The first and greatest western gold rush began in 1848, and expanded worldwide, in 1849. James Marshall discovered placer gold while building a water-powered sawmill for John Sutter at Coloma, California. The rush spread along the Mother Lode on the west side of the Sierra Nevada. As placer mining in California, which depended upon the individual prospector, faded and evolved into industrial hydraulic and underground hard rock mining, the individual prospectors and miners fanned out across the mountain west beyond the Great Plains and began to fi nd new bonanzas.
The next gold rush was to the Fraser River in western Canada in the late 1850s. Another rush focused on the new mining camp of Virginia City, Nevada, on the Comstock Lode. Having found gold there, miners soon discovered a rich deposit of silver as well, and the Comstock region produced both minerals throughout its history. Concurrently came a rush to the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado in 1858 and 1859. Mining camps such as Central City, Georgetown, Leadville and others boomed, as did the supply center called Denver. Miners often turned from gold to silver, lead, and other minerals, depending on what riches they found in the underground veins that were worth refining. It became common for mines to produce a number of metals. Another rush, this one to the mountains of Montana, came in 1862. As in Colorado, the mining boom soon spread to many other camps, eventually encompassing the discovery of rich deposits of copper.
The Civil War interrupted the progress of western mining during the 1860s, but once the war ended, mining rushes took place to Silverton, Red Mountain, Eureka, Lake City and Rico in Colorado, to the Coeur d’Alene region in Idaho, the South Pass region in Wyoming, and to mining camps in the Black Hills of South Dakota, such as Deadwood and Lead. New hard rock mining camps sprang up in arid Nevada, such as Austin, Pioche, and Ely, and across the border in California, Bodie, Cerro Gordo and Panamint. As the Apache Wars faded, mining camps populated Arizona and New Mexico Territories, and there the development of copper deposits soon took center stage around Bisbee, Morenci, Clifton, and Jerome, as they soon would in Montana and Utah.
The 1890s brought a new phase of gold rushes to Creede and the Cripple Creek district in Colorado, and late in the decade, to the Klondike Mines around Dawson in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The century ended with a rush to the gold-bearing beach sands of Nome in the Alaska Territory.
Typically these mines evolved from the individual gold miner seeking placer gold in the creeks and rivers, into hunting the quartz veins in the hills from which the rivers had washed out their flakes and nuggets of gold. But “quartz” mining required a great amount of labor in digging tunnels and shafts, and then expensive machinery such as hoists, stamp mills, and crushers to separate the gold from the rock. Such mining required capital that the original discoverers of such lodes typically did not have, so often they sold their claims for a pittance to the entrepreneurs and bankers who had the capital needed to further exploit the claims. Thus mining soon evolved into a corporate, industrial enterprise. Then too, as mining spread geographically throughout the west, it expanded also to exploit other valuable minerals, notably lead and copper, but also borates, nitrates, tungsten, manganese, aluminum, and eventually uranium.