The 2018 Annual Conference of the Mining History Association (MHA) will be held in the towns of Deadwood and Lead, South Dakota, June 6-10, 2018. Located in the beautiful Black Hills, Deadwood and Lead are among the most famous frontier gold mining towns. The historic Homestake Mine, closed in 2001, was the largest gold mine in the US for many years. The mine is now the location of Sanford Underground Research Facility, an underground physics research laboratory for studying neutrinos and deep-space science. While many of the Homestake facilities have been reclaimed since the 1993 MHA Conference, the Homestake legacy is preserved in the area’s excellent museums and, of course, the Homestake Open Cut. Black Hills gold is still produced by Coeur Mining at its Wharf Mine.
The mineral wealth of the Black Hills was not limited to gold. South Dakota is also famous for other mineral resources including those found in the pegmatite deposits near Custer and Keystone. Overlooked by the early gold prospectors, the pegmatites were mined sporadically from the 1880s through World War II for mica, tin, lithium, beryllium, tantalum, and feldspar to name a few of the more “exotic,” critical, and strategic mineral products. Both surface and underground mining were used to extract the ore from the pegmatite dikes and podiform deposits.
Another mining activity of historic proportions is the development of the Powder River Coal Basin located just west of the Black Hills in Wyoming and Montana. In the 1920s, the mines initially supplied the Homestake operations. By the 1980s, the demand for low sulfur coal had greatly expanded production. Powder River Basin coal is shipped via rail to customers in the Midwest and used by local power plants to generate electrical power transmitted by wire to consumers in nearby states.
Conference tours and field trips will visit historic and active sites in the Deadwood-Lead area, the pegmatite mining area, and the Powder River Coal Basin.
The venues for conference program sessions will be the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center and the Lodge at Deadwood.
The principle accommodations for the conference will be the Lodge at Deadwood. It is a modern, full-service hotel that advertises “Midwestern hospitality and million dollar views…of the majestic Black Hills.” Guests can enjoy a range of amenities including a fitness center, water playland, several restaurants, trolley service to the Deadwood attractions, a Las Vegas-style casino, and free parking. 100 Pine Crest Ln, just off U.S. 85 north of Deadwood, 1-877-393-5634.
Rooms for the conference have also been arranged at the First Gold Hotel.
270 Main St., Deadwood, 1-800-274-1876.
Please mention the Mining History Association Conference when making reservations.
A range of other accommodations are available in the northern Black Hills area.
The main gateway city for the Black Hills is Rapid City, SD which is about 45 miles southeast of Deadwood. It is served by American, Delta, and United airlines out of Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, and Minneapolis, and by major car rental companies. Some of the most popular tourist destinations accessed through Rapid City include Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Custer State Park. The Devil’s Tower National Monument is located northwest of Deadwood. Many visitors to the Black Hills choose to make them part of a much longer “loop” that includes Denver, CO, Salt Lake City, UT, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, and the countless other historic and scenic locations along the way.
A Brief History of Black Hills Gold Mining
The Black Hills gold rush began with the Custer Expedition of 1874. As Lt. Col. Custer led 1000 men through the Black Hills, two miners attached to the troop uncovered small quantities of gold near present day Custer, South Dakota. As word spread, the rush began. Prospectors flocked to the southern Black Hills, looking for their share of gold. But the diggings proved meager, and the mining men soon started looking for better locations.
From Custer, the fortune hunters moved north, establishing the towns of Hills City, Sheridan, and Pactola. At each place, flecks of gold appeared in their pans, but never the bonanza they sought. For all practical purposes, the Black Hills gold rush could have ended then and there. Poor returns stymied many earlier gold rushes.
But everything changed when the prospectors stumbled upon Deadwood and Whitewood Creeks in the northern Black Hills. Each spade of earth uncovered a fortune in gold, at least for those who arrived early and staked the first claims. By early 1876, miners had claimed all of the valuable land in Deadwood Gulch, but many more men poured into the new gold camp of Deadwood. While placer gold proved abundant, most good prospectors knew that it came from somewhere else, generally from quartz outcroppings. While some people rushed to the placer diggings, others looked for the quartz that originally held the gold.
