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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: The Mining Rush in White Pine County

In the 1850s, the south of the Virginia Mountain Range, in the western part of Nevada, lay dormant as a dry and desolate area. Less than a decade later, however, the region would become the center of one of the greatest mining rushes in the history of the United States. In 1859 the discovery of rich silver deposits led to the establishment of mining districts at Gold Hill and Virginia City and soon transformed the scarcely settled frontier into a bustling mining epicenter. Thousands of miners were attracted to the area, and many crossed over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the region from the dwindling gold fields of California.

After five years of extensive mining in the Virginia Range, however, the mining district declined as a result of the near depletion of the silver deposits. Miners began to spread eastward in search of new minerals. In the spring of 1865 about a dozen of these miners discovered evidence of silver on White Pine Mountain and a new district--White Pine Mining District, an area approximately 12 square miles--was established that year.

The "mining district" was a working example of popular sovereignty, where the miners themselves determined their own laws to govern the mining of lands in the absence of a federal code. Although Nevada became a state in 1864, there was no national policy governing the mining of lands. The General Mining Act of 1866 was the first federal statute, which essentially recognized the mining districts by federal and state courts as legal entities. With an initial discovery of mineral deposits, the first miners at the site would write a compact to govern themselves and all others coming to the new mining district. The resident miners would then declare a self-governing mining district to be in existence.

News of these silver-ore claims in the White Pine Mining District quickly spread and in the spring of 1868 there was a stampede of prospectors into the area, a hurried staking of claims, and the beginnings of a large-scale mining rush. On December 14, 1868, one miner wrote of the mining rush at White Pine:

White Pine is undoubtedly one of the, if not the richest and most extensive mining localities discovered since California. The mines are not confined to one locality but extend over a scope of country some fifty by one hundred miles, and the new developments have turned out equally as rich as the first discovery.¹

Miners discovered new mineral deposits almost daily. One of these newly discovered minerals was tungsten, which was found by a group of prospectors in 1885 on the western slopes of the Snake Range in what is now Great Basin National Park. The prospectors noticed a brownish-gray granite material in veins of white quartz. Samples of the mystery material were sent to California for chemical analysis. The analysis stated that the deposits were "spectacular hematite." But later, in January of 1899, other prospectors refused to accept the previous analysis and sent ore samples to Denver. The lab in Denver concluded that the material was not hematite, but rather huberite, a valuable source of tungstic acid. The confirmation of tungsten deposits thus led to the establishment of the Tungsten Mining District in January of 1900.

Tungsten, a hard, brittle, corrosion-resistant, gray to white metallic element, is an important mineral for the production of alloy steel, a combination of iron with another metal. Although the discoverers of the tungsten in the Snake Range did not know it at the time, the value of the tungsten was about to greatly increase. The demand for tungsten soared during World War I, which began in 1914. Until the mid-19th century, steel was expensive and difficult to make. But, when steel was combined with minerals like tungsten, the cost was reduced and output production greatly increased. In addition, steel made with tungsten is self-hardening, wear resistant, and has the properties necessary to create tools with smooth cutting edges.

Steel made with tungsten was used to manufacture weapons, tanks, and ships for American soldiers fighting the war abroad. It also was used in the filament wire, a thin wire that is heated white hot by the passage of an electric current, of incandescent light bulbs that emits light as a result of being heated. These bulbs became inexpensive to produce and reliable due to development of a patented process to produce ductile tungsten, which is easily drawn into wire or hammered thin. Furthermore, tungsten was used in the tubes of two-way radios, which allowed soldiers separated by distance to communicate with one another.

The demand for tungsten created a short-lived economic boom in the Snake Range of White Pine County, Nevada. Prospectors and miners rushed to the area in search of the precious metal. In 1912, a man named John Tilford discovered a new source of the tungsten mineral in Snake Creek Canyon on the eastern slopes of the range. The mine that was soon established there, Johnson Lake Mine, was an ambitious tungsten mining complex with a mine, aerial tramway, water supply system, mill and residential area located at 11,000 feet elevation and more than 70 miles from the railroad. The story of the mine is typical as it represents a large investment of time, money, and effort in a very remote area for very little financial return--basically the story of mining throughout the west at the time.

Questions for Reading 1

1. Why did the miners originally rush to Nevada from California?

2. How were mining districts established? What is popular sovereignty?

3. Why was the White Pine Mining District established?

4. What is tungsten?

5. How was tungsten used during World War I?

Reading I was compiled from Harlan D. Unrau, Basin and Range: A History of Great Basin National Park, Nevada (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1990); Susan J. Wells, Archeological Survey and Site Assessment at Great Basin National Park (Tucson: Western Archeological and Conservation Center, 1990); Susan J. Wells, Archeological Investigations at Great Basin National Park: Testing and Site Recording in Support of the General Management Plan (Tucson: Western Archeological and Conservation Center, 1993); and Susan Wells, "Johnson Lake Mine" National Register of Historic Places Registration Form (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1995).

¹John Curtis to [William H.] Taylor, December 14, 1868, Michell Papers, 1858-1887, Manuscript Department, Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

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