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Mining North America

An Environmental History since 1522

John R. McNeill (Editor), George Vrtis (Editor)


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 Over the past five hundred years, North Americans have increasingly relied on mining to produce much of their material and cultural life. From cell phones and computers to cars, roads, pipes, pans, and even wall tile, mineral-intensive products have become central to North American societies. As this process has unfolded, mining has also indelibly shaped the natural world and the human societies within it. Mountains have been honeycombed, rivers poisoned, forests leveled, and the consequences of these environmental transformations have fallen unevenly across North America.
Drawing on the work of scholars from Mexico, the United States, and Canada, Mining North America examines these developments. It covers an array of minerals and geographies while bringing mining into the core debates that animate North American environmental history. Taken all together, the essays in this book make a powerful case for the centrality of mining in forging North American environments and societies.
List of Illustrations

Introduction: Of Mines, Minerals, and North American Environmental History
George Vrtis and J. R. McNeill


1. Exhausting the Sierra Madre: Mining Ecologies in Mexico over the Longue Durée
Daviken Studnicki-Gizbert

2. Reconstructing the Environmental History of Colonial Mining: The Real del Catorce Mining District, Northeastern New Spain/Mexico, Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Antonio Avalos-Lozano and Miguel Aguilar-Robledo


3. A World of Mines and Mills: Precious-Metals Mining, Industrialization, and the Nature of the Colorado Front Range
George Vrtis

4. Consequences of the Comstock: The Remaking of Working Environments on America’s Largest Silver Strike, 1859–1880
Robert N. Chester III

5. Dust to Dust: The Colorado Coal Mine Explosion Crisis of 1910
Thomas G. Andrews

6. Copper and Longhorns: Material and Human Power in Montana’s Smelter Smoke War, 1860–1910
Timothy James LeCain

7. Efficiency, Economics, and Environmentalism: Low-Grade Iron Ore Mining in the Lake Superior District, 1913–2010
Jeffrey T. Manuel


8. Mining the Atom: Uranium in the Twentieth-Century American West
Eric Mogren

9. A Comparative Case Study of Uranium Mine and Mill Tailings Regulation in Canada and the United States
Robynne Mellor

10. The Giant Mine’s Long Shadow: Arsenic Pollution and Native People in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories
John Sandlos and Arn Keeling

11. Iron Mines, Toxicity, and Indigenous Communities in the Lake Superior Basin
Nancy Langston

12. If the Rivers Ran South: Tar Sands and the State of the Canadian Nation
Steven M. Hoffman

13. Quebec Asbestos: Triumph and Collapse, 1879–1983
Jessica van Horssen

Afterword: Mining, Memory, and History
Andrew C. Isenberg

J. R. McNeill is Professor of History and University Professor at Georgetown University. His most recent books are The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 and Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620–1914.

George Vrtis is Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Carleton College.

"Mining North America is a kaleidoscopic and exhaustive volume that places mining at the center of a cutting-edge historical analysis of human society's relationship with the environment, ranging from the sixteenth century to the twenty-first. This unique collection of essays covers an impressive array of interrelated yet heretofore overlooked topics. Vividly written and timely, this book should engage a wide, multidisciplinary audience."—Ryan Dearinger, Associate Professor of History at Eastern Oregon University and author of The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West

"This fascinating exploration of North American mining history fills a gaping hole in the field and illuminates a fraught and wide-ranging struggle to meet our voracious demand for the minerals underlying modern life. From the silver mines of Mexico to the tar sands and gold mines of Canada, Mining North America shows how industrial capitalism reshaped a continent and left behind a toxic legacy of inequalities."—Paul Sabin, author of The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future

"This book advances the argument that mining the earth has been central to modern history. After absorbing its impressive stories and evidence, ranging across a continent‘s incredible mineral wealth, from gold and silver to uranium, iron ore, and bitumen, we can no longer look on mining simply as a romantic and colorful adventure from the past. Mining creates our world, for good or bad. Powerfully convincing!"—Donald Worster, author of Shrinking the Earth: The Rise and Decline of American Abundance

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