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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The History of Johnson Lake Mine

In 1909, in the midst of the mining boom that was occurring all across the Western states, a prospector and fortune-seeker named Alfred Johnson filed an application for mining and power rights along the eastern slopes of the Snake Range in Snake Creek Canyon, White Pine County, Nevada. The precious metal tungsten was discovered on the western slopes of the same mountain range in 1885, and Johnson hoped to "strike it rich" at the headwaters of Snake Creek. A rancher who also wished to mine for tungsten in the region opposed Johnson's application for the rights to Snake Creek Canyon, and the two prospectors became embroiled in litigation. The courts eventually ruled in Johnson's favor. The ruling proved to be good fortune for Johnson when, three years later, John D. Tilford discovered rich tungsten deposits along the lower reaches of Snake Creek. Tilford established a tungsten mine called the Bonita Mine.

Alfred Johnson set up his tungsten mining operation, Johnson Lake Mine, in 1912, recruiting miners from all over to help run the mine. Although they may have dreamed of striking it rich, daily existence for the workers was anything but glamorous. The life of the miner was a difficult one.

Miners at Johnson Lake Mine, like many others in the Nevada area at the turn of the 20th century, lived and worked under perilous conditions. The mine at Johnson Lake could only be accessed through a deep mine shaft, and the miners crawled to the center in near-complete darkness. The dangers of mishaps were always on the minds of the workers. There was, in addition, the possibility of the ceiling collapsing, which would surely trap anyone inside. Miners also worried about the poisonous gases that could be released as they mined the ore. Furthermore, falls and machinery accidents were common.

Home life at Johnson Lake Mine was devoid of luxury. The miners lived in a cluster of four log cabins located at the site, the remains of which are relatively intact to this day. The cabins tell their own story. We know the cabins were built in the winter. The tree stumps are chest high, which is where they would be if there had been a foot or two of snow on the ground. Three of the cabins were quite small and were probably used for storage and sleeping. The large cabin has multiple rooms with evidence of a wood stove and the remains of a rodent-proof pantry. Perhaps it served as the office and mess hall. The traces of tent platforms, which are simply cleared rectangular areas on the ground, show where some of the miners slept. The depression of a privy, which is an outdoor latrine, was located near the cabins.

The remnants of trash deposits near the cabins provide clues as to what the miners ate and drank. The bottles and cans that were found show that the miners consumed liquor and ate a diet of meat, lard, sardines, and tuna, among other things. The workers cooked their food in a cast iron stove and may have served it in earthenware bowls. They drank coffee and canned milk, and chewed tobacco or rolled their own cigarettes, as proved by the concentration of about fifty tobacco cans found in the area.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why was Alfred Johnson's application for mining and power rights in Snake Creek Canyon opposed?

2. What are some of the dangers of mining life?

3. Make a list of pros and cons for heading out West to work in the mines. Would you want to travel to a place like Nevada to strike it rich? Why or why not?

Reading 2 was compiled from 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); Susan J. Wells, Archeological Survey and Site Assessment at Great Basin National Park (Tucson: Western Archeological and Conservation Center, 1990); Robert B. Gordon and Patrick M. Malone, The Texture of Industry: An Archeological View of the Industrialization of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); 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).

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