The Mining Frontier

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 did more than trigger the migration of tens of thousands of people hoping to make their fortune in the mineral‐rich West. It created a body of prospectors willing to go wherever a strike was made. When gold was found in British Columbia in 1857, prospectors streamed north into Canada. In the following year, the slogan was “Pikes Peak or Bust,” as news spread about gold in what is today Colorado. The Comstock Lode, which produced over $300 million in gold and silver over a twenty‐year period, was discovered in 1859 in western Nevada. Miners flocked to Idaho and Montana in the 1860s and followed the lure of gold into the Black Hills in the Dakota territory in 1875 (a violation of Sioux treaty rights that led to the Battle of the Little Bighorn). The last gold rush of the century brought miners to the Klondike region of Canada's Yukon Territory in 1897. The mining boom also brought government to the Mountain West, first through vigilante committees that provided swift justice to those who broke the law. Several areas became territories and states sooner than they would have without the mining rush. Nevada, for instance, was admitted to the Union in 1864, just five years after the discovery of the Comstock Lode.

Boom and bust on the mining frontier. The pattern was the same almost everywhere. With the discovery of gold or silver, prospectors rushed into an area to stake their claims, and small mining camps turned into boomtowns overnight, complete with dance halls, saloons, prostitutes, and astronomical prices for food and equipment. Those who really struck it rich were, more often than not, those who supplied the prospectors with what they needed, and not the prospectors themselves. Most of the mines played out quickly, and as people moved on to newer strikes, once bustling mining communities turned into ghost towns. If the deposits were rich, the mines were soon taken over by well‐financed corporate mining operations.

Surface deposits were quickly removed through placer mining in which a lone prospector panned for gold by a stream or a small group of men used a sluice to wash off larger amounts of dirt and sand. To get at the ore buried deep inside rock or veins of quartz, shafts had to be dug and shored up with timber, pumps installed to keep the tunnels dry, and mills set up to crush the rock and separate the precious metals. All this required heavy machinery, capital, and technical expertise provided by investors and large mining companies. Gold and silver were not the only sources of wealth on the mining frontier. Lead, zinc, and particularly copper were important as well. The Anaconda Mine in Montana, where copper ore was extracted, smelted, and refined, helped make the United States the world's leading producer of copper in the 1880s.

Labor on the mining frontier. The shift from placer to hard‐rock mining meant that independent prospectors became laborers, paid either by the day or the week. Work in the mines was hard and dangerous, and the pay was usually low. Miners of the Comstock Lode went on strike as early as 1864 for higher wages, shorter hours, and better working conditions, and although unions such as the Miners Protective Association had wide support throughout the mining frontier, opposition to them was also strong. In 1892, state and federal troops were used to break up a strike in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where the miners were seeking company recognition of their union. This conflict led to the formation of the Western Federation of Miners under the leadership of William “Big Bill” Haywood. A number of the WFM's 50,000 members also became an important force in the even more militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”), founded by Haywood in 1905.

From the days of the California gold rush, mining attracted an ethnically diverse labor force, including Chinese, Irish, Mexican, and new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Racial discrimination among these groups was rife. More often than not, whites actually worked the mines while Chinese or Mexicans served as muckers, who loaded and dumped the ore cars, or as simple laborers taking away surface rubble. Such unskilled jobs paid considerably less than the wages miners received. On those parts of the mining frontier where Chinese and Mexican workers were not common, another hierarchy of labor based on ethnicity emerged, with Americans and Irish working as the miners while recent arrivals from Italy, Greece, or the Balkans took on the menial tasks.