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Underground Metal Mining


Gold was originally discovered in California in 1848 by James Marshall, leading to the California Gold Rush (1848 to 1855).  During the California Gold Rush, prospectors initially mined gold found in the river and stream beds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  They subsequently traced these river and stream bed deposits, known as placer or alluvial deposits, to their sources. This led to the development of "hardrock" or "lode" gold mining around 1850.  


Eventually hundreds of small mines were developed in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, as miners searched for gold and other metals.  Most of the Gold Rush Miners and most of the hard rock miners that followed were unsuccessful in their quest for riches.  However, some mines like the Empire North Star and Idaho-Maryland Mines in Grass Valley were very successful and produced millions of ounces of gold (5.8 million ounces and 2.3 million ounces respectively).  


The hard-rock underground gold mines of the Sierra Nevada Mountains produced the majority of California's gold and populated the region with strong communities.  Many small mining claims, staked by individuals, where subsequently amalgamated into larger mines between 1850 and 1950. Newmont Mining Corporation for example, now one of the largest gold mining companies in the world, got its start in Grass Valley when it acquired the Empire and North Star Mines in 1929. The Empire North Star mine reached depths exceeding 5,000 feet vertically and consisted of 350 miles of underground tunnels prior to shutting down in the mid 1950's.  

Miners and settlers emigrated from all over the world to seek a new life and find employment in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at part of the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1913).  This included groups like Cornish miners or Chinese miners, resulting in wide ranging cultural diversity.  The underground mines also became leaders in development of mining technologies (e.g. the Pelton wheel for power generation, the Newsom drill for shaft boring).  The Sierra Nevada Mountains became known for its gold production throughout the U.S. and in the world and many famous mining people got their start in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  


A death blow to the gold industry in California came when the U.S. War Production Board issued Order L-208 in 1942, closing down the gold mines and moving the mining workforce into more strategic wartime industries.  For the next five years, many of the underground mines filled with groundwater and the workers dispersed, never to reopen.  When the Order L 208 was lifted in 1945, the U.S. government refused to compensate mining companies for the costs and impacts of shutting them down.  They also refused to increase the gold price above $35 per ounce, a price which they controlled.  With rising labor and supply costs after World War II, the few mines that did reopen after World War II soon became uneconomic. By the mid-1950's, most of the underground gold mines in the U.S. had shut down - including those in the Sierra Nevada Mountains such as the Empire North Star Mine and Idaho-Maryland Mine.  


By the mid-1960's, virtually all underground mining and dredge mining in the Sierra Nevada has shut down and the industry was effectively idled due to government policy.  The U.S. government's refusal to compensate mines for their losses due to their forced shut down during World War II and their subsequent failure to raise the gold price after World War II resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs, resulted in thousands of abandoned mines in California, and created a historical mining legacy of abandoned mines that exists today.


Underground metal mining in the Sierra Nevada Mountains since the mid 1950's had essentially been inactive.  A few "small miner" still hold mining claims and a few operate mines with histories often going back to the 1800's.  Several mining companies attempted to review old mines with the rising gold price in the mid 2000's, but the uncertain permitting process, constantly changing regulation, poor investment climate to attract mining investment, and other factors has not resulted in a resurgence of the gold mining industry - which was felt in many other jurisdictions around the world including Nevada.


The Sierra Nevada Mountains holds many potentially economic mineral deposits that could be mined with modern underground mining methods and in socially and environmentally responsible ways.  Changes in government policy and regulation could quickly be made that encourage responsible and sustainable mine development and investment.  A vibrant industry could help fund the clean-up of historic legacy mine issues created in part by past government policies.  California could again be the number one state in mineral production in the U.S., including gold. Regulatory reform and streamlining for the mining industry is desperately needed in California - and it can be done at the same time the environment is protected. 


The Sierrans for Responsible Resource Development (the "Sierrans") believe that underground metal mining is ideally suited to the geography and geology of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  A vibrant underground metal mining industry, properly overseen by government agencies and special interest groups, could provide thousands of jobs, support local rural communities, and provide significant local, state, and federal tax revenue.  The underground gold mining industry alone could produce over one million ounces of gold per year in the Sierra Nevada Mountains - adding over one billion dollars to the State's gross domestic product.

Mike Rowe:  Remembering the Miners

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