Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Gambling on Ore

Gambling on Ore: The Nature of Metal Mining in the United States, 1860–1910

Kent A. Curtis
Copyright Date: 2013
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Gambling on Ore
    Book Description:

    Gambling on Ore examines the development of the western mining industry from the tumultuous and violent Gold Rush to the elevation of large-scale copper mining in the early twentieth century, using Montana as representative of mining developments in the broader US mining west. Employing abundant new historical evidence in key primary and secondary sources, Curtis tells the story of the inescapable relationship of mining to nature in the modern world as the United States moved from a primarily agricultural society to a mining nation in the second half of the nineteenth century. In Montana, legal issues and politics-such as unexpected consequences of federal mining law and the electrification of the United States-further complicated the mining industry's already complex relationship to geology, while government policy, legal frameworks, dominant understandings of nature, and the exigencies of profit and production drove the industry in momentous and surprising directions. Despite its many uncertainties, mining became an important part of American culture and daily life. Gambling on Ore unpacks the tangled relationships between mining and the natural world that gave material possibility to the age of electricity. Metal mining has had a profound influence on the human ecology and the social relationships of North America through the twentieth century and throughout the world after World War II. Understanding how we forged these relationships is central to understanding the environmental history of the United States after 1850.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-235-1
    Subjects: History, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Arsenic in the Wilderness, or Knowing Nature through Mining
    (pp. 1-14)

    In the spring of 1993 I stood in line at the University of Montana cafeteria absentmindedly tapping my spoon on the stainless steel countertop. I was working as an environmental reporter for the Missoula Independent, where I had just filed a story about a massive fish kill in the nearby Clark Fork River. The fish had been poisoned by arsenic that had been scoured into solution from the sediments behind the Mill Town Dam, a few miles upstream, when an ice floe had made its way down the Blackfoot River and ground into the reservoir sediments. The arsenic was residue...

  6. ONE Producing a Mining Landscape: Gold Rush Uncertainty in Proto-Montana
    (pp. 15-68)

    Gold rushes mark the iconic beginning of mining stories in the nineteenth-century US West. In them, gold seekers set out into uncharted territory seeking untold riches said to be buried in mountain creek beds; they chased rumors and stampeded; when a gold deposit was uncovered, they excavated it with incredible speed. Placer gold mining, as their activity was called, required no advanced technology; according to historian Malcolm Rohrbough, tools and techniques were widely shared among miners. “Unlike many other economic enterprises, there was little suggestion that superior techniques produced better results,” he wrote. “Almost every miner in the diggings did...

  7. TWO The Value of Ores: Knowledge and Policy in Lode Mining Development
    (pp. 69-114)

    Lode or hard-rock mining marked the beginning of a kind of metal mining practice that had the look of an actual industry. It required a larger, more concentrated labor force; large, powerful machines; and large construction projects onsite. Hard-rock miners pursued gold and silver in underground tunnels, having blasted through solid rock in search of the treasure they hoped was embedded there. By its very nature, hard-rock mining required more brute force and sophisticated technologies than those used in placer gold mining; they were up against the energies of earth building. The rock could not be excavated with shovels, for...

  8. THREE Turning Copper into Gold: The Dynamics of System Building
    (pp. 115-162)

    The development of copper resources in the mountain west heralded a new age of mining, not merely for the western mining region but for the nation and even the world. By the late 1870s the fleeting days of gold were long gone, and the tumultuous days of silver were passing their apogee. During the 1880s, copper production increased to more than fill the void.

    Before the 1880s, few people dreamed about mining copper in the West, never mind trying to produce the metal for a profit. During the entire nineteenth century, world copper production had been dominated by the Welsh...

  9. FOUR The Ecology of Ore Processing: Pollution and the Law in the Deer Lodge Valley
    (pp. 163-202)

    By the turn of the twentieth century, the mass production of copper in oversized ore-processing plants comprised the material heart of a new energy regime in the United States. In urban centers back East, in Europe, and in Japan, electrification was changing the face of domestic life, work life, and leisure time. Alongside the internal combustion engine, electrification systems created the technological context for vast changes in US culture, contributing to a growing emphasis on the domestic and institutional consumer—predominantly urban and aspirationally middle class. The rural mass production of metals—copper, zinc, lead, iron, silver, and eventually bauxite...

  10. CONCLUSION: Producing a Mining Society
    (pp. 203-210)

    Again and again when I first began this project, I encountered decided defensiveness about mining. Those connected to the practice felt a need to remind an increasingly ecologically minded US society that almost everything they do depends on mining. Similarly, when I began to try to make sense of what has happened in Montana and to critique engineers and capitalists alike on mining’s wanton impacts, I would be asked if I would prefer to live in a world without electricity. These reactions to my effort to make sense of mining in the US West and to understand it through an...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 211-222)
  12. Index
    (pp. 223-232)