Outline of Nevada Mining History

Fall 1993

Special Publication 15, Outline of Nevada Mining History, published by the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology in September 1993, 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 Garces, 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 1961. 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. Petroleum production also expanded with the discovery of several new oil fields, and geothermal power generation commenced at several geothermal areas in the state. These developments added to Nevada's mineral output, but gold and silver continued to provide the greatest return to the state. 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.

Nevada's mineral industry beyond 1992 shows signs of significant changes, not in relative importance to the state's economy, but in direction. 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 1992 total about 138 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 20 years. Gold exploration in Nevada in 1992, however, continued a decline that began about 1989; a decline in exploration that can only lead to an eventual decline in gold production. 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 contributed to the decline in exploration. In the long term these negative factors may affect metals more than industrial minerals. In general, Nevada's industrial mineral output has shown a steady annual increase since about 1940. As Nevada's population increases, demand for such materials as limestone for cement production, building stone, and sand and gravel for construction must also increase and deposits will be sought and developed as needed close to the major population centers of the state. Nevada's geothermal resources are also expected to increase in importance to the state's mineral economy.

Nevada's early history, from about 1849 to the onset of World War I, is largely a history of mines and mining camps. Mineral discoveries, mainly of precious metals, provided the reason for settlement and agriculture and other industries were established to serve the mining population. Mining continued to be important to the state during the period from World War I into the early 1960s, but various base metals such as copper, lead, zinc, mercury, tungsten, and iron replaced precious metals in importance. Other factors, mainly gaming and tourism, began to take over as the driving forces behind Nevada's economy during this time, however, and the state's population growth concentrated in Reno and Las Vegas, both remote from mining centers.

In 1993, metal mining continues to dominate Nevada's mineral industry -- the emphasis has again returned to gold and silver -- but industrial minerals are showing growth related to population expansion in the urban Las Vegas and Reno areas. It appears, therefore, that Nevada's mineral industry may in the future be the reverse of that of Comstock times; we will see mines developed to serve the new urban population of the state rather than population and services developed to serve the mines.

---Joseph V. Tingley, Economic Geologist