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Hard Rock, Hard Luck

by Johanna Blume, Eiteljorg assistant curator of Western Art | Jul 05, 2015

Come to camp with our Spirits way down dont [sic] like the looks of the country. [A]nd I dont [sic] like the looks of the men dont [sic] believe there is a claim on the creek that will pay wages. —Jerry Bryan, 1876 

The general character of my mining has been to get the ore out, reduce it to bullion, and sell it . . . [I]n other words, we were engaged in what is called legitimate mining . . . On the whole, I think that mining is about the best business of all. —George Hearst, in his 1890 memoir

In 1876 approximately 10,000 fortune seekers poured into Deadwood Gulch with dreams of easily gotten gold. For most, these dreams were quickly shattered when reality hit. The canyon terrain was extremely rough and difficult to navigate. The most profitable claims were scattered haphazardly throughout the Hills, isolated from one another. The richest deposits of gold were veins running through hard rock, which necessitated the use of heavy machinery like stamp mills to extract the gold.

None of these conditions were conducive to success for individual miners or small mining companies, and it didn’t take long for larger companies to squeeze out the competition. In the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, gold mining in the Black Hills underwent rapid industrialization, with the Homestake Mining Company dominating the field.

The Homestake claim was first filed in April 1876 by brothers Fred and Moses Manuel, but soon after was purchased from them by George Hearst. A veteran of the California gold rush who had made his fortune running a general merchandise store and investing in mines, Hearst rapidly expanded the mine’s operations. The city of Lead (pronounced “leed”) developed with the mine and was a company town. It was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America, and until it closed January 2002, one of the most productive. The mine has since been converted into a deep underground science and engineering laboratory, renamed the Sanford Underground Research Facility, and is used by physicists to study neutrinos and dark matter.

0070.220.001
Between Pluma and Lead in 1890, 1890
Image courtesy of Historic Deadwood, Inc., Adams Museum Collection; 0070.220.001

 61-16
Homestake Workings, ca. 1920
Image courtesy of Deadwood History, Inc., Homestake Mining Company Collection; 61-16

 25-1
Carpenter Crew, ca. 1900
Image courtesy of Deadwood History, Inc., Homestake Mining Company Collection; 25-1

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