mining camps and frontier towns -- 10/19/20

Today's selection -- from Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town 1879-1893 by Malcolm J. Rohrbough. The mining camps and frontier towns that resulted from discoveries of gold and silver -- and from the spread of railroad lines -- dominated urban development for much of the western third of the United States:

"[Frontier] towns had their own special quality. They provided few services of the kind custo­marily associated with urban areas, for the simple reason that their citizens needed few and refused to pay for any. They were characteris­tically unfinished, unsanitary, malodorous, and preeminently designed for the making of money.

"Whether they were on the James River or in the foothills of the Rockies, such towns had generally served an agricultural population. They provided a center for trade, professional life (such as it was), and sooner or later, social and cultural activity. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the subsequent spread of the search for mineral wealth across the West in the next half-century made the 'mining camp' a standard urban form for a third of the continent.

Virginia City, Nevada from Cedar Hill 1866

"Early mining settlements were called camps because men had liter­ally camped out on the site of the strikes. As the name implied, these collections of people were generally temporary and always seasonal. Spring brought immigration and movement to the high mountains; summer brought camps in more or less urban form; by late autumn, traces of such human habitation had disappeared, as the summer resi­dents had taken down the camp, packed it up, and scattered, like the Bedouins of the Sahara or the Indians of the Plains. By the time winter spread its silence across the high mountains, the land had returned to its original, deserted condition.

"Even where the claims were deep and rich, the character of mining camps remained temporary. Their residents -- generally male, young, and ambitious -- came together for a short time in their lives to make money, not communities. They thought of themselves as transient. Their camps lay in some of the most inaccessible places on the conti­nent. Here, they came to make their fortunes -- and leave. Such mining camps offered legal and sometimes medical services; almost always gambling and prostitution; supplies of food and mining equipment; and, in some camps, rough boardinghouses. Mining camps of any size had an entertainment industry in the form of saloons and bordellos. These were designed to make sure that those who did prosper in mining (at whatever level) would not take it all with them when they departed."



Malcolm J. Rohrbough


Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town 1879-1893


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2000 by Malcolm J. Rohrbough


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