Mining History

Modified from Outline of Nevada Mining History by J.V. Tingley in Nevada Geology, no. 20

NBMG Special Publication SP15, Outline of Nevada Mining History, summarizes Nevada mining history through 1992. The three sections of this report follow mining in Nevada from the time of hand-dug turquoise and salt mines through the Comstock era of deep underground silver mines to the Carlin era of huge bulk-mineable gold and silver mines.

Modern mining began in Nevada in 1849 with the discovery of placer gold in a stream flowing into the Carson River near the present town of Dayton. This discovery, made by Mormon '49ers on their way to the California gold fields, led others upstream into what was later known as the Virginia Range to find the croppings of the Comstock Lode in 1859.

Other mining activities in Nevada, however, predated the Comstock discovery by many centuries. Deposits of obsidian, opalite, chalcedony, agate, jasper, and quartz occur throughout the state and were utilized by the earliest inhabitants, the American Indians, to fashion arrowheads, spear points, and various cutting and scraping tools. "Clovis points" found near the Carson Sink, near Tonopah and Beatty, and in Washoe Valley are believed to have been made 10,000 or more years ago by these people. Much later, about 300 A.D. to 500 A.D., the Anasazi mined turquoise near Boulder City in present-day Clark County, and mined salt from deposits near St. Thomas, now covered by waters of Lake Mead in eastern Clark County. Evidence of Indian turquoise mining and processing was also found at Crescent Peak in southern Clark County. When this deposit was "discovered" by modern prospectors in 1889 or 1890, stone chisels, wedges, and hammers were found scattered at the site and a huge quantity of tiny turquoise fragments was found along with rubbing and polishing stones in what must have been a lapidary shop. This site is reported to have been worked and abandoned about 1200 A.D. Many of the discovery "legends" of Nevada's mining districts, including those of Pahranagat and Pioche in Lincoln County, and Robinson and White Pine in White Pine County, tell of prospectors being led to the areas by Indian guides. This would seem to indicate that the Indians knew of the metal deposits and perhaps made some use of the materials found in the outcrops.

Spanish mining in southern Nevada may be more myth than fact but, around 1770, a Spanish exploring party is said to have been sent by the Franciscan missionary Father Junipero Serra to mine placer gold, turquoise, and silver deposits in Clark County. This account is generally discredited, however, and most historians do not place Spanish exploring parties in the state until 1776 when another missionary, Father Francisco Garc6s, may have crossed the southern tip of Nevada.

There are accounts, again possibly fictional, of Mexican miners recovering placer gold from deposits in the Tule Canyon district in Esmeralda County prior to 1848, A few years later, in the spring of 1856, lead deposits were found by Mormons in the southern Spring Mountains west of the old Las Vegas Mormon Mission. The discoveries, at the North Mines in what was later known as the Charleston district ' and at the Potosi mine in the present-day Goodsprings district, provided lead for use by Mormon settlers as far away as Salt Lake City, Utah. Ore from the mines was hauled to Las Vegas where it was smelted in a crude furnace said to be the first "smelter" built and operated west of the Missouri River.

The first section of Special Publication 15, written by Francis Church Lincoln in 1924, describes American Indian mining activity in Clark County, mentions rumors of Spanish mines in the same area, then summarizes the frenzy of precious metals prospecting and mining generated by discovery of the Comstock Lode in 1859. Precious metals dominated the time, but important deposits of lead, zinc, copper, tungsten, and iron also were found during this period. In his writing, Lincoln described two boom-bust cycles: first the Comstock production era covering roughly 1861 to 1889, then the Tonopah-Goldfield period beginning about 1901. A production peak in base metals during World War I followed by a post-war crash in 1919 ended Lincoln's section at what he saw as a second major period of decline in the state's mineral industry.

