by Sevenstars

Many of the miners who flooded into each successive treasure region had been in California or Oregon since the '50's. Californians were known as "yon-siders" and veteran prospectors in general as "self-risers." They had become Western in every sense of the word. These, and especially the "Old Californians," veterans of the days of '49, were eagerly consulted and copied by the greenhorns in matters of mining law, technique, and camp life; it was they who contributed most of the knowledge and techniques, which gave a certain sameness to the atmosphere of every new camp and strike. Yet in the mountain region, especially in Montana, they were soon joined by veterans of the Civil War, particularly from the broken and disillusioned South, and the area became incredibly polyglot. Pemberton's 30,000 men, surrendering to Grant at Vicksburg, were released on a parole forbidding them to take up arms for the South again unless exchanged. To many of them the rich mines of the new Northwest meant fresh opportunities to forget the ache of failure and futility. There they mingled with many a Yankee deserter and draft-evader who found the treasure fields of California, Nevada, or Montana more to his liking than the battlefields of Virginia. Eastern tenderfeet rubbed elbows with the various old-timers; Yankee abolitionists and former slaveholders from Dixie swung pickaxes together, but fought their own war on the side. All nationalities were represented, from the "Heathen Chinee" of Bret Harte to the beefy German girls who danced in the hurdy-gurdies. The Chinese began moving out from California about 1850; in fifteen years or so they had settled throughout Nevada, Montana, and Idaho, and around 1870 they arrived in Denver. Most mining boom towns had a large population of them; they moved in to rework ground abandoned by white men, grow vegetables, and provide laundry and other humble services, and were followed by Chinese merchants to cater to their needs. If a Chinese staked a claim it always got jumped, but being thrifty and industrious they usually managed to save money. Welsh and Cornish laborers were in high demand for their skill at timbering; the latter were known as "Cousin Jacks" and their women as "Cousin Jennies," supposedly because years of intermarriage in their small shire had made each the relative of all. Quick wealth attracted not only miners, but those who would "mine the miners" in ways both essential and iniquitous. There were fortunes to be made--in banking, freighting, merchandising, even farming; even more rapidly in fields less staid.

Free-milling quartz--that which was found in outcrops on or near the surface and could readily be crushed in a stamp mill and the ore separated out with mercury--was scarce, and the gold-bearing gravels of the streams were quickly exhausted, often in a year or two. In all localities except the California goldfields, the treasure soon displayed a tendency to go underground--often deep underground--and a need arose for trained engineers who could shore up a shaft and tunnels with the new square-set timbering invented in Virginia City, metallurgists who knew how to go about the task of separating gold or silver from companion minerals, and men who could cope with the building of such a technical thing as a mill. To follow outcroppings deep under the surface required capital: tunnelling and shafting were expensive, with thousands of board feet of lumber required to shore up the interior; blasting was costly as well as dangerous, especially with the early hand drills that must be handled by highly skilled men; ventilation, moving ore underground, and hoisting it to the top demanded heavy outlay. Only when the signs of permanency were fairly certain did the financiers--the California bank crowd west of the Rockies, the eastern moneymen elsewhere--move in with big money and big plans, which usually amounted to buying up claims by the dozen or making loans for equipment in exchange for shares in a profitable mine. Any financial depression, such as that of 1873, slowed their interest and threw the camps into the doldrums. With them came the mine promoter--that imaginative and persistent midwife to the transfer of property to combinations of capital--and the bane of all mining camps, the speculator in mining stocks. Some were honest, but most used every trick in the book to milk savings from the little people--stock juggling, rumors and sucker articles in the local newspaper about a fabulous new strike, selling and buying on distant stock markets, so that no one except themselves ever knew for certain what was the truth and what was a lie. With big money, too, came the problems of absentee ownership: some managers were dishonest and absconded with bullion or profits; others were "jolly dogs," high-living relatives of directors who knew little of mining. And the independent miners were cast adrift, the simple processes sustained by their blister-and-callous labor no longer viable. Many went their way, panning new streams and dreaming new dreams, but many more became company workers, three-dollar-a-shift miners mucking ore into one-ton cars or part of a double-jack drilling team, one man holding and turning the drill, the other striking it rhythmically with an eight-pound sledge at fifty strokes a minute. And of these a good many added to the crime statistics by "high-grading"--simple theft of valuable ore which they carried off at the end of the shift, in their lunchboxes, their pockets, or special bags under their clothes.

