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Gambling on Ore

The Nature of Metal Mining in the United States, 1860–1910

By Kent Curtis

Publication Year: 2013

Gambling on Ore examines the development of the western mining industry from the tumultuous and violent Gold Rush to the elevation of large-scale copper mining in the early twentieth century, using Montana as representative of mining developments in the broader US mining west. Employing abundant new historical evidence in key primary and secondary sources, Curtis tells the story of the inescapable relationship of mining to nature in the modern world as the United States moved from a primarily agricultural society to a mining nation in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In Montana, legal issues and politics—such as unexpected consequences of federal mining law and the electrification of the United States—further complicated the mining industry’s already complex relationship to geology, while government policy, legal frameworks, dominant understandings of nature, and the exigencies of profit and production drove the industry in momentous and surprising directions. Despite its many uncertainties, mining became an important part of American culture and daily life.

Gambling on Ore unpacks the tangled relationships between mining and the natural world that gave material possibility to the age of electricity. Metal mining has had a profound influence on the human ecology and the social relationships of North America through the twentieth century and throughout the world after World War II. Understanding how we forged these relationships is central to understanding the environmental history of the United States after 1850. 

Published by: University Press of Colorado


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pp. 1-7


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pp. vii-9


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pp. ix-x

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. xi-xv

When I first began this project in the early 1990s, I thought I might have an interesting environmental history of industry to tell, explaining how the world’s largest copper company ruined the wild places of western Montana. Two decades later, with a new global gold rush afoot and talk of mining the deep-sea trenches and...

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Introduction: Arsenic in the Wilderness, or Knowing Nature through Mining

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pp. 1-14

In the spring of 1993 I stood in line at the University of Montana cafeteria absentmindedly tapping my spoon on the stainless steel countertop. I was working as an environmental reporter for the Missoula Independent, where I had just filed a story about a massive fish kill in the nearby Clark Fork River. The fish had been poisoned by arsenic that had...

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1: Producing a Mining Landscape: Gold Rush Uncertainty in Proto-Montana

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pp. 15-68

Gold rushes mark the iconic beginning of mining stories in the nineteenth-century US West. In them, gold seekers set out into uncharted territory seeking untold riches said to be buried in mountain creek beds; they chased rumors and stampeded; when a gold deposit was uncovered, they excavated it with incredible speed....

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2: The Value of Ores: Knowledge and Policy in Lode Mining Development

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pp. 69-114

Lode or hard-rock mining marked the beginning of a kind of metal mining practice that had the look of an actual industry. It required a larger, more concentrated labor force; large, powerful machines; and large construction projects onsite. Hard-rock miners pursued gold and silver in underground tunnels, having blasted...

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3: Turning Copper into Gold: The Dynamics of System Building

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pp. 115-161

The development of copper resources in the mountain west heralded a new age of mining, not merely for the western mining region but for the nation and even the world. By the late 1870s the fleeting days of gold were long gone, and the tumultuous days of silver were passing their apogee. During the 1880s, copper production...

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4: The Ecology of Ore Processing: Pollution and the Law in the Deer Lodge Valley

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pp. 163-201

By the turn of the twentieth century, the mass production of copper in oversized ore-processing plants comprised the material heart of a new energy regime in the United States. In urban centers back East, in Europe, and in Japan, electrification was changing the face of domestic life, work life, and leisure time. Alongside the internal...

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Conculsion: Producing a Mining Society

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pp. 203-209

Again and again when I first began this project, I encountered decided defensiveness about mining. Those connected to the practice felt a need to remind an increasingly ecologically minded US society that almost everything they do depends on mining. Similarly, when I began...


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pp. 211-222


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pp. 223-232

E-ISBN-13: 9781607322351
E-ISBN-10: 1607322358
Print-ISBN-13: 9781607322344
Print-ISBN-10: 160732234X

Page Count: 252
Illustrations: 22 b&w photographs, 3 line drawings, 4 maps
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 867739732
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Gambling on Ore

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Subject Headings

  • Metallurgy -- United States -- History.
  • Metal trade -- United States -- History.
  • Mines and mineral resources -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 19th century.
  • Mines and mineral resources -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Ores -- United States.
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