U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
II. HISTORIC CONTEXTS FOR MINING
Mining camps have been the focus of many mining-related National Register nominations. Too often, however, mining areas are evaluated for their architectural resources without fully considering the role once played by industrial features like mines and mills. In many cases, the industrial features associated with mining receive scant attention because they lack any remaining buildings, structures, or objects. The transient nature of mining properties and the frequency with which mines have been abandoned means that many mining resources occur either as simple earthen protuberances or as subsurface voids. Historic machinery is scavenged from isolated mining locations, often to be displayed in distant museums. Present-day mining can obliterate historic mining features.
A single mining district may contain features dating to several distinct mining periods. Understanding the cultural resources in a former mining area can be complicated by the repeating boom and bust periods within a single mining district. Each boom period occurred with the rise of metal market prices or by the introduction of new technologies. These booms brought new equipment and machinery which is either superimposed over or placed alongside the remains of previous mining activity. Along with changes caused by market price fluctuations or evolving technologies, the metals sought by nineteenth-century prospectors tended to change over time as local conditions improved, caused usually by a drop in transportation, labor, or fuel costs. Most Western prospectors initially sought gold, then moved to silver, and finally to base metals. For example, the Butte mines were first located during the great Montana gold rush of the 1860s. After the decline of the readily accessible placer gold, the local economy slumped until a fresh discovery made Butte a huge silver producer in the late 1870s. Silver mining collapsed in 1893, but by then the copper mines on Butte Hill had come into production (Malone, 1981). Other early Western mining towns witnessed similar, though less phenomenal, histories as silver mines became tungsten mines and gold mines began by yielding gold before later moving on to produce zinc and lead. The mining of iron, coal, and other base metals also relied on favorable economic conditions, all tied to cheap labor, fuel, and transportation.
The preceding discussion demonstrates that the initial evaluation of mining properties can pose challenges. These challenges result partly from the fact that the industrial features associated with mining have not always been fully appreciated. In addition, many of the industrial features which typify mining properties have either been demolished or seriously damaged through neglect. Finally, evolving technologies and changes in the types of minerals being mined can create situations where resources dating to a variety of periods may be contained within a single mining district.
The potential complexities of evaluating diverse and enigmatic mining properties can be addressed by identifying historic contexts. The identification of historic contexts should emphasize those contexts associated with extant historic properties likely to be encountered during field surveys. By following this practice, historic contexts will help to unravel the separate threads of mining history which may exist within a single geographic area.
A historic context can be described as a particular theme that is further deliniated by a time period and a geographic area. (For example, "Silver Production in Butte, Montana, 1879-1893.") Identifying historic contexts will serve a variety of purposes. They can provide locational information that will assist with the identification of mining properties in the field. Furthermore, an individual property associated with a given historic context can be compared with other properties related to that context to reach decisions about the relative significance of related properties. In addition, initial historic context documentation identified at this early point will expedite the nomination process by allowing for eventual incorporation of this documentation into the narrative of a nomination.
With regard to historic contexts for mining areas, the theme component of the context will revolve around some aspect of mining history. These themes should not be defined too narrowly. In addition to considering mining technology, research done to develop themes should consider transportation, water systems, habitation, labor, the role of ethnic groups, and the role played by prominent figures in the mining industry. In some cases, themes may involve mining as one component of a more general overview of a community's industrial and economic development.
In defining an appropriate time frame, a historic context (or series of contexts) should attempt to span the period from the time of a mining region's initial discovery to the point of its abandonment or decline. Although each mining district will have its own unique history, districts will experience a series of similar phases during the course of their development. Generally speaking, each district will have: 1) a discovery phase, 2) a development or boom phase, 3) a mature phase or phases emphasizing production, and then 4) a bust or decline phase. These phases may recur if a new technology is discovered to work the lower-grade ore or if other developments occur, such as the advent of uses for discarded ores or the new availability of cheaper transportation, fuel, or labor. Awareness of these common phases may help to determine the appropriate time periods for mining district historic contexts.
The geographic component of a historic context can relate to political boundaries which define the extent of a town, county, State, or Federal land management unit (i.e., a national park or national forest). The geographic definition may simply be the mining district boundaries established during a miners' meeting and duly recorded in the county courthouse. The US Geological Survey (USGS) has also drawn boundaries for mining districts that may clearly define the geographic extent of historic mining activity. In addition, for over a century USGS has published bulletins which include maps of mining regions. In the East, State geological survey reports and maps serve the same purpose. These maps may also assist with the development of historic contexts.
