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Hardrock Mining Visual Landscapes

Hardrock Mining Visual Landscapes

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Published by Russell Hartill
scholarly article on the landscape of a mining site. While DOGM pays lip service to preserving a landscape, their construction contracts call for backfilling shafts with the landscape
scholarly article on the landscape of a mining site. While DOGM pays lip service to preserving a landscape, their construction contracts call for backfilling shafts with the landscape

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Published by: Russell Hartill on Aug 07, 2008
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05/24/2012

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and mining areas to the east, the impact of Michigancopper enterprises on Arizona and Montana copper min-ing being but one example.
The Look of the Land
This essay will focus on the lasting visual legacy of hardrock mining on the West — a legacy that is palp-able in the region’s history and evident in its landscape.To do so, I will first identify the characteristic featuresassociated with the exploitation of metal ores. These, touse language borrowed from my fellow geographers, arelandscape “signatures” that serve to brand a location asmining country. To a person traveling through the land-scape, mining communities in the West have a look thatreveals their mining past as effectively as any publishedstatistics or written historical records might: the verytopography itself, not to mention the design of settle-ments, is reshaped in bold patterns unlike those of othersettlements. An example of this mining topographyleaps into view on an otherwise scenic drive throughsouthern Colorado’s stunningly scenic Purgatoire RiverValley. Near the appropriately named town of Cokedale,huge coal dumps and impressive rows of coke ovensstand as testimony to a once highly industrialized coal-mining and coke-producing locale. The mining-inducedlandscape features seen throughout parts of the West arereadily apparent from many angles; the view fromalmost any commercial flight over the region, for ex-ample, reveals the past workings of miners who haveleft their mark in the form of waste dumps and open pits.The history of the region is indeed often inseparablefrom its mining activity, which occurred in a series of boom and bust cycles that have left their imprint both onthe landscape and in the region’s folklore.Travelers in the West in the 1960s and 1970s oftenexpressed amazement that historic mining communitieshad vanished as more modern mining activities “gob-bled them up.” Mining activity is not confined to the dis-tant past, but continues to this day in many Westernlocales. The landscapes associated with mining suggestan increasingly rapid pace and larger scale of that activ-ity through time. Whereas historic photographs oftenreveal a cluster of small mining operations in 1880, bythe 1960s, the scale may have increased a hundredfoldas huge tailings piles and pits developed, often a resultof higher metals prices stimulated by wars that de-manded strategic metals.ORreasons that are partly historical and partlygeological, mining and the American West havelong been synonymous. The nearly legendary“Forty-niners” helped to establish California as theGolden State, and many of the fabled locations in theinterior West — Tombstone, Virginia City, Butte — res-onate with images of mining. Nevada’s “Silver State”and Arizona’s “Copper State” nicknames also reveal theenduring power of metals mining in Western history,folklore, and popular culture.Several factors conspire to link mining with the histo-ry of the American West. Throughout much of the area,mineralization left a series of lodes or deposits that by anystandards were rich. These bonanzas were often in fairlyisolated locations that were difficult to access. Theyechoed to the clatter of pickaxes and then to the whistle of locomotives and the din of industry only after mucheffort. Since they were often located in areas of relativelylight precipitation and where vegetation was scarce, min-ing activity tended to stand out quite starkly, its conse-quences remaining visible on the land for many years.Other cultural and historical forces also came into play.Because much mining activity in the West occurred in theform of “rushes” as miners flocked to new and ever moreisolated areas, mining in the West has tended to be asso-ciated with risk-taking and adventure. Once-remoteplaces like Leadville and Telluride were originally associ-ated exclusively with mining. They formed an importantpart of a distinctive and characteristically Westernurban/industrial frontier that today is increasingly asso-ciated with tourism and amenity visitation.In reality, of course, the East and Middle West alsohad their share of metals mining districts: for example,Minnesota’s iron ranges, Michigan’s copper country,and the fabulous “Tri-State” lead and zinc mining dis-trict of Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas, not to mentionthe first (early 19th century) “gold rush” area in theUnited States — the Carolinas and Georgia — as well asthe even earlier copper mines of Pennsylvania and Con-necticut. In the East and Middle West, however, land-scape and history are not as vividly associated with min-ing by the public, in part because nature in these morewell-watered and heavily forested areas has tended toobscure or erase the visible evidence of mining.Nevertheless, it should be noted that much of the capi-tal, and a considerable amount of the expertise, thatfueled Western mining activity originated in the cities
F
Francaviglia:
 Hardrock Mining’s Effects on the Visual Environment of the West 
 JOW 
, Winter 2004, Vol. 43, No. 1
39
 Hardrock Mining’s Effects on theVisual Environment of the West 
Richard V. Francaviglia
 
