Mining & Geology Research Topic

(Book cliff Coal Mine and Railroad. Loyd Files Research Library, Museum of Western Colorado, F-187b.)

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Nothing jump-started national interest in Colorado like the gold discoveries on Dry Creek in 1858. When the news came out—ten years after California’s gold rush—prospectors were primed to hustle over to the next big strike.

Most of the 1859 argonauts searched for gold; little did they imagine what other mineral secrets Colorado would eventually divulge. By the early 1870s, when gold production ebbed low, silver mining surged. Gradually, high-quality coal also secured the distinction of being one of Colorado’s most economically important ores.

Other historically significant minerals include molybdenum, uranium, vanadium, copper, oil, zinc, lead, tungsten, fluorspar, cement, feldspar, mica, gypsum, barite, and lime. Quarrying materials include granite, marble, limestone, sandstone, lava, travertine, olivine, dolomite and alabaster. The Curies collected uranium from western Colorado for their famous experiments that led to the isolation of radium.

Oil Drilling, 1906. Palisade Public Library Collection, Loyd Files Research Library, Museum of Western Colorado, 1979.23 #65
(Oil Drilling, 1906. Palisade Public Library Collection, Loyd Files Research Library, Museum of Western Colorado, 1979.23 #65.)

It soon became apparent that Colorado’s distinctive geology warranted advanced technical mining skills. In 1873 the School of Mines opened in Golden; in 1874, the institution became a public facility, offering classes in assaying, chemistry, metallurgy, engineering and more.

Not surprisingly, the incoming flood of fortune-seekers transformed Colorado. Gold and silver towns boomed and busted, cultivating a get-rich-quick culture that hastily stripped down trees and burrowed into hillsides, exhausting one lode and moving to the next. Other minerals like coal provided a steadier, though finite, flow of ore.

Despite its generally ephemeral character, Colorado mining shared a couple of qualities with the emerging local agricultural empire. Both mining and agriculture enticed Coloradans to settle in the remotest parts of the state. Together, they influenced where the state’s railroads and highways would pass. And—as farmers and ranchers supplied the miners’ voracious demand for vittles—the mutually beneficial relationship boosted the success of all.

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