Panning for gold near Virginia City, Mont. Territory, 1871
Mining in the West
Hundreds of thousands of emigrants headed west after gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1848. Following a get-rich-quick dream, the Miners brought few tools with them, planning to pan for gold in the clear mountain streams or, if a little more ambitious, build a slue and jostle the dirt and light debris loose, hoping to find bits of gold left behind. They sometimes found as much as $8,000 dollars of gold in a single day.
Miner working inside the Comstock Mine, Virginia City, Nevada, 1867-1868
Miners made gold and silver strikes throughout the West, including Washington, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and the Dakotas. At first, individual miners used a process called placer mining to get at the gold but as the surface gold ran out, mining became an extractive industry organized by companies rather than individual prospectors. Heavy equipment and many workers were needed to dig deeply into the earth to pull out the gold and silver. Hydraulic mining depended on reservoirs of water and flumes that could shoot a high pressurewall of water at the earth, stripping back the soil to reveal potential veins of gold and silver.
Prospectors soon became wage-workers, digging and blasting for minerals in dangerous conditions. Extreme heat exhaustion and lung diseases were common, and historians believe that as many as 7,500 men died digging for gold and silver in the West while more than 20,000 were maimed.
Alaska proved to be one of the last American gold mining frontiers. When miners discovered gold in the Klondike fields of the Yukon regions of Alaska and Canada in the 1890s and early 1900s, some of the heavy consequences of mining to humans and the environment were memorialized, most notably by author Jack London. London adopted a powerful plot line of conquest to describe the gold miners of the Yukon in his works of fiction. He saw miners as necessary participants in the much broader and more important process of bringing civilization to the frontier. He placed the Yukon gold rush into the white man’s story of conquest over nature and savagery.
Hydraulic gold mining near Virginia City, Montana Territory. A flume is laid upon bedrock in the bottom of Alder Gulch and the waters of the creek brought through it, carrying the auriferous sand. The sides of the gulch are washed away into sluice boxes where the gold is collected. 1871
In reality these linkages were subtle at first but then became drastic. Large-scale placer mining in the Yukon gold fields of Alaska extracted gold, but left ruined lands, rivers, and polluted landscapes behind. Hydraulic mining stripped the river valleys of soil and water, leaving devastation in their wake.