In part two of our series on the Top Five Gold-producing States in the U.S., we’re diving into the stories of how Nevada, Alaska and South Dakota rose to gold stardom. Our post today covers some of the significant mining districts in each state but is not necessarily an exhaustive list of all gold producing areas.
While Nevada, Alaska and South Dakota trailed California and Colorado in gold production through the mid-20th century, each of the three has made significant impacts to the U.S. and worldwide gold industries.
Nevada, the United States’ leading gold producer today, boasts a recorded 200,350,000 troy ounces of gold produced from 1835 through 2017. In 2017 alone, the state generated more than 5.6 million troy ounces of the precious metal, representing 71% of all gold production in the United States that year and 5.6% of the world’s 2017 supply.
Alaska, in turn, has produced a reported 46.7 million ounces of gold from 1880 through 2015, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources 2015 mineral industry special report.
South Dakota’s most productive mine was undoubtedly the Homestake Mine near the town of Lead. The operation, discovered in 1876 during the Black Hills Gold Rush, would alone produce nearly 44 million ounces of gold over its tenure.
Nevada Gold Production
While states like California and Colorado were booming in gold output during the late 1800s, Nevada was more productive in silver during the Gold Rush days. Despite this fact, the state was not entirely devoid of silver’s yellow-hued counterpart and would go on to produce its fair share of gold over time, often as by-products of its more dominant silver mining. The Comstock Lode in western Nevada, for example, output a reported 8.6 million troy ounces of gold through 1959, although it was primarily a silver ore deposit.
The silver heyday in Nevada has since subsided, and today, the state is widely known for its significant gold production. Much of Nevada’s modern-day gold sourcing is carried out by industry giants like Newmont Mining and Barrick Gold, which operate large open pit mines.
The Comstock Silver Lode
The Comstock Lode is a silver ore lode located in western Nevada, just south of present-day Reno. It was the nation’s first significant silver ore finding and kicked off an influx of prospectors to the area. The ensuing silver rush was the most exciting time in the mining industry since the California Gold Rush and led to the development of several important mining communities in the area, such as Gold Hill and Virginia City. The increased activity around Comstock positively impacted the growth of nearby San Francisco, as well.
Carlin Gold Trend
Today, the Carlin Gold trend is a top gold-producing region not only in Nevada but around the world. Although gold was unearthed in the area as far back as the 1870s and again in the early 1900s, the Carlin trend didn’t enjoy much attention until 1961 when the Newmont Mining Corporation discovered a sizeable low-grade deposit in the region. Despite this critical discovery, however, it would take another 10-plus years until the late 1970s along with spikes in the price of gold during this time for a gold rush to take hold of the area.
Since then, the Carlin trend has been the most fruitful gold production region in the nation, surpassing the 50-million-troy-ounce output level in 2002. Essential ore deposits like South Arturo, which is estimated to contain 1.3 million troy ounces of gold, continue to be discovered in the area today.
Mines in the Carlin trend area helped to revolutionize gold production with their open-pit mines and recovery methods like cyanide heap leaching. Such innovations continue to be employed at large low-grade mines around the world to this day.
While today, the town of Goldfield operates as a near-ghost town, it once held the title as the most populous city in Nevada.
The area was the site of one of the last great gold rushes in American history, which kicked off when a rich ore deposit was discovered there in 1902. The finding stirred up considerable levels of excitement in the Gold Rush era’s sunset years and news of sudden productivity in the area traveled quickly. Goldfield was soon Nevada’s largest city, topping out at around 30,000 residents in the few years following its founding.
The incredible boomtown excitement would quickly dissipate, however, leading to one of the most prominent boom-and-bust tales in American history. By 1908, production levels were already significantly declining, and the seemingly abundant ore deposit unearthed in 1902 quickly proved to be too shallow for long-term productivity.
By the end of 1910, Goldfield’s booming 30,000-person population had plummeted to below 5,000, and less than 15 years following that, the town experienced a devastating fire that burned its infrastructure almost entirely to the ground. This catastrophe, coupled with drastically declining gold industry output would prove to be too difficult for the city to overcome, leading Goldfield to become the ghost town it is today.
