Mined Earth: Global Gold Rushes and Canadian Nature

This map of the pre-1930s mining lake-bed was made by georeferencing historic maps over modern satellite imagery in ArcMap.

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Editor’s NoteThis post is the third in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects, highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. This series serves to highlight new work being done in the field of environmental history and connect this research to other fields and contemporary issues. Graduate caucus members were asked to respond to the following questions: ““How does your work push at the boundaries of current literature and add to existing discussions of the environment/environmental history? What forces drive your research?” 

All environmental history graduate students are encouraged to join the caucus by contacting current student liaison, Rachel Gross, at rsgross@wisc.edu.

According to local legend on at least four separate continents, a rugged risk-taking white man’s “bonanza” in an uninhabited wasteland provided the foundation for a thriving democratic state. With few variations, this gold rush tale has been independently recruited to explain the unique historical development of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. It is a story laden with the cultural baggage of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – the self-made man, technological optimism, laissez-faire economics, and celebratory nationalism.

Gold rush bonanza myths are ubiquitous because they rationalised complicated historical (re)negotiations in the relationship between humans and gold-bearing nature.  My current research begins with the premise that global gold rushes in the nineteenth century influenced the development of Canadian mining in the twentieth. Global trade, diplomacy, scientific networks, and individual travellers moved mining knowledge over national boundaries. Miners then applied imported knowledge (with mixed results) on local landscapes. Using the 1909 Porcupine gold rush in northern Ontario as a case study, I explore the challenges the Ontario shield environment posed to this imported body of nineteenth-century gold mining know-how. My dissertation traces the negotiations and re-negotiations between humans and the environment at Porcupine from the initial rush stage in 1909 through industrialisation and the entrenchment of corporate mining into the 1930s.

As past generations of environmental historians have discovered, non-human nature’s irreverence for political borders makes our discipline an ideal vehicle to drive smoothly through national boundaries. Even so, transnational history remains a daunting project for the solitary environmental scholar. My work benefits from newly solidified bedrocks of secondary literature in California, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. The scale of this work is further facilitated by digitised archival material on databases like Trove, Papers Past, and California Newspapers Online. Using these sources I can trace ideas like “motherlode” from California (where the nature of gold deposits made it useful to miners) to Northern Ontario (where scattered deposits largely failed to conform to the motherlode concept). I can also trace the spread of concern about miner’s silicosis, the latest developments in cyanide separation technology, or the news of extreme weather or natural disaster around the world. Such links between the micro-history of the Porcupine to the macro-history of the nineteenth century gold rushes exists on the very front lines of historiographical and methodological possibility in environmental history.

A sample of silicosis headlines from the Waikato Argus (New Zealand), 1909, Mount Alexander Mail (Australia), 1904, and the Globe (Toronto), 1924.
A sample of silicosis headlines from the Waikato Argus (New Zealand), 1909, Mount Alexander Mail (Australia), 1904, and the Globe (Toronto), 1924.

My research is an attempt to come to terms with selective memories of mining in order to better understand its implications for modern communities like mine. My childhood home is Wells, a tiny town in central British Columbia and the site of industrial mining in the 1930s. Wells is located next to Barkerville, the comparatively more famous site of a 1860s placer gold rush. Barkerville is a bustling historic site attracting thousands of visitors each year. The bonanza version of the past prevails there: The gold rush is celebrated as a foundational moment for British Columbia. I heard comparatively little about Wells’ 1930s mining past, despite an equally active mining history.

 

This map of the pre-1930s mining lake-bed was made by georeferencing historic maps over modern satellite imagery in ArcMap.
This map of the pre-1930s mining lake-bed was made by georeferencing historic maps over modern satellite imagery in ArcMap.
Satelite imagery of the modern tailings flats from Google Earth
Satelite imagery of the modern tailings flats from Google Earth

Not thinking much about a mining past, my brother and I played on old 1930s sludge flats where the Jack of Clubs Lake used to extend close to town. Nothing ever grew on the red soil. We made forts among the crumbling foundations of mine buildings, and a baseball diamond on the flat ground below the old processing site (we stopped playing there after a few bad cuts from half-buried metal scraps). We swam in the creek that flowed from the Jack of Clubs Lake along banks red with iron oxide. We rode our bikes along the near-perfect grades meant to create water pressure in 1930s hydraulic hoses. In the winter, we made snowboard jumps off the top of old tailings piles. Now, signs like this one have been erected at some of my old play-places.

figure-4-snowboarding
Photo by author, 2008.
Photo by Amber McCarthy, 2015.
Photo by Amber McCarthy, 2015.

Like other people who live on mined earth, over time I have found the celebratory national myths of the gold rushes at places like Barkerville unsatisfying explanations for the extent of environmental change in my community. Massive tailings piles, industrial disease, abandoned machinery, and contaminated water are rarely accounted for in celebratory mining narratives. At the same time, I am unwilling to trade in romantic gold rush stories for declensionist industrial ones: my childhood memories are fond and I am deeply attached to my hometown.

Critical analysis of mining is imperative in 2016. The price of gold is rising, technology is becoming more sophisticated, and the pursuit of trace gold ignored by 1930s miners is suddenly a profitable endeavour in old and new mining communities. For example, Barkerville’s nineteenth century gold rush history forms an important part of a new Wells-based mining company’s marketing strategy. Marketers know that nostalgia and strong rhetorical associations to historic gold bonanzas placate protest and attract investment dollars almost as effectively as core samples.

The scale of modern mining and its implications for human and environmental health is so inconceivably enormous that it is sometimes easier to fall back on simple, nostalgic versions of the past. My work is part of an effort to untangle our multitude of mining stories so that people can find ways to live with the environments we have created (and continue to create) on gold-bearing landscapes.

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Mica Jorgenson

PhD Candidate at McMaster University
I am a PhD Candidate at McMaster University studying global gold mining, industrialisation, and landscape change. My dissertation uses the Porcupine gold rush in Northern Ontario as a case study for the ways that international forces can shape human relationships with a local environment. Twitter: @mica_amy

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