UC Berkeley geographer draws parallels between 19th century silver mining towns and today's "golden triangle" in Silicon Valley

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

Berkeley -- A University of California, Berkeley, expert on mining in the American West sees a strong parallel between mining boomtowns that sprang up throughout California and the West in the 1800s and today's boomtown of Silicon Valley.

"When I look at Silicon Valley I see a typical mining landscape," said Gray Brechin, an architectural historian and geographer based at UC Berkeley, in a session Friday, Jan. 22, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Anaheim, Calif. "I see the same sort of development with little planning or sense of civic responsibility.

"Like mining towns in the 1800s, Silicon Valley is characterized by a boom/bust economy heavily dependent on energy and technology," he argued. "And it is populated by transients with no commitment to the place, which has few amenities anyway.

"The result is all sorts of environmental problems, plus a large but hidden level of poverty. This is like Virginia City, Nevada, where there was a great divide between the mine operators who lived on the hill and the workers who lived below."

As an architectural historian, Brechin is particularly offended by the buildings in Silicon Valley. He noted that author Norman Mailer once called Silicon Valley "one of the ugliest places I've ever visited."

"These sorts of buildings are part of the spiritual pollution we suffer," Mailer once was quoted as saying to a San Jose Mercury News reporter. "It's a species of pollution almost as bad as our poisoning of nature."

Brechin drew these parallels in a talk about the environmental costs of silver mining in the West in the 1800s. The talk was part of a session entitled "California 150 Years After the Gold Rush," scheduled for 2:30-5:30 p.m. on Jan. 22.

Brechin, the Ciriacy-Wantrup postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography at UC Berkeley, has studied mining throughout the West, with a particular emphasis on its influence on the development of San Francisco. In a book due out in May, "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin" (University of California Press), he documents the rise and fall of fortunes in the city as a result of the Gold Rush and subsequent silver boom.

One point he makes is that silver, not gold, was the metal that definitively launched San Francisco and California onto the world stage.

"Much of the gold left California to pay Eastern and European investors," Brechin said. "Only after the discovery of silver in the Comstock Lode in 1859 did the city's banks and fortunes take off."

The first big silver fortune was that made by William Ralston, one of the era's great speculators and the founder of the Bank of California. His hold on the Comstock Lode eventually was broken, though, by an even more aggressive team called the Silver Kings. Four men - James Flood, John Mackay, James Fair and William O'Brien - teamed up to gain control of an overlooked bonanza mine and to found a rival bank called the Bank of Nevada.

While these men made and lost immense fortunes, thousands of others toiled at the poverty level or lost their savings in speculative investments in the San Francisco mining exchange.

The mining itself left scars throughout the West. Mountains were reduced to muddy streams by hydraulic mining, once-teeming salmon streams were destroyed by mining runoff, and toxic metals still leach from mine tailings throughout the state.

To provide timber for the mines of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City and to fuel the smelting, the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada was denuded of trees. The forests around Lake Tahoe were completely logged off, Brechin noted.

Because the silver was extracted by amalgamation, the mines also needed a steady supply of mercury. That was provided by the world's second largest mercury mine at New Almaden near San Jose.

Runoff from that mine left San Francisco Bay so heavily contaminated with mercury that dredging is often prohibited.

When the silver finally played out in 1878, Virginia City was largely abandoned. But its legacy lives on.

"Technical innovations spurred by the Gold Rush and by the subsequent discovery of silver in Nevada ultimately led to Silicon Valley, which editorial and business writers often point to as emblematic of California success," Brechin said.

"Having witnessed the unreflective violence with which speculators transformed the Santa Clara Valley into the home of the microchip," he added, "I agree that the Gold Rush lives on in the valley of silicon, but more as a tragic omen of what is in store for California and the West."

Brechin and photographer Robert Dawson focus on the cost of California's success in a new book "Farewell, Promised Land: Waking From the California Dream," due out in March from the University of California Press.

The environmental and social costs of mining have been noted since Roman times, Brechin said. Cicero, for one, pointed out that the costs far outweighed the benefits of mining.

"Mining concentrates funds in a few hands but leaves a great deal of poverty," Brechin said. "The true costs - environmental damage, the costs of remediation and the social damage - have often remained hidden."

Without a doubt mining has had a huge impact throughout history, influencing the rise of urbanization and of warfare, Brechin said. He is now researching another possible historical impact of mining, its role in the emergence of Europe from the Dark Ages.

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