One Shot for Gold: Developing a Modern Mine in Northern California

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Eleanor Herz Swent, with a foreword by Eric C. Nystrom

Reno & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 2021, pp 228, $45.00

In the late 1970s, the discovery of gold deposits in Napa County triggered the development of California’s most productive gold mine of the twentieth century. One Shot for Gold tells the story of the start, life and closure of the McLaughlin mine, through exceptionally rich oral histories. This is a book about inventiveness, labour history and about navigating environmental bureaucracies in order to run a mine as sustainably as possible. Seen through the eyes of mineworkers, engineers and town residents, Eleanor Herz Swent’s account provides unique insights into what it is like to live with a gold mine in the contemporary United States.

As mining takes place in a subterranean world, which reaches deep underground and is often located in remote areas, its everyday experiences tend to remain hidden and they can be hard to grasp. The major achievement of One Shot for Gold is that it excavates the mine’s history and brings it to life through in-depth interviews with a wide variety of people who have an intimate knowledge of the mine. Swent, a senior researcher at the University of California-Berkeley’s Oral History Center, who conducted the book’s dozens of interviews single-handedly over several decades, expertly leads the reader through the mine’s history. In the words of one of her interviewees, geologist and local historian Dean Andrew Enderlin:

[M]ines always come to an end … [W]hat typically happens is, when the mine shuts down, all the paperwork is vandalized and lost. The miners are … gone. And there’s no record of what happened. And enter the researcher who is tearing their hair out trying to piece together the story of a mine, with very few people around who know anything about it (p171).

Growing up in mining towns, married to a mine engineer and specialised in mining history, Swent is extremely well-positioned to tell this story and to prevent McLaughlin mine’s history from being lost. What makes this book unprecedented is that it relies almost exclusively on oral histories and extended quotes, depicting a deep place-based attachment of people to the mine and its environment.

Swent leaves room for both serendipity and perseverance, depicting how engineers dug for mercury and how cattle ranchers turned into gold miners. Displaying her mastery of the technical aspects of mining, Swent describes how geologists researched initially unpromising gold deposits and developed these into a profitable gold mine under the auspices of the Homestake Mining Company. After the discovery of gold traces in 1978, it took until 1985 for the mine to become operational, transforming a remote rural area into a buzzing mining town. The developers of the mine, most prominently Bill Wilder, were resolved to run this mine differently and in accordance with cutting-edge environmental regulations, using the new technique of autoclaves to minimise pollution. Because the mine was located on the border of three districts, mine management had to apply for a mind-boggling 327 permits before operations could start. Under the guidance of Raymond Krauss, the mine’s environmental manager, concerns over environmental sustainability became an integral part of mine operations from the outset. Equally involved was Sylvia McLaughlin, a prominent environmentalist and founder of the Save San Francisco Bay Association. While mine operations were still ongoing, plans were already made to fully rehabilitate the mining site and to turn it into a nature reserve and a facility for research and education after its closure in 2002. Today the McLaughlin Natural Reserve includes rare plants and insects which thrive on the former mine’s chemically disturbed serpentine soils.

One Shot for Gold masterfully uses thick description. Swent provides extensive biographies and sketches the remarkable personality traits of most of the characters she introduces. She also, in great detail, portrays the access roads into town, the schools and what it was like to develop the mine and live alongside it. As a reader unfamiliar with California, I found it challenging at times to situate the localities mentioned. More maps would have been helpful in this respect. In addition, although the long quotes are extremely illustrative, I would have wanted Swent to guide us through the argument more.

American mining history has developed itself as a thriving field, with its own conferences and exciting debates about issues of labour, environment, social life and more. One Shot for Gold would have been an even richer book had it engaged with these debates more explicitly. The book is impeccably researched, and by positioning the McLaughlin mine in broader mining historiography the reader could have grasped the exceptionality of the mine’s history better. Finally, although the book’s preface gives the reader some insights into methodology, throughout the book Swent recedes into the background. I would have liked to read more about how she selected her interviewees, what kinds of questions she asked them and what she found challenging about conducting oral histories. By giving us a better insight into her methodological approach, Swent’s argument would have become even more convincing.

Swent has done a magisterial job of preserving the history of the McLaughlin mine and the people who helped develop it. Her oral history research is inspirational and provides guidance to other mining historians. Due to the richness of the voices represented in the book, One Shot for Gold will doubtlessly prove of great interest to mining historians, US historians and residents of Napa County alike.

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