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Mining on the American Frontier

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Old Prospector in New Mexico

Gold Prospector by Russell Lee, 1940.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!



Though various types of mines have existed across the nation, almost from the very discovery of America, those in the American West, are and were, the most plentiful and the history they've left in their wakes, is of romance, fortunes made and lost, hardships, greed, Indian Wars, and numerous crusty old ghost towns.


From the beginning, America presented an image of golden wealth, and that image has never been lacking to the rest of the world. A key factor in shaping the national character of this country, the discovery of gold and other precious metals in the American West accelerated western expansion, beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1848.


After the discovery go gold in California, which clearly showed how rich the strikes could be, more prospectors by the thousands headed west to explore every promising region in their search for wealth. To these many adventurers, no mountain was too high to climb, no canyon to precarious to descend, and no river too difficult to cross. They were a determined lot.


Though there was never another find that was as large as that of California, there were numerous others that led prospectors by the thousands to the west, sure that they would find their fortune. in 1859, gold was found near Denver, Colorado and the Comstock Lode was developed in Nevada. In the 1860s, precious minerals were found in eastern Oregon, Montana and Idaho. In the 1870's, more strikes were made in the Black Hills of South Dakota and in Tombstone, Arizona. Other finds led to boom camps in the Coeur d'Alene region in Idaho in 1883 and the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898.


Many states in the American West were originally settled primarily by prospectors and miners, including Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska. Though, these states and others had been traveled by explorers, trappers, and traders, there were far more miners than those other fearless pioneers. These states' histories are intimately tied to mining activities and many became territories and attained state status because of the mining activities.





California Gold Rush

Central Mine - Copper Ghost Preserved

The Comstock Lode

Early Mining Discoveries in Nevada

Fayette Historic Townsite

George Hearst - Mining King

Ghost Towns & Mining Camps

Glossary of Mining Terms

Gold Mining in America

Illinois Coal Mining Towns on Route 66

Keweenaw National Historic Park

Lost Mines of California

Miners' Ten Commandments

Mines of Idaho & Montana

Mining History in the United States

Mining and Miners in Arizona

Optimists Of The Hills

A Blind Miner And His Work in Mohave County

Arizona's Lost Mines

Mining the Investor, Not The Mine

Tombstone's Riches

Mining Methods and Claims

Nellie Cashman - Pioneer in the Mining Camps

The Old-Time Miners

Riot in Rock Springs Leads to Massacre

Silver Mining in the United States

Stay Out of That Old Mine

Tommyknockers of the Western Mines

Tragedies of Gold Seekers

Treasure Tales



What a clover-field is to a steer, the sky to a lark,

a mud hole to a hog, such are the new diggings

 to a miner.

--  The Oregonian, 1862




Frontier LingoThe early attention paid to mining, focused on gold and silver discoveries. However, later, discoveries of industrial minerals like coal, copper, iron, oil and gas, stimulated new and continued growth of settlements in the west.


There were a number of men that made their fortunes and gained fame for their mining activities such as George Hurst, who made his fortune in the Comstock Lode of Nevada, Horace Tabor, who became the silver king of Colorado after grubstaking a miner in Leadville; George W. MacKay, who also made his fortune in the Comstock Lode; and many others.


Alder Gulch, MontanaHowever, the vast majority became laborers, working for poor wages in dangerous environments and living in desolate communities. Their glamorous and romantic images of mining, were more often dashed as they performed back-breaking work and experienced numerous mining accidents.


Of the many mining camps of the American West, some were stimulated by other types of growth and they continue to exist today -- cities such as Butte, Montana; Silver City, New Mexico; El Dorado, California; and many more.


But others faded into insignificance, leaving behind only shells of their former selves, becoming ghost towns decades ago. Of yet more, there is no sign of their prosperous times whatsoever, with the exception of a debris-strewn and pockmarked landscape


The mining industry of the American West not only created fortunes and disappointment for the individual miners, but also played an important part in American labor history, mining technology, and the growth of geological knowledge. It was also responsible for displacing thousands of Native Americans, which ultimately led to a number of Indian Wars and their forcible removal to reservations. Another negative impact that these many mining booms left behind was tremendous scars on the environment, which are still being addressed today.

Today, there are hundreds of ghost towns in the
American West that give tribute to their more prosperous times. Some, like Bodie, California; Bannack, Montana; and Bayhorse, Idaho, have been preserved as state parks. More, have become commercial tourist destinations, such as Tombstone, Arizona; South Pass City, Wyoming; and Virginia City, Nevada. There are many more; however, that are slowly returning to the elements as their crumbling structures deteriorate over time. A few of these include places such as Comet, Montana; Delamar, Nevada; Steins, New Mexico; Miners Delight, Wyoming, and dozens of others.



Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June, 2017.




Old West Mining Slideshow:




These photos are available for prints and downloads HERE.


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