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The American West through British Eyes, 1865 - 1900: Part 5

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7

Mining

In 1859, news came of an extraordinary silver strike on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and within a year 17,000 people had rushed to the Washoe region of what is now the state of Nevada. In the next two decades, deposits of gold and silver were also found in the mountain areas of Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. As in California in 1849, the lure of the bonanza was enough to keep thousands of prospectors feverishly exploring gulches and canyons armed with nothing more than a pick, a shovel and a crude pan. Yet only the most exceptional claim paid off, for the richest deposits of these minerals were invariably locked in the veins of quartz and were accessible only to those wealthy enough to bear the heavy cost of excavation.

Silver Mining in Nevada

Reverend Samuel Manning, who sketched this interior of a shaft mine on the Comstock Lode, explained that with the rapid exhaustion of surface digging, 'immense engineering works have been carried out, which for extent may vie with those of the Old World.' According to Manning, shares in one mining company, the Virginia Consolidated, were 'scarcely saleable at any price', while its tunnels and shafts were being constructed. Later, with production running at a million dollars of silver per month, they possessed 'an almost fabulous value'. Indeed, it was estimated in 1876 that Nevada alone would yield more than fifty million dollars worth of precious metals. Far more noticeably in Nevada than in California, it was the not the single prospectors who profited from the riches of the lode, but rather the speculators, the developers and enterprising middlemen.

Silver Mining in Nevada

Rev. Samuel Manning, American Pictures.
London, [1876]. (10410.f.2)
Copyright © The British Library

 

The Silverado Squatters

The Silverado Squatter (4kb)

Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters. London, 1884. (12357.h.40)
Copyright © The British Library

Many of the mining towns throughout the Far West died out almost as quickly as they had developed, and frequently lasted no more than two years. For several months in the summer of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife and step-son squatted in an abandoned building in Silverado, a deserted mining town in California. The sense of the past was pervasive throughout this region in which 'tide after tide of hopeful miners have flowed and ebbed about the mountain, coming and going, now by solitary prospectors, now with a rush.' Looking back on this period of his life, Stevenson regarded it as one of great tranquillity, during which most of the time was spent 'propped upon an elbow or seated on a plank listening to the silence that there is among the hills'.

 

Wilde on Mining

Wilde on the U.S. (6kb)

'Wilde on U.S.: Something to Live Up to in America,' by Thomas Nast. Harper's Bazaar, 10 June 1882 in Westward the Briton by Robert G. Athearn. New York, 1953. (10414.c.29)
Copyright © The British Library

Impressions of America (6kb)

Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America. Sunderland, 1906. (10413.f.19)
Copyright © The British Library

Oscar Wilde, sketched here by Thomas Nast, lectured throughout the United States in 1882, generally speaking on the subject of art and dress reform. The following description of his visit to Leadville, a mining town in Colorado, comes from a lecture he gave in Wandsworth Town Hall, on 24 September 1883, concerning his impressions of America:
'They are miners - men working in metals, so I lectured them on the Ethics of Art. I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted. I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me. I explained that he had been dead for some little time which elicited the enquiry "Who shot him"? They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across. Over the piano was printed a note: - "Please Do Not Shoot the Pianist. He Is Doing His Best".'

Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7


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