During the Nevada Centennial year of 1964, Robert C. Horton prepared an outline of Nevada mining history, 1924 to 1964, to complement Lincoln's earlier work and the two were published together as Nevada Bureau of Mines Report 7. In his section, Horton described a mineral industry dominated by base metal production. A long period of war-driven economy followed by post-war industrial expansion provided the incentive and Nevada produced significant amounts of copper, lead, zinc, iron, and tungsten. The 1924 to 1964 era also saw the start of Nevada's petroleum production and industrial minerals began a steep rise in importance. Nevada's precious metals industry declined from 1924 through the depression years and, except for a slight period of recovery inspired by a Government-mandated gold price increase in 1933, slowly sank to a near-record low in 196 1. Since the start of the Comstock boom, only 1894 recorded less production of gold and silver than 1961. Important gold discoveries made during this time, however, included the Standard mine in Pershing County, the Getchell mine in Humboldt County, the Northumberland mine in Nye County, and the Gold Acres mine in Lander County. These 1930s discoveries were all occurrences of "invisible gold," and were the first to be found and mined in the state of what later was to be called the Carlin-type deposit. The Carlin gold discovery in 1962 was one of the most significant events of this time and may be second only to the discovery of the Comstock in importance to Nevada mining. The Carlin trend, a belt extending northwest and southeast from the original discovery, now contains more than 20 mines and is one of the major gold-producing regions of the world.

The final section of Special Publication 15, written by Joseph V. Tingley in 1993, follows Nevada mining from 1965 through 1992. As if marking a turn of fortune, 1965 signaled the revival of precious metals mining in Nevada. In 1964, copper was the state's premier mineral commodity, accounting in value for over 60% of the total mineral production. In May 1965, Newmont's Carlin mine poured its first gold bar and a new era of precious metals production began; by the end of the year the Carlin mine was the largest gold producer in Nevada and the second largest gold producer in the nation. Unfortunately, during this same time variable market conditions all but eliminated Nevada's base metals industry. At the close of 1992, copper and by-product mercury were the only base metals being recovered in the state. Nevada's industrial mineral industry continued to grow during this period and the state produced a variety of products including barite, gypsum, diatomite, lithium carbonate, magnesite, perlite, building stone, limestone for cement production, and sand and gravel.

In dollar value, annual precious metals output increased over 200 times, from about $9 million in 1965 to over $2 billion each year from 1989 to 1992. After declining some between 1989 and 1992, precious metal exploration remained relatively constant through to the end of the decade. Gold prices varied between about $350 and nearly $400 per ounce until 1996 and have been generally declining since then to around $260 per ounce in 2001. Nevada gold production peaked at 8.9 million ounces in 1998 and has been declining since then. Due to the low price of gold over the last several years, a number of mines of have closed or been put on care and maintenance, and exploration activities sharply curtailed. In addition to the low gold prices, an increase of state and federal regulations affecting mining, and increased uncertainty concerning long-term access to federal lands for mineral development have also contributed to the decline in exploration. Silver prices remained relatively steady around $5 per ounce through the latter 1990s but have since dropped below $4.50 per ounce. Silver production peaked around 25 million ounces in 1997 and has also been declining. Nevada's gold production makes the United

States the second leading gold producing nation in the world, and published Nevada gold reserves at the end of 1999 total about 143 million ounces. Some of these may prove to be subeconomic and may never be mined, but reserves probably are sufficient to sustain the gold mining industry for at least another 15 to 25 years. At the end of 1999, Nevada's silver reserves totaled about 235 million ounces.

Copper production enjoyed a comeback in the late 1990s, but has almost ceased with the closure of the Robinson Mine near Ely and the Yerington and McArthur Mines in Lyon County. Industrial minerals production has fluctuated during the 1990s with a slow rise at the end of the decade.

The activity of the mining industry in Nevada has been summarized in the NBMG annual report The Nevada Mineral Industry since 1979. These are available through the NBMG Publication Sales Office, and the 1994 through 1999 issues are free on the NBMG website. One should consult these publications for detailed descriptions of Nevada's mining history after 1979.

Nevada mining history publications