Modern history

The Mining Frontier

Among the settlers pouring into Indian Territory in the Rocky Mountains were miners in search of gold and silver. These prospectors envisioned instant riches that would come from a lucky strike. The vast majority found only backbreaking work, danger, and frustration. Miners continued to face hardship and danger as industrial mining operations took over from individual prospectors, despite the efforts of some miners to fight for better wages and working conditions. By 1900 the mining rush had peaked, and many of the boomtowns that had cropped up around the mining industry had emptied out.

The Business of Mining

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 had set this mining frenzy in motion. Over the next thirty years, successive waves of gold and silver strikes in Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas lured individual prospectors with shovels and wash pans. One of the biggest finds came with the Comstock Lode in the Sierra Nevada. All told, miners extracted around $350 million worth of silver from this source. Two of those who came to share in the wealth were Samuel Clemens and his brother Orion. Writing from Carson City, Nevada, Samuel described his new surroundings to his family: “The country is fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper, lead . . . thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies . . . lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes . . . poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits.” He did not find his fortune in Nevada and soon turned his attention to writing, finally achieving success as the author called Mark Twain.

Like Twain, many of those who flocked to the Comstock Lode and other mining frontiers were men. Nearly half were foreign-born, many of them coming from Mexico or China. Using pans and shovels, prospectors could find only the ore that lay near the surface of the earth and water. Once these initial discoveries were played out, individual prospectors could not afford to buy the equipment needed to dig out the vast deposits of gold and silver buried deep in the earth. As a result, western mining operations became big businesses run by men with the financial resources necessary to purchase industrial mining equipment.

When mining became an industry, prospectors became wageworkers. In Virginia City, Nevada, miners labored for $4 a day, which was a decent wage for the time, but one that barely covered the monthly expenses of life in a mining boomtown. Moreover, the work was extremely dangerous. Mine shafts extended down more than a thousand feet, and working temperatures regularly exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Noxious fumes, fires, and floods of scalding water flowing through the shafts posed a constant threat. Between 1863 and 1880, at least three hundred miners died on the job, and accidents were a daily occurrence, leaving many men disabled and out of work with no compensation.

Struggling with low pay and dangerous work conditions, western miners sought to organize. In the mid-1860s, unions formed in the Comstock Lode areas of Virginia City and Gold Hill, Nevada. Although these unions had some success, they also provoked a violent backlash from mining companies determined to resist union demands. Companies hired private police forces to help break strikes. Such forces were often assisted by state militias deployed by elected officials with close ties to the companies. For example, in 1892 the governor of Idaho crushed an unruly strike by calling up the National Guard, a confrontation that resulted in the deaths of seven strikers. A year later, mine workers formed one of the most militant labor organizations in the nation, the Western Federation of Miners. Within a decade, it had attracted fifty thousand members. However, union solidarity did not extend to all races and ethnicities. The union was made up of members from Irish, English, Italian, Slavic, and Greek backgrounds but excluded Chinese, Mexican, and Indian workers from its ranks.

Life in the Mining Towns

Men worked the mines, but women flocked to the area as well. In Storey County, Nevada, the heart of the Comstock Lode, the 1875 census showed that women made up about half the population. Most employed women worked long hours as domestics in boardinghouses, hotels, and private homes. Prostitution, which was legal, accounted for the single largest segment of the female workforce. Most prostitutes were between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four, and they entered this occupation because few other well-paying jobs were available to them. The demand for their services remained high among the large population of unmarried men. Yet prostitutes faced constant danger, and many were victims of physical abuse, robbery, and murder.

Boomtowns like Virginia City sported a wild assortment of miners. They sought relief in taverns, brothels, and opium dens. In Butte, Montana, miners frequented bars with such colorful names as “Bucket of Blood,” “The Cesspool,” and “Graveyard.” They boarded in houses run by characters nicknamed “Mag the Rag,” “Take-Five Annie,” “Ellen the Elephant,” and “The Racehorse.” A folk tune described Butte’s annual gala event, the “Hopheads’ [drug addicts’] Ball”:

All the junkies were invited

Yes every gink [skinny man] and muff [prostitute]

Not a single one was slighted

If they were on the stuff [opium].

Invitations were presented

To every hustler and her man.

They even sent up invites

To the hopheads in the can [jail].

As early as the 1880s, gold and silver discoveries had played out in the Comstock Lode. Boomtowns, which had sprung up almost overnight, now became ghost towns as gold and silver deposits dwindled. Even more substantial places like Virginia City, Nevada, experienced a severe decline as the veins of ore ran out. One revealing sign of the city’s plummeting fortunes was the drop in the number of prostitutes, which declined by more than half by 1880. The mining frontier then shifted from gold and silver to copper, lead, and zinc, centered in Montana and Idaho. As with the early prospectors in California and Nevada, these miners eventually became wageworkers for giant consolidated mining companies. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Amalgamated Copper Company and the American Smelting and Refining Company dominated the industry.

Mining towns that survived, like Butte, became only slightly less rowdy places, but they did settle into more complex patterns of urban living. Though the population remained predominantly young and male, the young men were increasingly likely to get married and raise families. Residents lived in neighborhoods divided by class and ethnicity. For example, in Butte the west side of town became home to the middle and upper classes. Mine workers lived on the east side in homes subdivided into apartments and in boardinghouses. “The houses were almost skin to skin,” one resident described the area, “and boy, there were kids all over in the neighborhood.” The Irish lived in one section; Finns, Swedes, Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenes in other sections. Each group formed its own social, fraternal, and religious organizations to relieve the harsh conditions of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and discrimination. Residents of the east side relied on one another for support and frowned on those who deviated from their code of solidarity. “They didn’t try to outdo the other one,” one neighborhood woman remarked. “If you did, you got into trouble. . . . If they thought you were a little richer than they were, they wouldn’t associate with you.” Although western mining towns retained distinctive qualities, in their social and ethnic divisions they came to resemble older cities east of the Mississippi River.


• How and why did the nature of mining in the West change during the second half of the nineteenth century?

• How did miners and residents of mining towns reshape the frontier landscape?

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