New Film Synopsis

Now that we’ve completed our first rough cut edit, we’ve decided to write a new film synopsis as well. It describes the general story of the documentary and how we’re telling it. Have a read, and we hope you are as enthralled about viewing the final cut as we are. Enjoy:

“I would have been more or less than human if I’d not gone mad like the rest. Solid Silver Bricks!”
Mark Twain

The Gold Rush of 1849—ask what the signature period in the history of San Francisco is and you will invariably get this answer. And yet there is another period that is far less known—a period of even more frenzied pursuit of wealth, of larger-than-life titans battling for dominance, of a lasting impact on the Far West and on the United States as a whole. This is the story of the Bonanza Age—the discovery and exploitation of silver between 1859 and 1880—and how it transformed San Francisco into a world-class city, a CITY OF WHITE GOLD.

By 1859 the Gold Rush is over, but miner Henry Comstock and his colleagues are not giving up. While prospecting east of the Sierra Nevada they come upon gold. Sadly this gold is mixed in with a blue-black mud that obstructs their ability to get at the precious metal. They send a sample of the mud to California for testing: it assays out at $500 a ton in gold, but over $3000 a ton in silver.

And so begins the discovery of the Comstock Lode and the ensuing silver rush, a twenty-year period of boom and bust, of all walks of life caught up in a stock-buying mania, of fortunes made and lost. During the Gold Rush the 49ers were able to excavate surface deposits. But this silver rush is different: the ore bodies lie scattered deep within the ground, sometimes thousands of feet below. It calls for a new type of mining: capital and labor intensive hardrock mining.

Enter the story’s major players: William Chapman Ralston, a riverboat clerk-turned-banker who creates the Bank of California to provide the capital needed to finance the mining; William Sharon, a high-stakes poker player and Ralston’s partner who opens a branch of the bank on the Comstock; a group of Irishmen led by miner John MacKay that challenges the Ralston monopoly; and engineer Adolph Sutro, who has plans for a four mile underground tunnel to ventilate the mines.

Drama ensues. Ralston’s monopoly thrives, and he channels profits into developing his home city. Golden Gate Park, the cable car system, the Victorian architecture boom—all benefit from his largesse. But problems also arise: labor riots; devastating stock market volatility; challenges from “The Irishmen” and from Sutro; and treachery against Ralston by his own partner Sharon.

By 1880 most of these stories come to an unfortunate end: Ralston overextends his empire, is discovered to have embezzled from his own bank, and then dies mysteriously; Sharon takes over Ralston’s assets, only to be taken over himself by a sex scandal dubbed “Trial of the Century;” Sutro completes his tunnel but, thanks to the interference of other silver titans, reaches it too late—the Comstock bonanzas are entirely depleted (he later, however, has the pleasure of becoming mayor of San Francisco and one of its greatest benefactors).

But for all its highs and lows, the one constant of the Bonanza Age is that the groundwork was laid for San Francisco becoming the cosmopolitan metropolis it is today, with a widespread reach across the nation and across oceans. CITY OF WHITE GOLD is a historical documentary that will tell this story through narration, interviews with historians, and first-person voiceover accounts quoted by actors. We will watch the explosive growth of the Far West through a treasure trove of archival photos and illustrations, animated graphics, and reenactments. We will travel to the haunting site of the Comstock Lode and inside its mysterious mines. We will hear songs of the period and rich Sound Design that capture the vibrancy of the place and time.

Far from being a dry history lesson, CITY OF WHITE GOLD will be a visually stunning and dramatic window into this crucial period of San Francisco history for PBS viewers, students, history lovers, and simply anyone who wants a fresh perspective on their extraordinary American heritage.

Published in: on September 2, 2015 at 4:03 am  Leave a Comment