Rodman Wilson Paul, Mining Frontiers of the Far West 1848-1880 (1963; 2nd ed., 1980).
To begin: an animated GIF showing mining landscapes, in particular the expansion of the Hobet Mine in Boone County, West Virginia:
Today, I will move through genres of mining, and discuss the different kinds of marks they leave on the landscape. We'll also talk about different elements that we extract, and how those extraction processes differ in their reshaping of lanscape. We'll talk a little about what may be foreign to many of us: the history behind why strip mining makes sense from a certain perspective; and we'll glance at how much of our lives depend on things taken out of the ground that cannot be replaced in any other way. We'll close today talking through the history of one iconic mining event: the 1849 California Gold Rush.
Coal, particularly anthracite coal, was the fundamental fuel of the Industrial Revolution. The 19th-century is unimaginable without what coal added to the political economy of the world. For today, let's look at a map of coal distribution in North America. Pennsylvania anthracite was the beginning of coal mining in this country; the softer version, bituminous coal, began to mined with the coming of the railroad.
One theme of this lecture is that coal relies on some form of cheap transport; the mining history we'll be talking about was predicated on the railroads. The railroads open up mining: mining was revolutionized by rail transport.
As you may know, coal is formed when plant fibers are compressed over long amounts of time to form calorie-intensive fibers: peat, then lignite, then bituminous coal, then anthracite coal. Most of the vegetation making coal possible dated from the Carboniferous Period (360-300 million years ago).
How do you go about extracting the valuable coal and leaving behind the value-less surrounding material? You have two options: underground mining and surface strip mining. In the 19th century, mining took place entirely underground: running a shaft underground, propping up the ceiling of the tunnel, and extracting a seam of coal while hoping that the ceiling would not collapse on you as you mined out rock supporting it. So mining (and farming) were among the most dangerous forms of labor. This was a very complicated process: removing tunnels in a grid, with enough of the coal left in place to hold up the bulk of the ceiling, was quite an engineering feat.
Most of the workforce was drawn from Western European populations who came to the U.S. with their mining skills and would be an immigrant workforce. Right up until the second decades of the twentieth century, children also worked in coal mines. Though we won't talk much about the labor history of this process, I urge to remember who was doing this backbreaking work, and how the demographics of the labor force changed over time.
If we look at graphs of coal production in the United States starting in the 1870s, we are watching the replacement of fuel wood by coal. This replacement happened only in the last few decades of the 19th century. You can see that coal production peaked in the 1920s, fell off predictably in the 1930s Great Depression, and then rose again after 1930s electrification made demand for that energy source possible, along with the coal burned to generate that electricity.
Surface mining, by contrast to underground mining, involves removing the overlying rock, exposing the coal seam, then scraping the coal from the surrounding rock and removing it in enormous vehicles. Notice that there is a trade-off with surface mining: the efficiency of the process, the ecological implications, and the safety of the workers. The significant drop in mining fatalities between 1930 and 1970 was largely a function of the move from underground mining to surface mining. The other factor also driving the drop in fatalities was federal legislation, both environmental and safety-regulating. This changed extraction process and changed legislation moved mining from an indistry in which thousands died every year to one in which fatalities had dropped by an order of magnitude.
So why does strip mining leave particular marks on the land?
When extracting minerals or elements from the ground, you are hugely increasing the surface-area-to-volume ratio, meaning you are creating more surface area on the mineral itself to react with compounds in the surrounding environment. When sulfide minerals in crushed rock react with oxygen and water, you end up with sulfuric groundwater, a big problem in areas that are strip mined. Acidic water, in turn, can release many heavy metals from the surrounding soil. So acidic groundwater lasts for decades to centuries, and has consequences of how much lead and arsenic is in the local water supply.
One of the quirkier things that coal does is that it catches fire. If a coal mine starts to burn, it is extremely difficult to put out because of the fuel load. A fire in a mine can last for decades, even for centuries. One of the most famous coal mines in American history began in an exposed surface pit in the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. The town was using an abandoned mining pit as a trash heap, and on May 27, 1962, the fire started in the pit and spread to the nearby coal underground coal seam. The fire is still burning today, and experts predict that it may continue to burn for as many as 250 years.
So that's coal. For most of today's lecture, I will focus on minerals in many of the western United States, including Wisconsin.
Wisconsin does have a crucial mining history. Lead was found at Mineral Point in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1820s, and large-scale settlement began to occur around the end of the 1820s. So we can see that the early Euroamerican history of settlement in this state—as opposed to transience fur trading and exploration, as with Marquette and Joliet, who we've met multiple times—began with lead mining. We see this mining history reflected in the seal of the State of Wisconsin. Lead mining began in the 1820s and 1830s in the southeastern corner of what would become the State of Wisconsin, near Illinois. In fact, Galena, IL was at one point even more populous than Chicago because it was a product of this mining boom.
Lead, zinc, and other minerals in the Upper Mississippi Valley are very unusual: you don't usually expect to find metals in sedimentary rock because they are not deposited with sedimentary rock, they have to migrate into sedimentary rock. Geologists' best hypothesis for how these minerals ended up here links the mountain-forming processes that made the Appalachian Mountains. That geological process heated and put pressure on bedrock, which allowed groundwater to carry minerals perhaps hundred of miles and embed them in crevices in the dolomites of southwestern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois.
