In the late summer of 2007, the Silverton Historical Society was making plans to amplify our outdoor mining museum with the addition of two replicated ore tramway towers. As President at the time, I wanted to make certain we had the construction details as exact and as authentic as possible. With this thought in mind, myself and a local builder, who ultimately would do the construction of the towers, ventured into the high alpine of our area in search of an old tower of a tram servicing the high mountain mines around Silverton, BC that we could examine first hand. While there were at least 20 tramways in our immediate vicinity to facilitate and expedite the movement of silver ore in the Silvery Slocan rush of 1892 – 1911, sadly little tangible evidence remains of these engineering marvels. The prodigious amounts of snow and precipitation we experience here in the Kootenay mountains of south eastern British Columbia hastens the disintegration of any non-treated wood used in construction. Whilst we had working diagrams of the old towers in hand, the ‘hands on’ experience of a visit to an existing structure would have been extremely valuable in our construction plans. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any worthy towers in our search… a situation which lead me to my first visit to Nevada in May of 2008. The plan for construction of our ‘mini’ tramway was for summer of 2008, so I needed to see a ‘real live’ tower somewhere. Therefore, I was enthusiastic to visit sites in Nevada with existing historic trams, but also to possibly better understand what possessed men and women of those times to attempt to eke a difficult existence from inhospitable forests mountains and deserts. Nevada offered the best chance for this experience as the second of their two major silver rushes mirrored our own… 1900 – 1919 and I expected that I might find a tower or two still standing and in good shape given Nevada’s dry, arid climate.
Historians generally consider the year 1890 as the close of the American Frontier. By then most of the western United States had been settled, ranches and farms developed, communities established, and roads and railroads constructed. The mining boomtowns like Virginia City built on the lure of overnight riches were mostly but a memory. But then there was the rest of Nevada. The great mining booms at Tonopah…1900, Goldfield…1902 and Rhyolite…1904 were truly the last blossoming of the Old West. I found that central and north central Nevada remain close to that true American Frontier. It still exists there visibly in the relatively undisturbed condition of the physical environment and certainly in the attitudes, lifestyles and values of the area residents.
Nevada is enthralling in a plethora of aspects. A few are:
- – It has a mean elevation of 5,500 feet. One usually thinks of the state in terms of desert, desert and more desert.
- – Its highest peak is 13,140 feet.. Boundary Peak
- 87% of the state is administered (public lands) by the Federal Government
- It is the most mountainous state in the union with at least 317 separate mountain ranges
- It had two main silver rushes: 1859-1878 and 1900-1919
- – There were at least 575 mining camps with a population of 50 or more… many numbering in the thousands during those times… most are now abandoned and many are quite remote.
My original itinerary took me to several sites where there were existing tramways and I accomplished my goal of seeing a tram tower as it still stood. However, I came away that first year with the desire to re-visit some of these sites once again, in addition to the exploration of as many more of these old towns, camps and mines as I might find. The journey has now flowered into seven years of adventure in the central and north central part of the state… from the California border to the border with Utah. I did make two forays to the southern part of the state in order to explore some of the remote mines and camps clinging to the cliffs of the Funeral and Panamint mountains that border Death Valley. To date, I have visited over 180 sites which include many towns, camps and mines… and I still have a burning desire to continue this exploration.
As I travelled the vast, open expanses of this magnificent Nevada landscape (very seldom seeing another vehicle let alone another soul) I wondered why I was/am so driven to experience these historical places. Perhaps it is because my visits to these isolated communities lost in time reaffirms my commitment to the preservation of history. Certainly it has broadened my understanding of the basics in human nature. I learned that those chapters of the past represented by the remains of these communities and mines were a celebration of men and women who could solve problems without a computer. They thrived admirably without supplies and advice from a local WalMart or Home Depot. They were able, and necessarily had, to adapt to the whims of nature in order to persist and survive. Probably most of all studying these places and the changes from then until now gave me a moving perspective on my own life and philosophy.
Was there a defining moment? Many… beyond my own personal perspective and my philosophy about mining history. I found it quite Herculean that many of these towns, some populated by many thousands of hardy souls, were able to exist and thrive for years in such a harsh, high desert climate. An environment that required prodigious amounts of seemingly non-existent water to run the machinery to help wrest valuable ore from a reluctant earth. To observe today how these folks from a different era solved ostensibly complex engineering feats with extemporaneous solutions, often using little more than common sense and hand tools, was as refreshing as it was profound. Prime examples, and the reason I came south in the first place, are the still existing gravity tramways, some spanning hundreds of vertical feet and some miles long, still clinging to and spanning ridiculously arduous terrain. The miners search for a better life, often in the face of daunting hardship, scratching and clawing a living from the rock and forests, is as humbling as it is inspiring. They believed with great passion that which perhaps sometimes we may have forgotten, something infinitely more precious than gold and silver… and certainly more meaningful than mere Desperate Dreams… that they could write their own destiny!
I visited some of these sites up to three times for there is so much to see and explore. I tried to photograph and explore in the early morning or late afternoon in order to get the best, and richest ‘photographer‘s’ light. I think yet another reason I am driven to explore and be involved with our mining past exemplified by these sites and the people who created them, is to help provide a tangible and optical historical record that is both accurate and sensitive.
In the DVD, each segment (town, site or mine) usually begins with a black screen and ends with an image of the vastness of Nevada. The ore production figures are posted from the most active year of the town/camp or mine(s) and therefore would be substantially higher in today’s dollars.
So… I hope you enjoy the adventure!