Thursday, October 2, 2008

Thesis: Finding an Area

A 1972 four-door Opel sedan is an unlikely field vehicle. It can potentially carry a lot of rock samples, but it has rear wheel drive, and is fairly conspicuous on dirt roads compared to the usual 4WD pickup truck seen so commonly throughout the west. My Opel sedan, which I purchased in 1975 in northern Virginia, had a good, light blue, non-metallic paint job, and a good paint job is something often lost quickly in field vehicles.

It was fairly standard back then for a geology Master’s thesis to entail geologic mapping of some choice chunk of land—a field area—so a good 4WD vehicle of some sort was preferred and coveted by geology grad students in the intermountain west.

Grad students in my day, however, typically drove to their field areas in old, often beat-up pickup trucks, jeeps, and VW buses or bugs. At least one grad student lived in his vehicle full time. Nevertheless, in the spring of 1976 during my first year of graduate classes, I blithely if not naively took to the highways and dirt roads of Nevada in my Opel sedan, in search of a thesis area. I had hardly ever driven on dirt roads at all.

My thesis professor believed strongly that geologic field mapping, which he thought had gone through a bust period, and silver mining, which had definitely gone through a bust period, would both be making comebacks soon. He therefore recommended that my thesis consist of the geologic mapping of a silver district.

Silver deposits come in different varieties, as do deposits of most other commodities, and he was fond of a particular type of silver deposit, something he sometimes referred to as the “Betty O’Neal type,” which he named after the historic Betty O'Neal Mine in the Battle Mountain mining district. He duly gave me a list of several mines and told me to go look at them. At the time, I assumed all mines on the list were silver mines. At least one of them wasn't, although silver and other metals were found on the peripheries of that district. At least two of these districts have since been mined for gold.

Field work and geologic mapping, by the way, did make big comebacks in the 80’s, because the price of gold went way up, causing a huge increase in gold exploration and mining (history here). Silver made a spectacular though brief comeback in 1980, when the silver price soared, and then remained somewhat elevated through the 80’s. During that time, and into the 1990’s, silver mining increased, usually in conjunction with or as a byproduct of gold mining, but not always. Several silver districts were heavily explored in the 1980's, and a few silver mines went into production (or almost did): for example the Coeur-Rochester Mine, NV, the Bell Mountain Mine, NV, and the Waterloo-Langtry Mine, CA. Coeur-Rochester is still in production; the Bell Mountain Mine saw little, if any, production; and Waterloo-Langtry has yet to be placed into production.

When I headed out into the field in 1976, gold would have been a better thing to be looking for, but I took my experienced professor’s word, along with his list, and headed out to Battle Mountain, the official armpit of Nevada, er... America. From Battle Mountain, old Highway 8A would take me on the next leg of my journey, southward toward Austin and beyond.

To be continued...

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