In conclusion, historic contexts must be identied to allow for confident evaluations of a historic mining property's significance. Because most mining properties are either in ruins or mere imprints on the landscape, they can pose difficult integrity questions. Significance must be determined based on an understanding of an area's history before making decisions about National Register eligibility. In some cases, significant historic properties may be entirely overlooked without a proper historic context. Even ruinous properties can be significant if they yield information valuable in historical archeology, especially if the property contains remains of engineering works that help to illustrate the broader historic context of technological innovation and diffusion. For example, the nomination of the Dubuque, Iowa, lead mines was based on a written historic context and on archeological evidence that revealed a great deal about mining and smelting technology in the early 1800s. The nomination of these lead mines occurred in spite of the fact that no standing structures remained at the location of this previously active mining district.
Sources of Historic Context Information
Identifying historic contexts related to mining activity should begin with an investigation of existing contexts. State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) represent one possible source of existing historic context documentation. In particular, statewide historic preservation plans, previously completed multiple property submissions, and other information maintained by SHPOs may contain material concerning historic mining properties. Other possible sources of existing information include Federal agencies (particularly Federal land-managing agencies) and academic institutions. Background investigations may reveal that a number of mining-related historic contexts have already been developed for a given area. If so, these existing contexts may provide valuable assistance to the researcher.
A number of other sources may assist with the development of historic contexts. The USGS has published mining-district maps showing geologic formations and minerals throughout the United States. In addition, descriptions of mining districts are contained in a series of USGS bulletins, monographs, professional papers, and other publications. These sources supply information on ore deposits. Some mining districts, especially in the West and Alaska, received thorough evaluation and mapping by the USGS. These evaluations led to the publication of reports that describe mines, prospects, and company activities, as well as geographic and cultural information.
In the East and the Midwest, where the USGS was less active, State geological bureaus provided similar publications and maps on mining regions. Coal mining areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, for example, were extensively mapped by the State. Early information on lead mining can be found in the reports of the State geological offices of Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Information on the early copper industry can be found in Michigan geological reports.
Information in these geological reports, which often included economic histories, can be crosschecked with corporate descriptions in the Mines Handbook (after 1905) and The Mineral Industry (after 1892). Other useful government reports include the annual reports of the U.S. Mining Commissioner, 1866-1876, the reports of the Director of the Mint, and the Bureau of Mines annual report (later called the Minerals Yearbook). These reports, particularly the bulletins and information circulars of the USGS and Bureau of Mines, frequently include specific data on lode and placer mining techniques and equipment as well as discussions of individual mines and mining districts. The Bureau of Mines also published technical reports on mine safety and technology.
Other records of the Federal government will have potential research value. With regard to mining in the West, specific information about mine ownership can be found in the mineral patent records of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Created through a merger of the Grazing Service and the General Land Office in 1946, BLM offices will also contain records of mineral patents issued by the General Land Office. Deed records housed in the local county courthouse may provide an additional source of mine ownership information. If litigation occurred, extensive files may be found in the Department of Justice records in the National Archives in Washington, DC. If minerals were produced for military purposes, the records of the Secretary of War should be consulted.
State and local histories may contain information on mines and mining in a particular locality. In addition, some States published annual reports issued by State geological surveys, mine inspectors, mining commissioners, or department of mines. Records of State corporation commissions, which may contain articles of incorporation and annual reports, can help to explain corporate involvement in mining enterprises.
Period journals and newspapers provide a panoply of promotional information about a mine. Both successful and unsuccessful mining camps and towns frequently had newspapers that touted each mine or prospect. Individual mines and mining companies produced annual reports and distributed other forms of literature. The productive ones published annual reports which might include photographs and diagrams that typically described the extent of both works and machinery. Although mining town newspapers and company literature can provide fascinating local color, these sources must be used with caution based on their inclination to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative.
In some cases, mining activity was well documented by early photographers. Archives, museums, and other sources should be contacted for historical photographs to assist with historic context research. Photographs of mine equipment and mill machinery for a specific mine may not exist, but contemporary photographs of nearby mines and mills document the material culture and industrial facilities of a particular mining region.
In the West, early mining district record books can serve as an important source of historic context material. In some cases, these record books document the formation of miners' committees that established district laws and recorded the tenuous ownership of mineral deposits. (After the passage of the 1872 Mining Law, only a patent issued by the Federal government would legally secure ownership.) A hypothetical example of the value of these early records might involve a prospect pit discovered in an 1860s gold district, but abandoned after the first rush. Lacking these records to provide historic context information that links the property with the early gold rush era, the evaluation may be based solely on the marginal integrity that the property exhibits today. Such an evaluation would overlook the prospect pit's critical association with a significant period in mining history.
Oral histories can also serve as an important source of historic context information. Individuals living near historic mining areas may offer valuable information about resources in a given locale. In some cases, previous oral history studies will already have documented these stories either on tape or in print. In other cases, researchers may have to seek out individuals capable of providing valuable perspectives concerning local mining properties.
There are many books and other sources of information on the history of mining. (See Section VI for a listing of mining history references.) These studies help provide a general understanding of mining history. The difficult task is to combine the historic context information in these sources with the guidance provided in other National Register publications and use these materials to conduct successful field evaluations and prepare nominations for actual mining properties.
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