Elko, Nevada is our host for the Mining History Association’s 30th Annual Conference in 2021. Elko is at the base of the beautiful Ruby Mountains and surrounded by the rugged Great Basin Desert, in what Nevada’s Tourism Board touts as Cowboy Country. Of course, nowadays mining folks and mining historians know northern Nevada as Gold Country.
In his book A Great Basin Mosaic, Nevada historian James Hulse (2017) described Elko County as part of the “other” Nevada. It is not the gaudy neon Nevada of Las Vegas, or the resplendent Nevada of Lake Tahoe. Rather, it is the Nevada of livestock towns and mining camps, a quick respite for the weary traveler, and the final frontier experiment. This “other” Nevada fills out the panorama that makes Nevada a unique Western state, we are excited to share this corner of the Silver State with you in 2021!
The town of Elko is an oasis in this “other” Nevada, a place of 21,000 people intimately connected to the surrounding mines and ranches. Founded in 1868, Elko was born on the tracks of the Transcontinental (Central Pacific) Railroad, but California’s gold-seeking 49ers and other emigrant travelers had already been passing through here. By 1868 dozens of mining camps had sprung up in Nevada, and Elko was ideally suited to become a major freighting and stage center in this far northeastern part of the state. By 1869 stage lines were running the toll roads to the camps of White Pine, Tuscarora, Bullion, and Mountain City, Nevada, and north to Silver City and Boise, Idaho. As more mines sprang up (especially Eureka and Mineral Hill), the importance of Elko and other railheads along the line grew. The Cortez and Eureka Mining Districts, and, and the Carlin Trend will be focal points of MHA activities.
Cortez (80 miles west of Elko) is one of the only mining districts in Nevada to remain nearly continuously active or explored in its 150+ year history. Cortez has two large active open pit gold mines and an active underground mine. It is the location of Goldrush, the state’s largest untapped gold reserve discovered since the Carlin Trend.
Cortez was discovered in 1863 as a silver camp. Prospectors from Austin, Nevada were fascinated with Mount Tenabo’s massive limestone and quartz face and knew minerals had to be there. They set up camp in Mill Canyon, and imported technologies straight from the Comstock. The Garrison, Arctic, and St. Louis mines came under the control of Simeon Wenban, an Englishman, who in 1886 replaced the failing amalgamation process with Russell lixiviation in a new state of the art mill. Earlier, Wenban had taken the unprecedented step of replacing Cornish miners with Chinese labor, employing them as underground hard rock miners. These two steps allowed Wenban to reap enormous profits, making him one of the West’s Bonanza Kings.
Cortez’ longevity allowed it to experiment with all of the precious metal milling technologies that emerged. From pan amalgamation, to lixiviation, cyanide, and finally flotation, all of Nevada’s milling techniques are represented in the district’s ruins. In the 1960s Cortez was one of the first places in Nevada to experiment with heap leaching.
The discovery of rich silver-lead ores in the Eureka District (110 miles south of Elko) transformed central Nevada from a harsh and isolated outlier to a major mining center. Eureka’s boom starts in 1869 on a place called Ruby Hill. From 1869-1890 Eureka was Nevada’s leading silver-lead district. Two smelters, the Richmond Mining Company and the Eureka Consolidated Mining Company, dominated the district. The hills surrounding Eureka in a 30 mile radius were denuded of their trees to satisfy the smelter’s demand for charcoal. In 1875 the narrow-gauge Eureka and Palisade Railroad connected the town of several thousand people directly by rail to the Central Pacific. Thereafter Eureka became a jumping off point to mining camps located even further into Nevada’s interior.
Eureka’s decline began in 1905. Today Eureka is the county seat for about 600 people along the “Loneliest Road in America,” US Highway 50. The 1876 courthouse, the still-active 1880 Opera House, the Eureka Sentinel Newspaper Museum, and a fairly intact “western” main street all welcome visitors.
The Carlin Trend
The Carlin Trend (25 miles west of Elko) is a late comer to Nevada’s mining history, but by any measure is the most impressive mining location in Nevada. The Carlin Trend is America’s largest gold producer. In 1963 Newmont Mining’s exploration team discovered a body of 11 million tons of ore, but it was disseminated (microscopic) gold. Things moved quickly. A mill was running by 1965, and in 1968 Newmont had poured its one millionth ounce of gold. Heap leaching experiments began in the late 1960s, and the process was operational by 1979. To mine low grade ore, you have to think BIG, and the pits and equipment at Carlin define big. Oxide mills, roasters, and leaching heaps treat the various deposits and lowest ore grades possible, and milling technologies continue to evolve as more deposits are found. The proven feasibility of mining “Carlin-type” deposits revolutionized worldwide mining. As the numerous coach buses for mine employees leaving Elko for the mine at 3 a.m. will tell you, the Carlin Trend is still very active.
The Cowboy Gear and Arts Museum inside the historic Garcia Saddle Shop pays homage to this part of Northeast Nevada’s heritage, and the California Trail Center, located on an actual section of the trail, tells the story of the California-bound 49ers and later migrants. For the hearty modern explorer, Elko is surrounded by ghost towns and abandoned mining sites in various states of decay. A word of caution to anyone seeking out ghost towns – respect private land, take water, expect no services (gas!), and communicate with someone where you are going – cell service in Nevada is not reliable away from the major towns!
MHA program sessions and vendor booths will be conveniently held at the host hotel, the Red Lion. The opening reception is at the Northeast Nevada Museum, and the awards banquet will be downtown, in the 1907 Hesson’s Hardware building (now Dalling Hall).
CLICK HERE to Learn More about “Northern Nevada Gold and Mining History.”
VISITOR INFORMATION (Accessed, July 5, 2019)
Elko, Nevada Visitor’s Site, http://www.exploreelko.com/
Northeastern Nevada Museum, https://museumelko.org/index.htm
California Trail Center, https://www.californiatrailcenter.org/
READING AND REFERENCES (A Short List)
Emmons, William H. 1910. A Reconnaissance of Some Mining Camps in Elko, Lander, and Eureka Counties, Nevada. USGS Publication 408, https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/b408
Hall, Shawn. 1998. Old Heart of Nevada: Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Elko County, Nevada. University of Nevada Pres, Reno. (Cortez and Eureka are covered in his similar book on Eureka County).
Hardesty, Donald. 2010. Mining Archaeology in the American West: A View from the Silver State. University of Nebraska Press.
Heitt, Dean. 2019. Before the Gold: Early History of the Carlin Trend 1874-1961.
Morris, Jack. 2017. Going for Gold: The History of Newmont.
Obermayr, Erich and Robert McQueen 2016. Historical Archaeology in the Cortez Mining District: Under the Nevada Giant. University of Nevada Press, Reno.
Paher, Stanley. 1970. Nevada Ghost Towns and Mining Camps. Howell North. (Still in print and extremely popular).
2021 CONFERENCE ORGANIZING COMMITTEE
Richard Reid, General Chair
The Preliminary Program and Registration Materials are also published in the Spring 2021 Mining History News (MHA Newsletter).
CLICK ON IMAGES TO ENLARGE
Nelson Mill, Mountain City, NV.
Cortez Mining District, NV, ca1916.
Tenabo Mill ruins, Cortez District, NV
Tuscarora Mine, Tuscarora, NV.
Fad Shaft, Eureka, NV, ca1950s.
Aerial view of a modern Carlin Trend North gold mine.
An open pit gold mine near Elko, NV.
A Carlin Trend underground gold mine.
(Photos courtesy Elko Visitors Bureau, UNLV, NVMA, Google Earth)