Alaska Gold Production
Except for what turned out to be insignificant Russian gold discovery in the Kenai River in 1848, mining in Alaska kicked off in 1870 in the region southeast of Juneau. Through the early 21st century, “the Last Frontier” state would go on to produce a reported 40.3 million troy ounces of the precious metal. Today, Alaska produces more gold than any other state other than Nevada.
The most productive mine in Alaska is Fort Knox, which produced approximately 401.5 thousand troy ounces of gold in 2015 alone, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources 2015 mineral industry special report. The Pogo, Kensington, and Greens Creek mines also contribute significantly to Alaska’s overall gold production.
According to the 1968 United States Geological Survey report, almost all of the large U.S. placer gold mines still operating in the mid-20th century, in addition to many of the nation’s smaller placer gold mines, were located in Alaska.
While gold has been discovered and mined throughout virtually all of Alaska, the Juneau, Fairbanks, and Nome regions have represented the vast majority of the state’s gold production historically and all of its production currently.
In 1880, significant Alaskan lode gold deposits were discovered near Juneau, leading to the city's emergence as the mining and commercial center of the area. These successful discoveries sparked interest from many other prospectors, who soon spread throughout southern Alaska in search of their own findings. Important additional developments born out of this expansion include sites at Berners Bay and Eagle River, Klag Bay on Chichagof Island, and Willow Creek near Anchorage, among others.
Placer deposits in the Fairbanks region of the Yukon were discovered in 1902 and proved to be conducive to large-scale dredging operations. It was from this commercial-level of mining through which Fairbanks soon earned its reputation as the largest producer of gold in Alaska. The placer discoveries were followed by the unearthing of lode deposits by the year 1910.
In addition to Nome, other gold districts were established on the Seward Peninsula. Prospecting began in the area around the time of the Klondike Rush in the final years of the 19th century and quickly morphed into a stampede to the Norne placers, which were proving to be particularly rich in gold. Significant growth of the entire peninsula’s area ensued, and Nome, which was the second largest gold-producing region in Alaska, would remain active until the 1960s.
The gold industry in Alaska was significantly impacted in 1943 upon the implementation of the War Production Board Order L-208, which closed nearly all gold mines in the United States during World War II. After the war, large-scale mining operations on Fairbanks’s placer deposits resumed, and eventually, this district alone would become responsible for more than half of Alaska’s total annual gold output from 1950 through at least 1965, per the USGS report.
Fairbanks's lode mines, on the other hand, were rendered mostly defunct following the war.
South Dakota Gold Production
South Dakota’s relation to gold is tethered most strongly to the Black Hills rush of the 1870s, a defining event in American history and source of inspiration for the HBO series, Deadwood. Today, the only mine still operating in the state is the Wharf Resources mine near the town of Lead. In 2016, Wharf produced 109 thousand ounces of gold, according to the company’s end-of-year earnings report.
Through 1965, South Dakota as a whole output a total of approximately 31,208,000 ounces of gold, according to the USGS report, although most of that reportedly came from the Homestake Mine.
The Black Hills Gold Rush commenced in 1874 and was pioneered by a one-thousand-man expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer on behalf of the U.S. Army. The expedition was initiated to investigate reports of gold discovery in the Black Hills region and if confirmed, scout suitable fort locations, plus determine a feasible route from there to the southwest.
Per the 1868 Treaty of Laramie between the United States government and the Oglala, Miniconjou and Brulé bands of Lakota people, Yanktonai Dakota and Arapaho Nation Native American tribes, the Black Hills region was deemed officially part of Indian territory, and therefore off-limits to white Americans. Despite supposedly being protected land, the Custer Expedition itself and an ensuing gold rush persisted in the region, antagonizing local Native Americans.
Lt. Colonel Custer and his crew first settled near present-day Custer, South Dakota, and while the men did find some gold in the area, the amounts were small. As a result, the expedition forged northward in search of more fruitful regions.
