Thousands of optimistic Americans and even a few foreigners dreamed of finding a bonanza of valuable ore, and retiring at a very young age.
Ten years after the 1849 California Gold Rush, new deposits were found throughout the West. Colorado yielded gold and silver and Nevada claimed the Comstock Lode, the largest of American silver strikes.
From Coeur D’Alene in Idaho to Tombstone in Arizona, Boom Towns flowered across the American west. They produced gold, silver, zinc, copper and lead, all essential for the eastern Industrial Revolution. Soon the west was filled with ne’er-do-wells hoping to strike it rich.
Few were lucky—the chances of an individual prospector finding a valuable lode were slim. The gold-seeker often worked in a streambed with a tin pan. After shaking, the heavier gold nuggets would sink to the bottom. Rarely was anything found of substantial size. Once the loose chunks of gold were removed from the surface, large machinery was required to split the quartz where the elusive gold was hidden. This was too much for an individual prospector. Eastern investors conducted these ventures and profited handsomely. Those who were not as lucky often went to work in the mines of the Eastern financiers.
Western mining wrought havoc on the local environment. Rock dust from drilling was often dumped into riverbeds, forming silt deposits downstream that flooded towns and farmlands. Poisonous underground gases, mostly containing sulfur were released into the atmosphere. Mercury polluted local streams and rivers. Strip mining caused erosion. Little was done to regulate the mining industry until the turn of the 20th century.
Each mining bonanza required a town. Men were nine times the population of women in some towns. Mexican immigrants were common, the Native Americans avoided the mining industry. Many African Americans aspired to the same get-rich-quick idea as whites. Until excluded by federal law in 1882, Chinese Americans were numerous in mining towns.
It is these mining towns that often conjure images of the mythical American Wild West. Most did have a saloon with swinging doors and a player piano. But miners and prospectors worked all day; few had the luxury of spending it at the bar. By nighttime, most were too tired.
Weekends might bring folks out to the saloon for gambling or drinking. Law enforcement was crude. Many towns could not afford a sheriff, so vigilante justice prevailed.
When the bonanza was at its zenith, the town prospered. But eventually the mines were exhausted or proved fruitless. Slowly its inhabitants left, leaving behind a ghost town.
Source: The Mining Boom
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