The 1870's were "silver years" in the mining history of the American West. After the fabulous Comstock silver strike in western Nevada, silver replaced gold in the hearts of the miners and prospectors of the West. 1873 was a big year at the Comstock mines as massive new silver lodes were discovered in the lower workings. These fabulous silver discoveries sent out a ripple of excitement to all parts of the West as prospectors poured over the mountains in search of the white metal. Soon after the Comstock windfall, prospectors discovered incredibly rich silver deposits in the Panamint Range of eastern California. Some of the Panamint ore assayed out at $3000 worth of silver per ton of ore!
Silver was king in Colorado during the 1870's. It was during those years that the so-called "carbonate craze" swept the state. Prospectors scouted the mountains in search of silver-bearing ore bodies emplaced in carbonate rocks such as limestone. Prospectors looked for limestones that were closely associated with igneous rocks. And they found them! It turned out that Colorado was particularly well-endowed with silver deposits. In 1878, one of the greatest silver camps of all was born with the discovery of a 10-foot thick, tabular bed of silver-bearing lead carbonate. Leadville instantly leaped to prominence. In the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, a similar ore body near Rico was worked during the 1870's.
The white metal was also king in Arizona during the 1870's. The great silver district of the Trigo Mountains got its start with the discovery of the rich Black Rock and Pacific lodes in 1877.
Then, around the turn of the century, gold again replaced silver in importance as numerous rich strikes were made all over the West. 1891 was the year of the great Cripple Creek gold rush. Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, the gold-choked throat of the buried "Cripple Creek volcano" has produced over $430 million in gold! Cripple Creek was the last of Colorado's great gold camps. In 1895, the fabulous lode deposits of Randsburg were discovered in the Mohave Desert of southern California. The Randsburg mines produced nearly a million ounces of gold during their lifetime. Southern California was the scene of another rich
gold strike during the 1890's. The discovery took place in the Panamint Mountains, about 7 miles south of the abandoned silver camp of Panamint City. The mining camp that sprang up along the western flank of the Panamints was named after the famous Australian gold camp known as Ballarat.
In 1897, it was Alaska's turn. The great Alaskan gold rush took prospectors to the Klondike and then to Nome the following year. The great placer deposits of Alaska have produced over 20 million ounces of gold to date. In the early 1900's, the focus shifted back to the American Southwest. In 1902, the fabulous ore bodies at Goldfield, Nevada were discovered. The mines at Goldfield eventually produced over 4 million ounces of the yellow metal. The Goldfield strike sent a pulse of excitement throughout the desert Southwest. Prospectors combed the wilderness, looking for gold and silver ores similar to those at Tonopah and Goldfield. In 1904, the famous Death Valley prospector "Shorty" Harris discovered the rich Bullfrog lode, near the Nevada/California border. Two years later, prospectors returned to the Panamints and located the gold deposits at Skidoo. The Panamints had a way of luring back prospectors again and again. It had happened back in 1873, and then in the 1890's, and then again in 1906.
One of the many prospectors drawn to the Panamint Range during the 1890's was a veteran of the Death Valley country named Jack Stewart. In 1897, Stewart found himself on the Death Valley side of the Panamints, not far from Stovepipe Wells. During a rare Death Valley downpour, Stewart was forced to take cover along the northeastern flank of the range. In one of the many small canyons that cut the range, Stewart discovered a freshly-exposed deposit of gold-bearing quartz float! He gathered up some samples, waited out the storm, and continued on his way to Stovepipe Wells. Eventually, Stewart returned to the Panamints to search for the source of the rich float. But the landscape had somehow changed! Perhaps another storm had altered the canyon floor, but in any case, Stewart was unable to locate the deposit. He never did.
The Panamint Range is the great repository of precious metals in Inyo County, California. The various mining districts of the Panamints collectively produced some 300,000 ounces of gold during their lifetimes. The range is also home to some amazingly rich silver veins. Some of the silver ore found in Marvel Canyon assayed out at an incredible $3000 per ton!
Silver was the magnet that initially drew prospectors to the Panamints. They came in search of the fabulous silver lode known as the Lost Gunsight Mine. In 1860, a prospector named Alvord discovered silver in the Panamints while searching for the Gunsight Mine. Indeed, silver was the metal that started things in the Panamints. In 1873, prospectors discovered a bonanza of silver at the head of Surprise Canyon. The following year, a wave of prospectors poured into the canyon. Rich strikes were made on the slopes of Marvel Canyon,
a feeder of Surprise Canyon. A tough mining camp known as Panamint City sprang up near the mines. It had a woeful reputation, but of course its days were numbered. By 1877, the rich silver deposits were gone and the mining camp withered away.
Gold was discovered late in the Panamints. It wasn't until the 1890's that the rich Ballarat deposits were located along the western flank of the Panamints. Then in 1905, the renowned Death Valley prospectors "Shorty" Harris and Pete Aguereberry discovered gold-bearing quartz veins in the heart of the range, near present-day Harrisburg. The following year, two prospectors on their way to the Harrisburg diggings stumbled on one of the richest gold deposits in all of southern California. The mines at Skidoo poured out nearly $3 million in gold and silver during their 14 years of operation.