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HISTORY & PREHISTORY

Virginia City Mining

Virginia City

Virginia City was established around the gold fields of Alder Gulch. The town grew by attracting miners and business to the area. Virginia City grew quickly. The California gold rush (1848-1856) had shown people that if you are in the right place at the right time, there were riches to be had. In the 1860's, people were looking for new places to mine gold.

It all began when William Fairweather and five other prospectors made their camp near Alder Creek. They made their gold strike on May 26th 1863. Then it didn't take long for the news to travel and soon thousands of people moved into the area to try their luck at gold mining.

The miners of the day had a fairly organized way of making claims and recording the information in a record book. They held miners' meetings, established their own district rules and elected their own officers to be in charge of enforcing rules and recording important events. It is thought that this need for order came from the chaos of the California gold rush. After all, many of the early Montana prospectors had been miners in the California gold rush.

When a prospector discovered gold for the first time in a location where it had not been found before, the place was called a "discovery." The prospector could then make a legal claim "by right of discovery." Other individuals who wanted to prospect in the same area could make a claim "by pre-emption." (Preemption means, "To take possession before others.")

Several mining methods were used in the 1860's, and four common methods used in Alder Gulch were placer mining, dredging, and hard-rock mining. The first of these is placer mining. (Pronounced: PLASS-ER)

There are two methods of placer mining, "panning" and "rocker mining." Panning is done by scooping sand and gravel from the bottom of a creek into a large, flat pan (like a really large pie pan) and swishing water over it in a circular motion. The idea is that lighter-weight minerals will wash out of the pan, and the heavier gold will stay in the pan. Small flakes of gold (called 'free' gold, because it is not encased in rock) are generally found in this way. When you find a flake in your "goldpan," you say that you have found "color." Placer mining is the first step in determining if there is gold in an area. If gold is found, another method may be used after the claim is made.

As you might imagine, placer mining is a time-consuming job, and sometimes the early prospector's efforts resulted in an empty pan. Kneeling and squatting caused leg and back pain, and most of the time a person in this occupation would be wet and uncomfortable. It was much easier to sift gravel and sand through a box with a screen, or mesh on one side. This is the rocker method, because you have to rock the box back and forth to get the dirt, gravel, etc, to fall through. It was easier with two people, but could still be done with one.

As the gold became harder to find, it became more expensive to mine. The remaining three mining methods were hydraulic mining, dredge mining, and hard rock-mining. These methods were especially costly. Many miners had to go to work for large mining companies in order to make enough money to live on and to support their families.

Hydraulic mining was accomplished by using the natural flow of a creek to produce high water pressure in a hose. This high pressure water hose was then directed at the banks, cliffs or edges of a creek to blast them away, revealing the gold inside. The dirt and rocks were then run through a sluice box. Sluice boxes have ridges built into the bottom to trap gold. Gold is heavier than most of the other materials that will wash through the sluice box without sticking behind the ridges. Hydraulic mining is very destructive to the environment and is now illegal in the United States.

It is also possible to extract gold dust from sand by using a chemical concentrator. This works in much the same way a sluice box does, except that it may require the use of mercury, other heavy metals, and dangerous chemicals.

Dredge mining is another form of mining that was used in Alder Gulch in the early 1900s. A "dredge" or "dredge boat" is a large structure with a suction tube attached to the bottom. The suction tube pulls dirt and debris from the bottom of the creek or river where it is used. Most early methods used buckets, attached along a chain, which ran in a continuous loop-rather than using the suction method. The dirt, sand, and rocks left over after dredging are called "tailings". The mine tailings (large piles of gravel), still visible along Alder Creek, are proof of the destructive nature of dredge mining. Several old buildings along the creek were demolished as the dredges passed. Although the population of Virginia City had dropped to 600 people by the late 1800's, gold mining yielded approximately $7 million from 1890-1922, mostly through dredge mining.

In the 1930's, when the price of gold went up, hard-rock mining was the method of choice in the mountains near Alder Gulch. Humphrey's Gold Company financed the operation, until they ran out of money in 1937. In 1942, gold mining was considered a non-essential industry, because of WWII. A law called the Gold Mine Closing Order of 1942 was enacted, thereby making it illegal to mine other precious metals and mine for gold.

Today, it's legal to mine for gold. Many people mine as a hobby and several gold mining companies are currently in operation in the Virginia City area.

The history of Virginia City would have been very different without mining to attract people to the Virginia City area. Mining attracted people from all over the world, some of them stayed to raise their families and build schools, churches, and businesses. These businesses supported the community by creating trade patterns and a local economy. Most importantly, local businesses provided people with the everyday things they needed to survive in the old west.

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