian criticizes BLM decision to raze 1920s mill near Virginia City

RENO — Nevada’s state historian is criticizing the federal government’s plans to demolish the last of what remains of a historic mining mill built near Virginia City nearly a century ago.

The Bureau of Land Management has decided to move forward with demolition of the United Comstock Merger Mill at American Flat. The agency said the crumbling ruins of the mill built in Storey County in 1922 are unsafe.

Acting historic preservation officer Rebecca Palmer said it’s a significant structure that should be preserved.

She told the Reno Gazette-Journal it should have been included within the National Historic Landmark encompassing most of Virginia City, but the National Park Service left it out by mistake. She said it probably would take a new act of Congress to protect it but acknowledges that’s unlikely.

BLM field manager Leon Thomas wrote in the formal decision on Wednesday the remaining eight structures at the complex must be razed to address “a risk to human health and safety.”

A 2008 audit of the site by the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General concluded it posed a “high-risk liability” to the government.

“It is a safety hazard. It’s very dangerous,” BLM spokeswoman Lisa Ross said. “The building is collapsing in areas. There have been injuries at the site. There was a fatality at the site.”

Built in 1922, the United Comstock Merger Mill was used to process locally mined gold and silver. At the time, it was the largest, most modern and sophisticated operation of its type in the country. It was shut down in 1926.

After closure, the mill was gutted of all equipment, metal and wood, with salvage operations resulting in significant damage to the remaining concrete structures. The structures deteriorated further over the years but became an irresistible destination for midnight keg parties and paint ball warriors.

A man driving an all-terrain vehicle on concrete steps inside one building was killed in May 1996 when the vehicle rolled over on top of him. The fatality prompted the BLM to close the mill to the public in 1997 . The BLM originally decided to tear the mill down in 2010 but withdrew its decision amid concern it had failed to follow proper historic preservation procedures.

An environmental assessment released in December resolves those concerns, the BLM contends.

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