, Winter 2004, Vol. 43, No. 1
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.
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:
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-