In each mining region a form of instant civilization sprang up. Hopeful miners came from all points of the compass and hastily staked out their claims. Tents, tarpaulins, wagon beds, wickiups, and crude log cabins appeared. Sometimes a town speculator staked out a settlement in a gridiron pattern, but his claim to ownership was rarely honored; more likely the town presented a haphazard collection of dry goods, grocery, assay, barber, hardware, powder and mining supply, blacksmith, feed, and hotel establishments, barrooms, gambling halls, and groggeries, perhaps a chapel and a schoolhouse, and a newspaper office in a little wooden building, all situated along both sides of a winding, vacant strip of mud or dust that was more or less accepted as the main street and was, in the midst of the boom, filled with oxen, mules, and horses drawing white-topped freight wagons, buggies, and stagecoaches. Plank walks appeared fairly soon along the sides of the street, out of necessity. The camp was scarcely more than a disorganized raid on nature that left behind battlefields strewn with waste and decay, banks furrowed by water, rocks blasted by fire, unshapely stumps of ancient pines, forgotten engines lying half-buried in the gullies, scarred flats, ruined flumes, abandoned heaps of tailings worn into mounds. Sometimes it was moribund, sometimes alive with expectations, swarming with red-shirted miners and the waifs and strays of played-out gulches and bars on some neighboring river, and occasionally a gang of bully-boys bent on painting the settlement red galloped in, yelling and emptying their shooting irons. Half-lost in tangles of forest and canyon and thickets of underbrush, with the wooded mountains above and the river below, the camp was swept day and night with the balmy, resinous odors of spruce, juniper, wild syringa and bay.

If the strike appeared valid, if there really did seem to be an abundance of precious metal, the tent and wagon town changed with almost miraculous rapidity into a clapboard and false-front one, many of whose buildings had from the first a weatherbeaten, windblown look. Businessmen secured valid titles to their properties, and soon even a brick or stone business block began to appear here and there. Not all miners were drunkards and gamblers; many sober and God-fearing men came to the goldfields, thriftily saved the money they made, and planned for the future. A large number of educated and professional men could be found in any camp; some of these brought books, and in a few towns kindred spirits organized literary clubs and debating societies. Virginia City soon boasted a Social Club and a Literary Association, of which the latter marked its inauguration by a ball. There was a Catholic choir, and French lessons were to be had. Helena in 1867 boasted a hundred or more stores and nearly as many saloons. Hurdy-gurdy houses were well patronized. Church services were held on Sunday, but the stores, saloons, auctioneers, and hurdy-gurdies continued in full operation, as that was the day when miners from all the gulches around town crowded in to buy their supplies, get their mail, do their laundry, talk, watch grudge fights, and have a good time.

In these early mining towns, life moved at a dizzy pace marked by fabulous price inflation as well as by adventure, with gambling houses, saloons, and the painted ladies of the dance halls draining off the surplus cash. Miners made money unexpectedly and fast, and while they had it to spend they wanted the world's finest goods. Even the crudest unpainted plank stores carried stocks of imported Chinese silks, French wallpaper, Oriental rugs, ornate lamps, and furniture crafted by the best cabinetmakers of Europe. Hotels and other prominent buildings acquired iron heater stoves and brick-sided kitchen ones, and marble corner lavatories with hot and cold taps. And a camp saloon, though housed in a rough, unpainted barn of a building, might boast an interior furnished with such luxuries as a mahogany bar, gilt-framed mirrors, oil paintings, tapestries, velvet carpets, heavy prismed glass chandeliers, and leather-upholstered easy chairs. As early as the Christmas of 1859, Denver observed the holiday with a feast whose bill of fare surpassed that of Delmonico's:

