The Great Basin has been the source of fabulous mineral wealth for hundreds of years. For centuries, Natives mined salt and turquoise. In the nineteenth century, prospectors returning to the East from the Mexican-American war and the first wave of the California Gold Rush found traces of gold in streams on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Real excitement began in 1859, when placer miners panning the streams of Gold Canyon in the Virginia Mountains discovered that the blue clay that had been seen as a nuisance was really remarkably rich silver ore. The “Rush to Washoe” brought thousands of ‘49ers flocking to the Comstock Lode camps of Virginia City, Gold Hill, and Silver City, in the renewed hope of finding their fortunes.
Mining brought modern civilization and towns to Nevada. Nevada silver and gold built the stock exchange in San Francisco, helped pay for the Civil War, and fostered statehood for Nevada in 1864. Camps boomed and then went bust all over the state. Then for more than twenty years, there was nothing, and the state almost blew away. In 1902, Tonopah, in central Nevada, suddenly boomed, followed in a few years by Goldfield. About the same time, large-scale copper mining started in White Pine County. Today Nevada is the largest producer of gold in the county, and mining is still a major industry in the Silver State.