Mining and Railroads in the West

After going through these notes you should be able to:

  1. describe how gold and silver booms changed the West
  2. identify problems that arose on the mining frontier
  3. explain how railroads helped develop the West


After the Gold Rush of 1849 ended miners looked for other opportunities to strike it rich.  A mere rumor would send miners scrambling east in search of new strikes.


Comstock Lode was a strike of gold found in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Henry Comstock was one of the owners of the find, and he and his crews found lots of heavy blue sand mixed in the dirt with the gold.  This heavy blue sand was silver and this strike turned out to be one of the world’s largest silver mines.  Other valuable ore was found in Montana, Idaho, Colorado, and gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the 1870s.  Even Alaska produced gold and thousands rushed there in the 1890’s.


A lode is a rich find of gold or silver.


Boomtowns were created by the thousands who rushed to a nearby find to search for riches.  First a city of tents would build itself up, then as people came to supply those miners in tents and set up shop.  Soon wood framed houses, hotels, restaurants, and stores replaced the tents.  (Think Deadwood)  Most of these boomtowns however, only lasted for a few years.  Once all the gold or silver was gone the miners left and stores closed up shop.  They became ghost towns. 


Problems along the frontier also came with the new inhabitants.  Mines and towns polluted clear mountain streams, cut down forests to get wood for building, and forced Native Americans from their land.  Also, foreign miners were often treated unfairly.  Mobs drove Mexicans from camps and Chinese were only allowed to work on abandoned claims.  Individuals hardly ever struck it rich as most gold and silver was deep in the ground accessible by only heavy machinery.  Only large corporations could afford to get the valuables from the ground.  Lawlessness also was rampant.  Fights, killings and robberies were common.  In response some towns formed groups of vigilantes, or self appointed law enforcers. 


Railroad companies raced to lay track down to the West.  Railroads were a cheap and fast way of getting valuable good to and from the West to anywhere in the country. In 1863 two companies began a race to build the first transcontinental railroad.  The Union Pacific Railroad started building westward from Omaha, Nebraska and the Central Pacific Railroad began building eastward from Sacramento, California.  The federal government felt that these railroads would help the entire nation so they helped these companies by giving them subsidies.  By the time the railroad was complete, both companies received a total of 45 million acres of land from the government.  The fact that Native Americans lived on this land was ignored. 


Workers were really the ones who “built” these railroads.  The Central Pacific used mostly Chinese immigrants, while the Union Pacific used Irish immigrants.  Both companies used Mexicans and African Americans.  These workers faced many dangers throughout the course of the construction.


On May 10, 1869, both lines joined at Promontory, Utah.


As well as Boomtowns because of gold, cattle also brought many West to earn a living.  These places were called cow towns.  In these towns cattle were held in great pens until they could be loaded into railroad cars and to markets in the East.