Oyster Soup. Ox Tail.
Salmon Trout, with Oyster Sauce.
Corned Beef. Buffalo Tongue. Mutton. Pork. Ham. Beef Tongue. Elk Tongue.
Venison a la Mode. Buffalo Smothered. Antelope. Beef. Mutton. Pork. Grizzly Bear a la Mode. Elk. Mountain Sheep. Mountain Pig.
Mountain Pheasant. Mountain Rabbit. Turkey. Duck. Sage Hen. Prairie Chicken. Black Mountain Squirrel. Prairie Dog. Snipe. Mountain Rat. White Swan. Quail. Sand Hill Crane.
Potatoes, Baked or Boiled. Rice. Beans, Baked or Boiled. Beets. Squashes, Fried. Pumpkins, Stewed.
Mince Pie. Currant Pie. Apple Pie. Rice Pie. Peach Pie. Mountain Cranberry Pie. Tapioca Pudding. Bread Pudding. Rice Pudding.
Brazil Nuts. Almonds. Hazel Nuts. Filberts. Pecans. Wild Currants. Raisins. Prickly Pear. Dried Mountain Plum.
Hockheimer. Madeira. Champagne. Golden Sherry. Cherry Bounce. Hock. Monongahela Whiskey. Claret. Brandy. Scotch Whiskey. Jamaica Rum. Bourbon Whiskey. Taos Lightning.

Men played poker with $25 chips, and $100,000 changed hands in a single night; once in Deadwood Darcy saw a man betting $1000 chips at faro and losing $42,000 in a brief spree. In the best hotel in South Pass City one Sunday morning she watched the probate judge of the county lose thirty town lots in less than ten minutes at cards, and afterward saw the county sheriff pawning his revolver for twenty dollars to bet at faro. Every gold and silver town was a wild, wild place, overrun with brigands, swindlers, promoters, gamblers, come-on girls, and plain crib women. Gold dust was legal tender. Every saloon featured poker tables, roulette, faro, keno, and red dog, and a dance hall farther back. Yet stationery-and-book stores stood cheek by jowl with the bars. Prostitution and gambling--chuck-a-luck, roulette, fan-tan, poker, faro, and euchre were the most popular games--were the chief attractions of many saloons, but some added "reading rooms" to draw the trade of news-hungry prospectors who might not have seen a newspaper in weeks. In one of them in Colorado hung a sign that read: "Don't forget to write home to your dear old mother. She is thinking of you. We furnish paper and envelopes free, and have the best whiskey in town." Moreover, it was not alone saloons, gambling dens, hurdy-gurdies and bawdy houses that offered entertainment. No miner worked his claim on Sunday; instead he darned his socks, cobbled his boots, cut his week's wood, baked his bread, ground a supply of coffee, hunted and fished, did his laundry, cleaned up his camp, and went to town for supplies and relaxation. Faro, keno, and roulette were indispensable to mark a mining camp as "a good town;" indeed, '49ers regarded poker as too slow and complicated a way to win or lose money, and preferred craps, faro, vingt-et-un, lansquenet, and especially Mexican monte. There were footraces and horseraces, bull- and bear-baiting, cockfights, dogfights, prizefights, and even the occasional bullfight, as well as croquet, pool, and hard-rock-drilling contests, and huge sums were wagered on them. Miners would bet on anything--burro fights, louse races, scraps between dogs and a "killer duck." On one occasion in Butte two greyhounds and a bulldog were set against a wolf, over which they won handily. There was money in the camps, and an audience of lusty and lonely men; entertainers naturally gravitated to such places, so there were lectures and lyceums and debates, glee clubs, minstrel shows, and plays, staged by both local and travelling companies. Dan Rice's circus made the rounds even during the war years, and entertainers of all kinds, from phrenologists and ventriloquists to lecturers and actors, were usually sure of an audience. From the earliest days, travelling variety shows, strolling players, minstrel bands, and straight dramatic companies met with an enthusiastic reception in every camp throughout the West. Deadwood's earliest theater boasted seventeen curtained boxes, although they were made of rough logs; ordinary seats were mere benches, slabs laid atop stakes driven into the bare earth. The first piano in the gulch, brought in by ox team over two months' journey, graced the stage. Tickets ranged in price from $2.50 to five dollars. A troupe of travelling players was amazed to find their rendition of Richard III--always one of the West's most popular works of Shakespeare--running for a hundred and thirty nights. There were holidays, the Fourth of July and Christmas being the most important. And there were fraternal organizations--the Masons almost invariably, the Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of United Workmen, the Woodmen of the World, Order of the Red Man, Knights of Pythias, German Turnverein societies, Irish Fenians, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, to name but a few. For the elite of the town, literary societies were common, as were travelling Lyceums and lecturers. Sledding and ice-skating in winter, and roller rinks from about 1870 on, were other favorite diversions. Dancing clubs, lending libraries, debating societies, and chess clubs beguiled the idle hour.