The greatest day in Black Hills mining history came on April 9, 1876, when Fred and Moses Manuel, Hank Harney and Alex Engh staked a claim around a gold bearing outcropping near present day Lead. They named their mine the Homestake, and they had located the most important discovery in the Black Hills. It was from this vein that the placer gold in Deadwood and Whitewood creeks had eroded, and it would be from here that men would produce 41 million ounces of gold over the next 125 years. Such a vast undertaking required capital, and early on, three California bonanza kings, George Hearst, J.B. Haggin, and Lloyd Tevis, bought the mine and made a fortune.
All prospectors and miners hoped to find another “Homestake,” so they continued to look. But the Homestake vein was unique in the Black Hills. It was free-milling ore. The quartz did not hold the gold very tightly. Workers could recover much of the gold through crushing and mercury amalgamation.
Gold did exist elsewhere in the Black Hills, but it could not be recovered with the traditional methods. In these cases, the gold was chemically bound to the rock, and very difficult to remove. Known as refractory ore, it required new processes for recovery. Without those, the Homestake was the only major gold mine in the Hills.
New processes did eventually come along. By 1890, mining men adopted chlorination and smelting, two methods that could capture gold from refractory ore. With these innovations, new mines opened, especially in the Bald Mountain and Ruby Basin mining districts, southwest of Lead and Deadwood. Then by 1900, the cyanide process was refined, and more mines sprang to life, while others expanded.
In the early 20th century, thousands of men worked in the Black Hills extracting gold. The government, however, had fixed the price of gold at $20.67 per ounce in the 19th century, and did not change it for years. Gold mine after gold mine closed during World War I as the price of labor and supplies escalated, but the price of gold did not. Only the Homestake managed to endure.
When the Great Depression swept across the nation, Roosevelt raised the price of gold to $35 per ounce, hoping it would help with the country’s recovery. While the nation remained in the Depression, the gold industry boomed. The Homestake hired workers and expanded, and other mines in the Hills opened. But what the government gives, it can take away. With World War II, the federal government classified gold mining as a non-essential industry, and ordered all gold mines closed. As men and their families moved away, mining towns in the Black Hills suffered. Even after the war ended and gold mining was again permitted, mining companies struggled. Gold remained frozen at $35 per ounce, and the mines had a hard time competing for labor during the nation’s post-war prosperity. Only the mighty Homestake could continue, while all other mines closed.
When President Nixon freed gold from government control, the price floated with the world market. Prosperity seemed assured as gold topped $800 an ounce in the early 1980s. A new gold rush swept the Black Hills. The Homestake expanded operations, and long abandoned mines became attractive to promoters and investors. New mining companies opened, using open pits and heap leaching. At least five open-pit mines began operating, including the Wharf and the Gilt Edge. Since those heady times, gold’s price has fluctuated up and down, and most mines closed, either because they ran out of gold ore, or lower gold prices prevented a profitable return. Even the Homestake succumbed to dwindling returns when it ceased operations in 2001. Only the Wharf remains in operation.
The underground workings of the Homestake Mine are now home to Sanford Underground Research Facility.
CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE
Mt. Rushmore is the iconic symbol of South Dakota. Although not an actual mining operation, 450,000 tons of granite were drilled, blasted, and otherwise removed during its construction.
Deadwood main street during the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Deadwood and Delaware Smelter operated from 1891 to 1903. It became the Golden Reward Smelter.
View of Lower Deadwood, ca1901. (Left to right) Golden Reward Smelter, Golden Reward Cyanide Plant, and Imperial Cyanide Mill. The Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Railroad tracks in the foreground.
The historic Adams House in Lead.
The Wharf Mine open pit is operated by Coeur Mining.
The Wyodak Coal Mine in the Powder River Basin near Gillette, WY, supplies the nearby power plants.
Coal from mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin fuels the Wygen Power Plant.
White Spar Pegmatite Mine near Custer, SD, ca1923.
The Yates Shaft of the famous Homestake Mine now provides access to the Sanford Underground Research Facility.
(Photos courtesy of David Wolff, the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center, USGS, Black Hills Energy, and the Library of Congress unless otherwise attributed)