Nevada’s 20th Century Mining Camps

(This article originally appeared in 2015 as a guest blog on author Suzanne Adair’s Relevant History website. Excerpted passages from WIDOWMAKER have been updated to reflect the most current version [4-13-17].)

In the late 19th Century, Nevada was in trouble. Existential trouble. The Silver State was mired in a vicious, twenty-year depression, with no indications that things would ever improve. Certainly, since 1859, mines tapping the incredible Comstock Lode had produced staggering volumes of silver and gold, but its output had peaked in 1877 (that year, producing bullion worth nearly $800M at 2015 prices[1]) and thereafter dropped steadily. Subsequent booms—the Reese River excitement in 1862; the White Pine rush in 1868; and Olinghouse and Searchlight in the 1890s—were smaller or shorter-lived than the Comstock’s had been. Nevada’s economy stalled and its population plunged. Without mining, what was left? Other industries—timber, ranching, etc.—were small-time and employed relatively few. Of course, gambling was widespread but accounted for just a tiny portion of Nevada’s economy; cards, roulette, and other games of chance served primarily as local diversions for miners and cowhands—probably only a handful of pre-1950s tourists traveled to Nevada solely to gamble.

Slowly, Nevada hollowed out. The 1880 Census lists 62,262 residents, but by 1900 the population had dropped to 42,335, with just five counties accounting for sixty-two percent of this total.[2] More-populous states resented this wasteland’s two Senatorial votes, and newspaper editors back East began agitating for the revocation of Nevada’s statehood and redistributing its lands among its neighbors.

Of course, the prospectors never left. New strikes occurred during this period, but only a few—such as Edgemont and Delamar, both in the 1890s—amounted to much once their shallow mineral deposits pinched out. Then in 1903, James L. Butler (according to eminent Nevada historian Sally Zanjani, more probably Tom Fisherman, a Shoshone Indian and possibly the finest prospector ever to work in Nevada) discovered an enormous silver deposit at Tonopah.[3] The resulting boom rekindled interest in Nevada’s mines and waves of people and money followed. Latecomers fanned out across the desert and for the next several years, strike followed strike: Fairview, Manhattan, Wonder, Seven Troughs, Rhyolite, Round Mountain, Ruth, and, grandest of all, Goldfield (where, again, credit for discovery goes to Tom Fisherman[4]). The 1910 U.S. Census of Nevada counted 81,875 residents—proof that the state recovered all of its lost population and then some.

What I find particularly fascinating about this period is the admixing of old and new. Technologically, philosophically, and politically, the Old West wasn’t quite dead, but it was dying. In Nevada, the old and new often collided: staid Mormon colonies and wide-open mining camps existed within a few miles of each other; some towns ran on wood stoves and horsepower while others had electric lights, telephones, and water lines; and mine owners and stockbrokers grew rich, while miners—lacking what we recognize today as basic workplace rights and safeguards—were maimed and killed at an alarming rate. Add to this scenario conflicting political and philosophical outlooks (unions and businessmen’s protective associations; Socialism, Progressivism, and conservatism), Indian and race-related issues, and major cataclysms such as the Spanish American War and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and it is apparent how tumultuous this era must have been.

Technology

Nevada’s complex geology and relative isolation spurred several technological innovations. Engineers working the Comstock Lode, larger and deeper than previously known deposits, developed square-set timbering—a system of interlocking timbers that enabled miners to span and support enormous voids inside the earth. Other advances included braided-metal cables, high-volume pumps, improved ventilation systems, and the use of compressed air-driven machinery. For transportation, while railroads remained paramount and horse-drawn wagons prevalent, after 1900, automobiles slowly began supplanting both. As well, gasoline engines increasingly replaced expensive steam-driven equipment, e.g., for powering smaller mine hoists. The era of the single-burro, pick-and-shovel miner was ending.