40
 JOW 
, Winter 2004, Vol. 43, No. 1
Francaviglia:
 Hardrock Mining’s Effects on the Visual Environment of the West 
Historical and Cultural Roots of Western Mining
There are significant cultural as well as historical rea-sons for this change in scale through time. In contrast tothe Native Americans, whose early mining activitieswere localized and of relatively minimal impact, bothHispanic and Anglo cultures supported the right totransform the land by mining. Although written severalthousand years ago, the following verses from the Book of Job hint at the transformation of landscape that wouldultimately rearrange a considerable portion of the West:Man puts his hand to the flinty rock, and overturnsmountains by the roots. He cuts out channels in therocks, and his eye sees every precious thing. Hebinds up the streams so that they do not trickle,and the thing that is hid he brings forth to light.
1
Whereas the writer(s) of Job used mining as a metaphorto caution readers of the folly of materialism as truth, thewords also validated an aggressive relationship to na-ture. The consequences of mining activity’s power totransform are especially evident in the landscape of theWest, a landscape whose overturned mountains and cut-out channels seem literally to embody Job’s propheticwords. The Judeo-Christian values underlying the in-dustrial revolution that swept the American continentleft an imprint in places as distant as Butte, Montana;Ajo and Globe, Arizona; Tyrone, New Mexico; andeven south of the border in Cananea and Nacozari(Sonora) Mexico, where American mining interestsflourished during the rule of Porforio Diaz. Culture aswell as technology are at work here, as mining reflecteddeeply held values about the right to transform the land(separating metals from ores is still called “winning” inmining engineering circles). To conservationists, mininglandscapes seem a nightmarish expression of technolo-gy run amok; but to mining engineers, they are a moreor less “natural” result of technology and economy. Tothe historical geographer, whose goal is to interpret thelandscape, the topography left in the wake of miningsheds light on both the behavior and the value of miningenterprises, as well as the larger cultures in which theyoperated.Hardrock and placer mining have transformed theWestern landscapes, leaving vivid signatures on the landas a testimony. The term “hardrock mining” refers to theremoval of ores from consolidated rock that is usuallyigneous or metamorphic in origin. This removal ofteninvolves considerable crushing and pulverization. Onthe other hand, placer mining refers to the removal of metals or ores from unconsolidated materials such assands and gravels, where nature has already done muchof the pulverization and where water alone may accom-plish the separation of metal or ore from waste rock.This article will focus on only two types of hardrock mining, underground and surface, to demonstrate min-ing’s impact on the topography and to answer two fun-damental questions tied to the region’s history and geol-ogy. First, how has mining actually shaped the land-scape of the American West? And second, how can onesystematically read the mining landscape to determine(and later interpret) what has occurred? Answering thesequestions requires an understanding of the morphologyof mining-related landforms. Therefore, I shall first pre-sent a basic classification system of mining-relatedtopography and then discuss how the topographyreflects sequential changes in technology and economy.Being both a historian and historical geographer con-cerned with the element of time, I shall also ask a decep-tively simple third question: How have these mininglandscapes evolved or changed over time? As will beseen, there is much method and order to what the unini-tiated see as the seemingly spontaneous — even rapa-cious — behavior of miners, who leave in their wakea landscape that serves as a signature of their time-honored occupation.
The Classification of Hardrock Mining Landscapes
As noted elsewhere, mining landscapes often containfour basic kinds of topographic features that result fromthe specific processes used to extract, mill, concentrate,smelt, and refine metals:
2
1) Primary Extractive(that is, subtractive) fea-tures, such as pits, stopes, tunnels, and shafts.2) Secondary Accretionary(additive) features,such as mine dumps and gob and overburdenpiles that result from the physical or structuralbreakdown of mined material.3) Tertiary Accretionary(additive) features, name-ly the wastes of chemical-concentrating pro-cesses, for example, “tailings” in the proper useof the term.4) Quaternary Accretionary(additive) features,such as cinder and slag piles, resulting from thecomplete restructuring of materials throughheat, which is to say the smelting, fluxing,and/or refinement of ores.The environmental historian can use landscape fea-tures that result from these processes to classify land-scapes according to their physical properties (seeClassification System chart). Once they have been iden-tified and classified, the features can then be mapped, anexercise that reveals the position of each and, moreimportantly, confirms their relationship in time as cor-roborated by the written record and historical pho-tographs.Whether any particular mining-related landscape willpossess all four types of features depends largely on thekind of ore mined and the technology used by the min-
 
