BRITISH TECHNOLOGY AND MONEY FUEL NEVADA MINING
British money and technology was critical to the growth of the Nevada's mining boom in the late 1800s. Eastern investors, who would normally be the source for investment capital, were focused on building railroads across the nation. Consequently Western miners came to rely upon British investors, who had the wealth of an empire behind them, as well as the latest mining technology. It was a good match.
Contrary to the Hollywood image of mining towns, many of the boom towns of the West were as cosmopolitan as many Eastern cities. British money flooded into mining towns to turn prospective deposits into profitable mines. It was also bringing in educated British, who were often younger sons of wealthy families who were excluded from inheriting the family estates and seeking their fortune overseas. They were often the geologists and mining engineers who made the Western mines boom.
So, how did the British get such a foothold in America? The Nevada mining boom started to peter out after the Civil War as the Comstock Lode started to be mined out. Miners in the rest of the West also had problems. Before then, the mining industry only needed old technology, which could be funded out of profits. After the war, miners needed capital to build extensive tunnels in hard rock mines, high technology smelters, tramways, drainage ways, and sophisticated mine engineering. British mine investors began to get their first taste of American mining during the Civil War. Not only were many potential American investors ruined by the war, when the value of the dollar dropped, British investment became much more attractive.
Along with British money came British mine management and British mining technology. The old stamp mills which pulverized ore and then ran it over a bed of mercury didn't recover enough gold or silver to make a profit. The British were more than glad to bring in new processes that could reclaim the precious metals from the increasingly common refractory ores that Nevada miners uncovered.
Britain was the technological leader as well as the richest country in the world. When a mine was purchased, mine managers would often bring in new technology to solve the problems that bedeviled American mines. In the White Pine Mining District, near the Carlin Trend, the British brought in the most elaborate and efficient mill in Nevada in order to process the ores near Treasure Hill. The equipment was built according to the latest British designs in San Francisco and then moved to the mines by rail and wagon. In this case, it kept the mines going an additional twenty years.
Unfortunately, some of the technology needed a touch of American ingenuity as well. At Treasure Hill, the British built a tram so ore could move from the mines to the mill even when snow covered the 9,000 foot high roads. Using cable shipped from England, around Cape Horn, and designs from some of England's best engineers, the mine built a tram that covered two and one fourth miles and hauled buckets which carried two hundred pounds of ore each.
The problem was that the tram transited two thousand feet in elevation and the temperature variations at different elevations caused the cable to expand and contract by different amounts. It was solved by adding a tightening pulley halfway up the hill so the slack could be removed from the cable. However, even these advances couldn't help produce paying amounts of gold from Nevada ore bodies that were becoming exhausted. A new process was needed to process this low grade ore.
While many British investors looked for new mining fields, others decided to focus on economically producing gold from the low grade American gold deposits. That's where a discovery by three Scottish chemists, John MacArthur, and Robert and William Forrest proved to be the missing technological link. They invented a commercially viable cyanide process for extracting gold from low grade ores. This process allowed miners to economically process old mine tailings and open new operations at low grade ore deposits. The result was that cyanide processing gave new life to many aging mining districts and became the backbone of modern gold mining.
Although the cyanide process reinvigorated American gold mining, the British had begun to lose interest in American mining by the late 1880s and were looking at new mining ventures - this time in South Africa. Thanks to British money and technology (often perfected in the US), African gold output went from zero in 1886 to 23% of the world's production by 1896.
Although the British had left, American miners kept a lot of British mining practices that have stayed with them over the years. Before the British came, American mine management was haphazard and mines with good ore deposits could still lose money. The British changed that. They also brought enlightened labor practices, advanced mining engineering, and advanced capital investment methods. The British and their money were gone, but they left the foundations for an American mining industry that has become a world leader.