Philosophy

Along with these technical advances, big business came to supplant the individual producer as Nevada’s principal economic model. Deep mines required vast reservoirs of capital to develop and operate, and the owners went to great lengths to protect their returns. Some hired private detectives or convinced state governors to call out state militias or Federal troops to stamp out unions such as the Western Federation of Miners, whose members demanded safer working conditions and a share of the profits. Only with the Great Depression did small-time mining return to Nevada as a major economic driver. As well, the leasing system—where owners leased all or portions of their claims for others to develop in exchange for a royalty on production—and widespread use (and misuse) of stock markets to finance development became commonplace.

Politics

Colorado’s 1904 labor wars resulted in an exodus of radicalized miners from that state, many of whom relocated to Nevada. Having seen firsthand what businessmen would do in order to protect their positions, miners formed aggressive unions as a counterweight. Progressives and Socialists battled with business owners who they saw as too rich and too out-of-touch for the health of the republic.

Setting

To be blunt, I’m not usually a fan of the way movies and fiction often portray life in frontier mining camps. Writers often blend regionalisms and anachronisms into a pastiche of batwing saloon doors, gunfights, and prostitutes—more akin to that era’s pulp-novels than reality. The Nevada of my stories has these things, too, but they’re in the background. Mines, miners, and mining are front and center. They have to be.

Here’s an excerpt from Silver State that addresses some of the interplay between miners and company security:

Pulling up crews from the big mines is no small chore. Dozens of men working at various levels assemble in stations along the shaft, waiting to be hoisted to the surface, eight to ten at a time. Some properties interconnect and during emergencies men can make their way into other mines and ascend using their cages, but normal operations require miners to exit through a company’s change room. There, company officials watch as they strip off their work clothes, looking for evidence of highgrading. Miners and their unions say it’s humiliating, having to undress in front of suspicious eyes, but the Association estimates it’s reduced ore theft by more than eighty percent. I’ve worked shifts as a watchman in the change rooms and let me tell you, the embarrassment and resentment are mutual.

Location and Appearance

“Like a tin can, a mining camp often lies where it is thrown.” This quote from a 19th newspaper editor[5] suggests that camps were built where they could best support nearby mines (indeed, Nevada is dotted with “Old” and “New” versions of the same town—Reveille and New Reveille, old and new Fairview, and Old Bullion and New Bullion, et. al.—rebuilt once residents recognized that the original locations were inconvenient to the mines). Movie sets, on the other hand, are built on the cheap, usually on a flat parcel with mountains as a backdrop—no mines in sight. This is wrong.

Hardship, Boom and Bust

The archetype of the lonely prospector hoisting a nugget and shouting “Eureka!” was far outside most miners’ experiences. Most toiled for twelve-hour shifts in the smoky gloom of poorly-ventilated tunnels, drilling and blasting ore containing minerals invisible to the naked eye. Many companies—indeed, many camps—operated on a shoestring, just one bad month away from bankruptcy. I’ve tried to inject some of that precariousness into Silver State:

Typical for this corner of the district, the Black Cat Mine is a shirttail outfit. Its dumps are small. Full-time crew of six, around four-hundred feet of drifts, and three buildings clustered near the main incline’s mouth. A concrete magazine for storing explosives hunkers in the woods a hundred yards to the south. I know this because I have one of the keys to it. To date, I don’t think the property has produced more than a few carloads of shipping ore. Could be the Association keeps it going just so that those of us in security have someplace we can put in scutwork without attracting attention. Or maybe it’s a blue-sky concern, operating just so our boss’s agents can curb stock in San Francisco and New York. Again, I don’t know.

Hopefully these details help evoke the gritty reality of Nevada’s 20th Century mining camps.

Footnotes

[1] Wikipedia, Comstock Lode, Later Years

[2] Forstall, Richard L., Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990, 3/27/95, All population figures quoted are from this document

[3] Zanjani, Sally, Goldfield, the Last Gold Rush on the Western Frontier, 1992, Swallow Press/University of Ohio Press, pp. 9-13. While traditionally Harry Stimler and William Marsh are credited with Goldfield’s discovery, most accounts acknowledge that they were following up on Fisherman’s initial find.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Paher, Stanley W., Nevada’s Ghost Towns & Mining Camps, 1970, Nevada Publications, p. 257, Unattributed quote used in a photo caption

 

2017-04-21T20:56:26+00:00 May 17th, 2015|History|0 Comments

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