Francaviglia:
 Hardrock Mining’s Effects on the Visual Environment of the West 
 JOW 
, Winter 2004, Vol. 43, No. 1
41
ers. Historically, mining’s early impacts were quite lo-calized and determined by how much rock could beremoved with hand tools. Nevertheless, early mining ac-tivity created a distinctive type of topography that char-acterizes mining country historically: holes of extractionin the form of small open pits or mine shafts flanked bypiles of waste debris that may choke or redirect streamchannels and accelerate erosion. Yet even the “primi-tive” miners removed and moved far more material thanthe ore that they sought. The gangue, or waste rock, hadto be put somewhere. The ore had to be reduced to ob-tain the valuable metals it contained, unless it wasnearly pure metal, a rare and unlikely scenario that char-acterized only the very richest of the gold- or copper-mining locations, and then only in the earliest stages of mining.
Mining Landscapes through Time
As mining technologies developed, the scale of pits,shafts, and especially debris piles increased dramatical-ly, as did their cumulative impact. For example, NativeAmerican peoples also conducted mining operations,but on a small scale. These Native peoples left primaryextractive features at what are now archaeological sites,such as the early copper and turquoise mines in theSouthwest.
3
However, they did little or no smelting andthus did not produce significant accretionary landscapefeatures. By contrast, the Spanish mined and processedsilver and gold ores on an extensive scale, leaving farmore spectacular residual features, including quaternaryaccretionary features such as slag piles, for they broughtwith them the Old World technology of smelting.Much of the Spanish mining heritage could be tracedto Iberia and Saxony;
 De Re Metallica
, one of the firstaccounts of contemporary mining technology, was writ-ten by a Saxon, Georgius Agricola, and was published in1556. The later Anglo-American mining legacy of theUnited States is also linked to the British and northernEuropean Industrial Revolution, whose technology wastransported to the Eastern Seaboard before about 1800.Euro-American technology was very eclectic and bor-rowed from many sources, including Spain, Saxony,and Mexico, as well as from mining centers such asCornwall and Wales. An individualist ethos gave a senseof urgency to the Anglo-American search for wealth, asminers explored the West for gold, silver, and otherminerals. Although it is generally true that the Westernmining landscapes created during the last 200 yearswere largely the result of the
westward 
move of Euro-American culture, it should be noted that many mining
Classification System of Metals Mining-Related Topographic Features (see Francaviglia, “The Ultimate Artifact,”1988.)

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