You can visit the ruins of a lead shot tower mining production facility in Spring Green today at Tower Hill State Park. Lead is quite malleable even when cold, making it great for working with: this explains its popularity historically for making pipes, shot, and white paint—even as we today know of its toxic consequences for human health. Asking "Why were people digging this stuff up?" is a crucial question to keep track of when thinking about mining history.
So if we ask about landscapes of lead mining extraction, Mineral Point is not a bad place to go. Let's look at this aerial image of the area as it exists today. Zooming in on this aerial reveals an area of old lead mining, the Pendarvis restaurant as an icon of LGBTQ history, and the Cornish architecture that immigrant miners brought over with them and recreated in an American landscape.
Across the street from Pendarvis is this hillside, which is littered with "badger holes:" small mining shafts that were hand-dug and from which minerals near the surface were extracted. We can even see the footprint of these hand-dug holes on LIDAR photos of the area today, one example of a trace on the landscape. We can also see in the landscape the spill (gentle declining slope) used to process ore: ore to be processed was carted out of the mine, dumped down a long spill, and processed. We'll see this same shape at a larger scale elsewhere in this lecture. One theme that's going to run through this lecture is that as mining techniques progress, engineers show a tendency to drill ever deeper, creating arguably ever-more-dangerous conditions as minerals closer to the surface become less plentiful.
Why are mineral resources located where they are? This isn't a geology class, but talking about the distribution of mineral resources requires that we think geologically. One process by which metals are made is volcanic: a volcanic eruption or magmatic intrusion migrates into surface rock. Another process is sedimentary: groundwater moving through surface rock can pick up valuable minerals and, just below the leach zone, can deposit large amounts of those same minerals in porous host rock. The net of that is that you'll find precious minerals in sedimentary rock where you wouldn't have expected to find them.
Finally, there is another kind of deposit called a placer deposit (pronounced "plasser," not "play-ser") where erosion makes minerals gather in a stream or a river bed. It doesn't take much technology or much capital to extract metals in this form: all you need is a shovel and a pan. Contrast that with trying to extract minerals from the matrix rock itself: a much more capital-intensive kind of mining.
Here's a map of mining activities in the United States. Notice the distribution of the precious metal mines operating in the U.S. today. Notice the distribution of the non-precious metal mines operating in the U.S. today. And here is a map of historically significant mining strikes in the U.S.
We see mining leaving all sorts of marks in the landscape.
In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, there was large-scale copper mining.
Berkeley Pitt in Butte, Montana, dug beginning in the 1950s, expanded over the subsequent decades to be a third of a mile deep. On Earth Day, in 1982, the holding company turned off the pumps keeping water out of the pit and it filled with extremely acidic water. So though mining is largely an invisible landscape because it is underground, it does leave some surface traces.
Telluride, Colorado: An old silver mining area that is now home to many ski resorts and other recreational uses. This is a map of the active mining claims in this landscape. The struggle over whether these areas will ever be mined again is a key part of the politics in Telluride today.
Here's another example of a mark on the landscape: this Belvedier, Vermont asbetos mine is not actively mined today, but a large amount of till was dug while it was active. That leftover from the mining is full of asbetos fiber, which we know to be extremely carcinogenic today.
Thus far in class, we've talked about (1) a taxonomy of mines; (2) the geology that puts those minerals in place; (3) the processes of extraction: and (4) ways of reading the marks mining leaves on the ground. Now I'm going to tell you the story of one of the most famous mining rushes in the history of the United States; and I will layer on a story of how mining evolved in the middle of the 19th century that you can see on the landscape today.
The great discover that drove a whole series of mining rushes in the California Gold Rush was made in January 24, 1848 at John Sutter's Sawmill, by James Marshall. Marshall, seeing flakes of gold in the mill race, wondered whether more was nearby. There was an immediate rush, and San Francisco partially depopulated as fortune-seekers headed towards Sacramento. When the news reaches the East Coast in the middle of 1848, people began to make plans—but it took many a long time to travel to California, which is why fortune-seekers were called "Forty-Niners," even though the gold was found in '48.
Some Forty-niners traveled overland, and some sailed south to the isthmus of Panama, then walked across Panama and boarded a ship that sailed up the west coast.
San Francisco's population exploded: in 1847, San Francisco had only 459 inhabitants. Two years later it had 25,000. So this tiny little town on a peninsula becomes the great entrepot supplying goods to all the miners: hardware, shovels, clothes, pans, food. "The Big Four" of the Central Pacific Railroad—Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—made their initial fortunes not as gold miners but as merchants selling to the miners. The German Jewish seller Levi Strauss, of the denim company making jeans with metal grommets, is maybe the name you know best from this period.
Miners would go out on foot as individuals or in small assemblages of men who might bring wives, often Native American or Latina, and began looking for placer deposits. Eventually small towns began to crop up, as did processes of panning for gold that were ever more capital-intensive. So we see more and more manipulation of the landscape as the California Gold Rush progressed. Eventually, with the realization that the Sierra Nevada Mountains were hillsides of gravel that might hold gold throughout, haudraulic mining began in the 1870s. Another process, arrastra (the use of mercury to collect flakes of gold) was also employed as an extraction technique.
Mining was not without its violence: Euroamerican miners slaughtered huge number of Native Americans. Chinese workers and Latino/a workers, too, were often targeted, despite their necessity to the mining labor pool.
Finally, moving huge amounts of earth required new forms of transportation and new forms of capital investment.
Monday's lecture will be about a remarkable event called the Great Diamond Hoax, and to set up that lecture I'll tell you about the Comstock Rush.