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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Mining in the West

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Mineral rushes transformed the American West, stimulating large-scale migration, demands for transportation, and creating new economies and societies in the process. Once word spread back East of the discovery of gold in California, tens of thousands of men began streaming west, on steamships via the Panama or Cape Horn routes or, more commonly, across the continent on the overland trails.

The first miners found gold nuggets in the rivers and simply washed the dirt through pans or boxes, leaving the gold in the bottom. Soon they exhausted all such easily obtainable gold and more difficult shaft mining began, requiring more labor, technical knowledge, and capital.

Many other rushes followed the California gold rush--in the 1850s in Nevada and Colorado, in the 1860s in Wyoming and Montana, and in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1870s. The miners who swarmed to find riches demanded services. As a result, mining towns quickly sprouted, and often just as quickly disappeared once the mines played out. Some mining supply centers, notably Denver, Colorado, and Sacramento, California, managed to survive and grow into viable towns.