Mining in the West

As appearing in The Gold Nugget, March 2006
by Paul Nagy

February's program featured an interesting and informative film entitled "Mining in the West." The miner was the pre-eminent character of manifest destiny and the European settlement of the Old West, not the fur trapper, rancher, or sod-buster. Beginning with the Spanish conquistadors, the lure of mining wealth spearheaded the exploration of the western wilderness.

James Marshall's gold discovery at Sutter's Mill in 1848 triggered the California rush that sent 300,000 souls surging westward. Afterward most slowly drifted back east, so that the country was actually explored and trailblazed from west to east. These men were nearly all financially poorer, but richer in life experience, including mining and wilderness survival, and they had acquired a self-reliance and independent spirit. Their discoveries led to the great mining camps of the second half of the nineteenth century, such as the Comstock of Nevada, Virginia City of Montana, and, of course, our own Central City, which spawned the Denver metropolitan area.

Gold was the initial mineral sought, but the search soon broadened to include silver, base metals, and coal. The last gold rush was at Goldfield, Nevada in 1905, a few years later than Colorado's Cripple Creek. Most mining camps were short-lived, but others lasted long enough for miners to bring or begin families. Many miners were imports from England and Ireland, and later from southern Europe. The early mining towns were comparable to eastern U.S. mill towns, with similar unhealthy and polluted conditions. Miners' pay was typically three or four times greater, but living costs were higher too. The mining towns tended to be law-abiding because justice was swift, although not necessarily fair. Sadly, the same prejudices existed too. Racism, sexism, and xenophobic suspicion prevailed and there was a disregard of native Indian land rights.

The film's scene then shifts to today's mining. Modern mining is as high tech as any other industry. Cybernetics and information technology increasingly abound. Most mining now is surface rather than underground. Gigantic robotic equipment, operated from remote locations by highly educated technicians dominate the field. Current ore grades are so low that the host rocks were once considered useless. Using modern reclamation techniques, mined lands are routinely left in a better condition than originally found.

If you live in a brick or stucco house, then three-quarters of the weight of that house is material that has been dug from the earth. But if you live in a wood frame house, then still two-thirds of the weight of that house is mined material. The building where you work is probably nearly all mined material; ditto the streets, sidewalks, bridges, and parking lots. Mining as much as anything has given us our high standard of living and status as a world super-power!

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