Popular portrayals of mining and drilling in the U.S. West center on the image of the bonanza, or the fortuitous “lucky strikes” of settlers in remote parts of California, Oregon, Colorado, or Montana. Stories of the exploits of the storied Forty-Niners who poured into California after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ceded the northern half of Mexico to the U.S. rarely link mineral mining to the rapid incorporation of California into the U.S. as a state. One obtains a better understanding of the forces that shaped the U.S. West, especially the states of California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, by examining the flows of banking and investment capital into large-scale mines, water conveyance, railroads,, and ports. The West was often portrayed in popular literature and travel brochures as a destination where distance from Eastern cities and markets would provide a means for enterprising settlers and individual operators to build wealth through wits and hard work. It was also a place where lawmakers in Washington, D.C. hoped that the Homestead Act would create a more egalitarian society. Instead, the U.S. West, especially California, was rapidly characterized after U.S. acquisition by breathtaking inequality, especially in landholding, with few hundred landholders (including the Standard Pacific and Santa Fe Railroad corporations) claiming most of a state’s arable lands. Mining contributed to that outcome by shaping water rights and designating flows to streams and rivers as saleable property once they were claimed for use by miners or others putting water to use. Mining also fueled frenzied land claims and campaigns of extermination against Native American tribes. (This process continues today in other "wild" "frontiers" around the world -- including the burning of the Amazon watersheds.)
The extractive industries in California, Arizona, Utah, Montana, and Colorado that came to dominate global production included precious metals, industrial minerals and metals, petroleum, gas, and radioactive ore. The Library of Congress has an important collection of materials, especially travel literature and photographs, that provide a window into mining investment, hydraulic and shaft mining, water conveyance, and the often-brutal labor regimes that built the extractive West. The Library of Congress also has materials that help us understand the environmental legacy of mining in the West. Long after mines are exhausted, tailings, acid mine drainage, and radioactivity remain, posing dangers for Native American and rural communities.
The following are materials that provide a glimpse into the scale and ambition of extractive industries, and the lives of people living in and among extractive industries in the U.S. West.