Wilson on Clow, 'Chasing the Glitter: Black Hills Milling, 1874-1959'
Richmond L. Clow. Chasing the Glitter: Black Hills Milling, 1874-1959. Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2002. xii + 202 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-9715171-1-0.
Reviewed by Gregory S. Wilson (Department of History, University of Akron) Published on H-Environment (September, 2003)
Of Gold Mills, Men, and Machines
Of Gold Mills, Men, and Machines
The value of Richmond Clow's Chasing the Glitter lies in the richly detailed examination of the process of Black Hills gold mining from the vantage point of the engineers and business leaders who constructed the mills, conceived of the means of extraction, and arranged for the financing to make it all possible. However, this strength is also the major weakness of the book, for it forces to the sidelines equally important elements of the Black Hills mining story related to environmental, labor and Native American history.
Clow makes a wonderful choice for a beginning, when, in 1874 miners arrived with a U.S. government expedition led by George Custer of Little Big Horn fame. The expedition scouted locations for both forts and resources. After successfully panning for gold in French Creek, Horatio Nelson Ross and William T. McKay sent news by scout to Fort Laramie Wyoming and from there by telegraph to the rest of the United States and the world. The Black Hills mining boom had begun. The work centers on the period from 1874 to 1917, ending in 1959 when Bald Mountain, the second largest company in the region, went out of business.
Individual small-scale miners panning for gold in the 1870s gave way to larger, heavily capitalized firms that expanded the scale and scope of mining in the Black Hills. Indeed, though he does not emphasize this enough, Clow reveals the nexus of business leaders, scientists and engineers, and the military in the earliest efforts to investigate and exploit Black Hills gold, including Custer's 1874 expedition, a later one in 1875 and efforts from that point forward to provide government support for gold milling in the Black Hills. He does note well the growth and spread of ideas and technology related to Black Hills mining within the United States and beyond.
The heart of the book is a detailed discussion of the technology and processes involved in above ground mining mills, beginning in Chapter Three, which describes mill construction. Curiously, Clow leaves out the human element in defining the mill as a "collection of machinery designed to process raw material" (p. 29). Clow uses a chapter each for powering the mills and crushing the ore, and four chapters detail the different means mining companies used to obtain gold, amalgamation, bromine and chlorine leaching, smelting and cyanidation, which became dominant after 1900. Photographs and detailed specification drawings of mills and machines add value to these discussions.
In spotlighting the ingenuity of engineers and business owners he leaves in the shadows the environmental issues, the mill and mine workers, and the effects on the Lakota Sioux. For example, he is uncritical in his discussion of early steam power and mill construction that required millions of board feet of wood and led to the depletion of pine in the Black Hills. Clow's point to this story is not the loss of forests but that this led to the substitution of coal. "Fortunately, the construction of railroad lines into the Black Hills provided the mining industry with a cheaper source of fuel in the form of low-grade coal from Wyoming" (p. 46). Furthermore, prior to 1870, Clow argues that gold mining practices were "inefficient" and "wasteful," and that they created a "dismal record" because few could make profits; meanwhile Clow refers to those who discovered new processes as "venturesome" and "enterprising" (p. 5). In his discussion of smelting, Clow notes that the process damaged the health of workers exposed to the fumes, dust and heat and that the South Dakota legislature in 1897 mandated that owners of smelting and dry-crushing operations install exhaust fans or dust chambers. In 1901 local Deadwood residents filed suit against two mining companies for property damage caused by smoke and fumes. "Health hazards aside," Clow argues, "smelters were important to the Black Hills mining industry because of their ability to recover gold from refractory ore" (p. 109).
The Black Hills region continues to struggle from the environmental consequences of the mining boom Clow discusses. Moreover, the Black Hills are sacred ground for Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Omaha peoples. A critical element to the context of mining in the region has been the continued conflict over this place, the Paha Sapa to the Lakota. Although Edward Lazarus's Black Hills, White Justice is cited, Clow writes only that eventually "the army abandoned its efforts at policing miners, and negotiations with the Lakotas to buy the Black Hills began" (p. 3).
Published by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, Chasing the Glitter is very much a product of public history and it is a shame the work is incomplete. Not placing the environmental, labor and Native American stories on a equal footing with the story of technology and profit diminishes our historical memory and weakens efforts by historical societies and other public history organizations to preserve the past.
. Edward Lazarus, Black Hills, White Justice: The Sioux Nation versus the United States, 1775 to the Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1991).
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Citation: Gregory S. Wilson. Review of Clow, Richmond L., Chasing the Glitter: Black Hills Milling, 1874-1959. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. September, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=8146
Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.