The towns of Hill City, Sheridan, and Pactola were all established along the way, each producing more small amounts of gold flakes, but nothing significant enough to warrant setting up a long-term settlement.
Deadwood Gold Mine
The group’s luck took a significant turn for the better in 1875 upon reaching the intersection of Deadwood and Whitewood creeks, the site that would soon become the famous mining town of Deadwood. At the onset, the area was rich in gold, with each shovel-full containing a bona fide fortune in gold.
By 1876, all the land around the creeks was claimed, although hordes of strike-it-rich hopefuls continued to pour into the area.
The town would continue to grow by exponential levels throughout its initial years, reaching upwards of 2,000 miners, entrepreneurs, merchants and “working ladies” by August 1876. By September, 166 businesses were operating in the city and telegraph lines were installed by December of that year.
By the time 1890 rolled around, several railroads had reached Deadwood, and the town was well on its way to becoming an industrial hub of the region, complete with a freight depot, roundhouse, engine house, and by 1900, a brick depot.
Famed characters like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok spent time in Deadwood, making the town an icon of the American Gold Rush era.
The Homestake Gold Mine
Knowing that the placer gold being picked over around Deadwood came from deeper hard rock deposits elsewhere along the creeks, forward-thinking prospectors forged ahead in search of even bigger payouts.
In 1876, four of these visionaries, Fred and Moses Manuel, Hank Harney and Alex Engh discovered gold near Lead, South Dakota, claimed their finding and dubbed it the Homestake Mine. Little did the men know at the time that this site would go on to produce ten percent of the global gold supply in the ensuing 125 years.
When the Homestake Mine finally closed its doors at the end of 2001, it had earned the title of the largest, deepest and longest continually operating gold mine in North America. Homestake produced an overall total of more than 40 million troy ounces of gold throughout its tenure.
In addition to its gold-production fame, the Homestake Mine is a highly regarded scientific research site thanks to what became known as the Homestake Experiment. In the mid-1960s, a deep underground laboratory was established at the Homestake Mine, and Raymond Davis, Jr. would there make the first observation of solar neutrinos, a significant breakthrough in the fields of science and discovery.
In 1877, just one year after its initial founding, the Homestake Mine was purchased by three mining entrepreneurs – Lloyd Tevis, James Ben Ali Haggin and the infamous George Hearst, whose son, William Randolph Hearst, would take over his father’s eventual media holdings and establish the Hearst media empire famous around the world today.
George Hearst set to work on expanding the territory of the Homestake Mine by both honest and what some may judge to be dishonest means. While he purchased some neighboring claims fairly, he secured others by way of litigation. As one story goes, an employee of Hearst murdered a claim-owner who refused to sell to the Homestake operation, and that employee was later acquitted in court after all witnesses had conveniently disappeared.
Hearst and the other Homestake owners would soon begin selling shares of the company and eventually listed it on the New York Stock Exchange. The Homestake stock became one of the longest-listed stocks in the NYSE’s history, enduring through the end of the mine’s lifespan.
By the time Hearst left the Black Hills in 1879, he had grown the Homestake Mine to 30 acres of territory. By the turn of the century, Homestake owned 300 prospecting claims, bringing total land control to 2,000 acres and a workforce of more than 2,000 employees. Technological advancements flourished at the Homestake Mine including the introduction of air locomotives, which replaced the operation’s preceding mules and horses entirely by the 1920s, and cyanidation recovery methods.
As with many other mines across the United States, production ground to a halt during World War II according to the War Production Board's Limitation Order L-208. Operations resumed after the war ended, and by 1975, the Homestake Mine had reached extraction levels up to 6,800 feet underground.
Gold prospecting, mining, and production have played an integral role in the evolution of the United States. The enthusiasm surrounding the gold and precious metals industries has helped shape our beloved nation into what it is today. Without the pioneering drive, entrepreneurial spirit and unwavering dedication of many Gold Rush era prospectors, our great country would undoubtedly look quite different than it does today.