“Every few days news would come of the discovery of a brand-new mining region; immediately the papers would teem with accounts of its richness, and away the surplus population would scamper to take possession…’Humboldt! Humboldt!’ was the new cry…”
-Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)
For all the volcanic disfigurement and tectonic rearrangement wrought on Nevada’s lands over the millennia, it is perhaps only fitting that humans, too, would try their hand at earthmoving, beveling mountains and collapsing hillsides in their comparatively puny way. Probably those early miners were inspired upon reaching the Silver State, not by the awesome geologic processes that shaped its topography but by what those processes had created underneath, the veins of ore that branched up into rock and made men rich, sometimes fabulously, suddenly so. Inspired? Yes, those miners were inspired, without a doubt—to dig, to hoard, to loot, to kill, even. Myopic, avaricious, they saw a glimmer of hope—argent, ochre-hued hope—flashing from the barren hills. The minerals were a beacon for the desert, a siren’s call in an ancient seascape. Their presence gave men a rock-solid foundation to settling an otherwise forsaken land.
All life in the desert hinges upon water. All livelihood, for that matter. Miners drank it, of course, and used it power their mills and sluice their tailings, but ultimately it was water that gave rise to their quarry in the first place. It was water that brought those minerals up from the depths, crystallized the veins and precipitated the ores that so enthrall and enrich the miner. It was water, along with heat and immense pressure and inconceivable lengths of time—time in which a continent’s westering edge is stretched thin, broken into chunks that are variously lifted, eroded, lifted and eroded—that blessed Nevada with mineral richness.
Despite the Great Basin’s outward aridity, water is everywhere—but almost everywhere it is sunken, out of sight. Aquifers abound under layers of impermeable clay, hermetically sealed from the elements. They are not necessarily deep down, these desert oases. In some places the water table hovers as little as ten feet below the surface. Springs, hot and cool, provide the most obvious example of water’s presence in the desert. Tantalizingly accessible but bearing traces of subterranean tenure, spring water in the basin is often salty, bitter, or otherwise heavily mineralized. When the water is heated from below, it leaches minerals from surrounding rock and carries them along its burbling ascent, percolating through cracks and fissures and eventually depositing the dissolved minerals where it evaporates. It is an incredibly gradual process. Unimaginably slow. These deposits, kept under precise conditions that arose millions of years ago, became veins of gold, bands of copper, mountains of silver, quietly awaiting their time in the sun.
A James Hardin is credited as having found the first precious metal within the Winnemucca District, a vein of alloyed silver from the Black Rock Range in 1849. Initially mistaking it for lead, he took a chunk with him to Pentaluma, had it assayed as silver carbonate, and was thenceforth obsessed with obtaining more. Hardin swore up and down to anyone who would listen that a whole hillside of the stuff lay somewhere in the Black Rocks—if only he could find it again. He arranged a prospecting expedition in 1859 to relocate the silver ledge, as such deposits are called, but came back empty-handed. Another expedition in 1866 scoured the same area and purportedly found a small amount of silver; this discovery of the “Lost Hardin Mine,” as papers of the day dubbed it, prompted a 15,000-strong rush of prospectors to the area, eager to cash in. Thus Hardin City was founded, on dubious mineral assays, ten miles north of Double Hot Springs. With two stamp mills, a post office, and a bumptious, enterprising populace, it had all the makings of a boomtown—minus the boom. There was no silver to be found in Hardin City. Whoever claimed to have found the ledge was sorely mistaken. People quickly deserted the place, leaving it, in the words of one historian, “a city with 15 houses and a thousand rats.”
Hardin’s ill-fated discovery, along with the groundbreaking of the Comstock silver lode in 1859, helped usher in Nevada’s age of resource exploitation, an age of fast money and fickle fortune and loose moral strictures. It was an age of prodigious growth, in a place heretofore devoid of white humans. Onward from the mid-19th century thousands of miners came to Nevada seeking first silver, then copper and gold; also iron, salt, lime and lead. It is an oft-remarked irony among historians that as 49ers rushed along the Humboldt River toward Sutter’s Mill, California, and its abundance of gold, they unknowingly crossed over some of the richest silver deposits in the country. Later, in the 1880s, as uses were discovered for previously ignored metals and minerals, the miners came back from California for mercury and tungsten, antimony and gypsum, diatomite, sulfur, uranium.
Boomtowns with names like Hardscrabble, Star City, Leadville, and Gouge Eye were built and abandoned with equal alacrity. A typical mining establishment would unfold as follows: first wagon freighters would open supply lines to the site, furnishing a route. Then merchants and saloon keepers arrived, pitching their tents and laying planks between barrels for service counters. Soon professional gamblers, prostitutes, real estate speculators and seasoned criminals showed up. Almost all of the inhabitants were male; fights and duels to the death were common. Alcoholism and sexually transmitted disease were rampant. And as soon as the boom ran its course, the town was shuttered, almost inevitably. A telling trend of Nevada’s boom-bust cycle was the number of post offices erected and disused during the period: In the Winnemucca District alone, only 11 out of 80 remain. The miners’ mentality could be glibly summed up as, “Get it while the getting’s good, and then get out.” It was, as many have noted, not all that different from today’s extractive industries.
The General Mining Law of 1872—still in effect, by the way—greatly abetted all of this rapacious growth. Signed by President Ulysses S. Grant in a period when cries of “Manifest Destiny!” still graced headlines nationwide, the law promotes development and settlement of the western U.S. by essentially stating, “Come out to all this vast, public land, buy some cheap mineral rights, mine the shit out of it and make a fortune; we won’t charge you any royalties!” It allows mining interests to buy mineral rights—at $5 an acre—on public land and extract those resources without paying royalties to taxpayers, something other mining industries like coal, oil and natural gas can’t even get away with.
Today Nevada is a state all but defined by its minerals. Incidentally, it is now better known for its gold, not silver, production. The industry websites are more than happy to tout the statistics: Almost 80 percent of the gold in the U.S. is mined in the Silver State; it is the fourth largest producer in the world, with a 2009 yield of 5.6 million ounces worth more than $5 billion. It trails only Alaska as the nation’s top producer of silver. Something like 50,000 jobs are provided by the state’s multitudinous mining operations. Mining in Nevada, including exploration, mill sites, roads and tailings ponds, takes up approximately one-tenth of one percent of state land. That last, I think, is again testament to the trackless nature of the place. Its mining operations are huge, but by golly, Nevada is huger.
With the increasing refinement of extractive technology, Nevada’s miners are finding that its rocks continue to yield, 150 years after mineral-crazed humans first broke that desert ground—a little here, a little there, made worthwhile mostly by the sheer scale of the enterprise. Cyanide heap leaching is the current gold standard of extraction, used by all of Nevada’s twenty-one operating gold and silver mines. It is the only way to separate the infinitesimal amounts of gold—because those are all that remain, the refuse of miners past—from rock, and it involves processing quite a bit of rock to yield results. It’s said that 30 tons of waste material is dug, leached, and dumped for each ounce of gold produced. I don’t know if that’s true, but a mine doesn’t maintain a fleet of 80-ton-capacity dump trucks for nothing.