Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Ruminations on the Silver Camel: Lessons from the Black Rock Desert's Mining Landscape

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Ruminations on the Silver Camel: Lessons from the Black Rock Desert's Mining Landscape

Article excerpt

It seems that there is considerable interest these days in the Black Rock Desert (Figure 1). Two books published in the new millennium by respected university presses illustrate the importance of this place in the lives of people past and present (Fox and Klett 2002; Goin and Starrs 2005). Other books pertaining to the Great Basin geographical region invariably make reference to the Black Rock Desert (for example, Fox 2000; Francaviglia 2005). I would like to add to this growing body of literature by commenting on an early-twentieth-century mining site that I investigated in 1992. What follows is more of a personal reflection than a technical site report. My contention is that sometimes the lessons we learn from fieldwork are surprising and that sometimes we think about them years later.

Although I reflect on the Silver Camel and its environs from multiple disciplinary perspectives, geographers should find this approach familiar. It would best fall into the genre of landscape studies, which can be traced to the German geographical tradition encapsulated in the term Landschaftskunde. It is also informed by the preservation movement and the vast amount of research that has accumulated as a consequence of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (Public Law 89-665).

The Silver Camel is a topographic formation situated along the southeastern edge of the Black Rock Desert in Humboldt County, Nevada, approximately 2 miles east of the extinct town of Sulphur (Paher 1970, 153). Its lower slopes yielded horn silver--cerargyrite, or AgCl--from 1908 into the 1930s. We have Professor Vincent P. Gianella to thank for most of what is known about the history of the site (Gianella 1946). He taught geology and metallurgy at the University of Nevada's Mackay School of Mines for nearly thirty years, and the Silver Camel was one of his many and diverse interests.

The first miners laid out six contiguous claims parallel to the contours of the Silver Camel's western slope (J. C. Jones 1921), and later mapping of the site revealed that the historic landscape modification encompassed some 14.8 acres (Mires and Kautz 1992). The Silver Camel, more correctly the Desert View, Silver Pick, and Abe Lincoln #1-#4, contained features seemingly ubiquitous to Nevada's mining landscape, but reflecting on this site now I realize that it was far from ordinary.

LESSONS FROM THE LANDSCAPE

I was born in the shadow of another topographic camel: Camel's Hump, the third highest peak in Vermont's Green Mountains. The two camels, however, could not be more dissimilar; Vermont's camel is forested except for a portion above the timberline, whereas the Black Rock's camel is bare rock and desert shrub. The view from atop Camel's Hump includes Lake Champlain. The view from the Silver Camel is a dried-up lake, the Pleistocene Lake Lahontan. Needless to say, coming from that chlorophyll-rich environment--even the state's name includes the French word for the color green--to do archaeological fieldwork in the Black Rock Desert was a learning experience. I would like to share some of those lessons.

One of the first observations to impress me about the historic mining landscape beneath the Silver Camel was its visibility (Figure 2). Unobstructed by soil and vegetation, artifacts and features loomed large. Unlike my field school at New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee or later field seasons in the Green Mountain National Forest, where history lies buried and archaeology is synonymous with the spade, a whole mining complex was spread out before me. Aridity and Aeolus ensured that cultural material like tin cans and wooden objects remained in arrested decay, and this was the first place where I encountered that strange landform known as "desert pavement."

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The Silver Camel also provided a lesson in scale, a quality that appealed to my academic training in geography. …

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