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Rocky Mountain Mining Camps, by Duane Smith

Review by Ed Quillen

Mining History – April 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Rocky Mountain Mining Camps: The Urban Frontier
by Duane A. Smith
University Press of Colorado
ISBN 0-87081-266-1

THE TRADITIONAL IMAGE of pioneer mining is bucolic: bearded guys in floppy hats, their burros waiting as the men slosh their gold pans in the trout-filled brook.

That rustic scene , if it ever existed,endured only if the men failed to find paying gravel. As soon as an Abe Lee shouted “Boys, I’ve got all the gold of California in this here pan,” the landscape was no longer isolated or pastoral.

This sudden transformation, Smith argues, was not typical of American frontier experience.

Normally, civilization came slowly as pioneers moved west. The vanguard might need only a trading post. As more arrived, a crossroads village might sprout, followed by towns and cities — a process that took at least a generation in Kentucky or Ohio.

But the mining frontier did not represent steady advance, but sudden jumps: Missouri to California in 1849, ignoring everything in the middle, Colorado and Montana in 1859, again leaving big gaps. A wilderness known only to the Ute, Lakota, or Apache, could become a Leadville, Deadwood, or Tombstone in less than a year.

Although they may have been isolated geographically from the centers of America, they quickly forged cultural and commercial connections. The latest fashions, the newest equipment, the recent magazines — all were available in any thriving mining camp, no matter how far it lay from a metropolis.

Camp residents also raced to build urban institutions: schools, churches, opera houses, chambers of commerce, mercantile empires, debating societies, literary clubs, libraries, etc.

Smith explores the process in detail, and even if he is a history professor, he writes clearly and well about everything from fire protection and vigilance committees to laundries and retail credit.

He also points out how the mining booms attracted farmers and railroads, and how agriculture, industry and transportation “suffered with the decline of mining, yet, after a period of recession, they became the backbone of permanent settlement which was no longer based on mining.”

Western mining starts to sound like falsework or scaffolding — necessary at first to erect the structure, but vestigial afterward.

If you’ve ever wondered what daily life was like in a mining camp, look no further. Rather than focus on silver barons and notorious madames, he tells “the story of the men and women who lived and died there, who called it home.” Alongside the mundane world of hardware stores and bakeries, Smith also notes the tenderloin, and observes that “Leadville was the only camp which seemed to take real pride in its depravity.”

There’s a question inspired by Smith’s history, though, one that bears thought now as Colorado again attracts immigrants in droves.

Why did those 19th-century settlers work so hard to make the West into a replica of the Ohio or Missouri they came from? They didn’t devise new institutions; they duplicated old institutions. They didn’t borrow local architecture like adobe; they imported cast-iron storefronts. They didn’t search for edibles; they brought their seed corn with them.

In the process, they totally transformed a vast chunk of America, cultural, economically, and physically. As new settlers arrive now, one wonders what they’re bringing with them, and what transformations they will wreak as they, like the earlier migrants, try to convert the new territory into something very much like the one they came from.

The answer to that question doubtless lies beyond the scope of history. Meanwhile, the eminently readable Rocky Mountain Mining Camps will convince you that our Old West was an urban West.

— Ed Quillen