In all new minings, the good luck of a few inspired others to successful searches in many directions, and discovery followed discovery. Every large camp prospered not only on its own account but as a clearing house for the more remote ones. Soon settlements sprouted for miles along the course of each gulch (hence the appellation of "string town"), with offshoots probing into the nearby ones. Until the railroads came in, the dreadful state of the early freight routes was but gradually alleviated by the appearance of toll roads and crossings, whose operators had to maintain them with at least occasional reliability. Companies contracted to operate sections as turnpikes and be responsible for their repair and upkeep. Along each winding, steep-pitched mountain trail that led to any promising camp, a small army of laborers was set to work blasting boulders, filling ruts, planking bogs, building bridges, widening turnouts, levelling and grading. The narrow, dangerous path became a broad, compact, well-graded highway. When snowdrifts blocked it, well-equipped parties of men and horses went out from every toll station to clear the way, and in summer watering carts passed up and down in an effort to lay the dust. Such an enterprise cost about $5000 a mile. But a tollhouse proved more lucrative than a gold mine. Receipts for one ten-mile stretch ran $40,000 to $70,000 a year. A wagon drawn by a single pair of animals and laden with under two tons of freight passed for three dollars; anything over that weight was four, and each extra span of animals added a dollar. A man and horse paid a dollar, pack animals were fifty cents apiece, loose horses and cattle a quarter a head, sheep and hogs ten cents. A man on foot paid fifty cents, a one-horse vehicle $2.50, and all rates were doubled after sundown.

In most camps fully half the people were engaged in servicing the miners. Wherever miners went, saloonkeepers and gamblers followed close upon their heels. Next came the merchants, packers, teamsters, and freighters, bringing in meat and fresh vegetables and flour, mining tools, and lumber for the tunnels and the deepening shafts--and for the builders who threw up one-room shacks, flophouses where a man could buy a few hours' sleep in a real bed before surrendering it to the next man, bathhouses with hot water in wooden tubs in preparation for the Saturday-night whingdings. Stagecoach lines and express companies brought their services, arriving coincidentally with the speculators and promoters; possibly one of the first stages to arrive carried a madam and three or four prostitutes. At least a couple of fortunetellers and mediums would soon set up shop to offer advice about claims and investments. Assayers, blacksmiths, and bankers started flourishing businesses; lumbermen, hotel-, restaurant-, and saloonkeepers, gamblers, theatrical people, ranchers, even an occasional minister, could be seen thrusting their way through the crowded, crooked streets. Lawyers found few clients at first, because there were no legally constituted courts and, in any case, people tended to settle their disputes with a sixgun; but they always had the acrimony of local politics in which to spend much of their time. And before long, especially once underground mining began in earnest, "everybody's spurs were running into everybody else's angles," and litigation over claims became not only an auxiliary industry but also often a form of legal blackmail on the part of abutting neighbors seeking to be bought out at their own prices. Journalists, despite high freighting costs, brought in type, presses, and paper so they could keep the isolated boomers informed and politically inflamed. Into these new communities came also the drifters, many with their worldly belongings on their backs. Referred to by the more permanent residents as "idlers and roaring reprobates," they slept on the boardwalks, on lumber piles, on saloon floors, in empty barrels.

Pulmonary disorders were often fatal to placer miners; there was diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, chills, fever, malaria, scurvy, periodic epidemics of cholera (which killed many), rheumatism, sciatica, and numerous skin diseases, all chiefly traceable to poor diet and sanitation, the abundance of mosquitoes, sleeping in wet clothes, and long hours spent standing shin-deep in the river without adequate protection from the scorching sun. Water was excellent for baptizing infants or sluicing out gold, Easterners were told, "but it don't go for a steady beverage up here, where the air is so thin." More fitting was stronger stuff. And following closely its purveyors were slick practitioners of the art of gambling, along with the "light ladies who followed the heavy money," as well as the dance houses, where the girls were not necessarily prostitutes--indeed, often soiled doves found that there was more money to be made on the dance floor than in a horizontal position. In every town the earliest arrivals were likely to include the landladies and boarders of the parlor houses, answering a need and taking money for it in an honest and forthright fashion. Prostitutes and mistresses, who in other communities would have been shunned, were accepted by all but the lonely little group of ladies. Indeed, the "ladies" who followed the gold and silver strikes were the first women in the camp and brought with them the first semblances of civilization. Their jewels, perfumes, rouges, sweeping skirts, gay bonnets, and parasols made an instant impression upon the rough miners, who saw no contest in the contrast between Virtue, in the shape of tall, gawky, sallow, ill-dressed, bonneted, board-shaped Down Easters, and beautiful, graceful, elegantly adorned Vice as represented by sprightly, elegant, active, saucy-looking, rosy-cheeked, pretty Frenchwomen and Spaniards. Men who had never bothered to shave, who rarely bathed or changed their shirts, began to pay some attention to dress, and the camp became a profitable place for barber, haberdasher, and dry-goods merchant. Champagne and fine wines were added to bar stocks. High-class prostitutes in a city like San Francisco, and even in the boom towns, enjoyed an opulent life and a freedom of behavior probably attractive to hard-worked virtuous women, and were generally among the first to be able to buy expensive goods like pianos or elegant clothes.

To look after the numerous riding and pack animals brought in by the gold seekers, someone usually started a boarding ranch, and presently others realized that if the land would support work animals, it would also support beef cattle. So ranches were established: when the Pike's Peak rush began, for instance, small ranchers and even a few big ones emerged almost at once to supply the gold-seekers with beef. Still other newcomers, having been farmers in their youth, had the sense to recognize that raising crops for human consumption and animal feed might be a surer way to wealth than digging for gold or silver. If conditions were favorable to their efforts, such people might be able to keep a town alive even after the "colors" had given out and the miners had departed for more glittering pastures.

Women seldom filed on claims, but for any who provided a semblance of home--a warm meal and a clean bed--there were fortunes to be made in the mining camps. A neighbor of the Cullins in Virginia City lost her husband to a shooting affray. Left literally all but penniless, she bought provisions at a neighboring store, and that night had twenty miners eating at her table. Each put a dollar in her hand as he rose and said she could count on him as a permanent customer. Before long, assisted by a seventeen-year-old Negro boy who had been sold to her husband by his father and a slave woman who trudged across country driving sheep behind the three hundred wagons of her master's train, one of which was handled by her three daughters, she was serving seventy-five to two hundred boarders at $25 a week, plus the casual diners only, as many as two hundred extra on Sunday at two dollars per. Another baked dried-fruit and mince pies for a living, and soon had miners lining up outside her cabin to get them hot from the oven. She charged a dollar for peach and apple and $1.50 for mince, and on peak days baked a hundred, which made for an average income of $125. From there she soon branched out to banking, handling gold dust for the men--many a night she shut her oven door on two milk pans filled with bags of it, kept still more in the woodbox, and slept on a mattress lined with the same, to the amount of as much as $200,000--and to money-lending at 10% per month. Her house was only a peak-roofed log cabin, with a chimney on the north side, off-centered door on the south, and a lean-to room with two windows. But her sitting-room shelves were laden with books, specimens, minerals, shells; she boasted a piano, sewing machine, comfortable sofa and easy chair. Presently she began to purchase property. Her original investment amounted to only $250, but thirty years later her heirs were to refuse an offer of only $200,000 for only part of the land.


Comments to: sevenstars39@hotmail.com