Nevada’s dead economy

The John Muir essay can be read in its entirety here:

Driving this week through Nevada on the “loneliest highway,” I am reminded of my favorite John Muir essay, “Nevada’s Dead Towns,” originally published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1879. It is a great meditation on that collection of ghost towns we carry around in our hip pockets, fun reading for anyone heading out that way in these last days of summer. But—be warned—not terribly complimentary to our fair state. Dreams of instant wealth combined with desert wanderings are not the best formula for mental health, Muir thinks.

“Wander where you may throughout the length and breadth of this mountain-barred wilderness, you everywhere come upon these dead mining towns, with their tall chimney stacks, standing forlorn amid broken walls and furnaces, and machinery half buried in sand, the very names of many of them already forgotten.”

It may surprise Muir fans that this essay has almost nothing to do with the glories of wilderness. Indeed, he uses the much older concept of wilderness as a wasteland to drive home his point: “Those [dead towns] lying to the eastward of the Sierra throughout the ranges of the Great Basin waste in the dry wilderness like the bones of cattle that have died of thirst.” For Muir, these “gray and silent” ruins told an eloquent tale of the dismal effects of rampant speculation and economic decay. Speaking of the Treasure Hill boom south of Ely, he wrote:

“One of the most violent excitements that ever occurred in the history of mining. All kinds of people—shoemakers, tailors, farmers, etc., as well as miners—left their own right work and fell in a perfect storm of energy upon the White Pine Hills, covering the ground like grasshoppers, and seeming determined by the very violence of their efforts to turn every stone to silver. But with few exceptions, these mining storms pass away about as suddenly as they rise, leaving only ruins to tell of the tremendous energy expended, as heaps of giant boulders in the valley tell of the spent power of the mountain floods…

“But … the Nevada miner too often spent himself in years of weary search without gaining a dollar, traveling hundreds of miles from mountain to mountain, burdened with wasting hopes of discovering some hidden vein worth millions, enduring hardships of the most destructive kind, driving innumerable tunnels into the hillsides, while his assayed specimens again and again proved worthless. Perhaps one in a hundred of these brave prospectors would strike it rich, while ninety-nine died alone in the mountains or sank out of sight in the corners of saloons, in a haze of whiskey and tobacco smoke.”

Muir tramped through Nevada during another time of national economic collapse, the “Long Depression” of the 1870’s-1890’s. Several economists, including Paul Krugman, are saying now that our current economic collapse is more akin to that event and the Great Depression of the 1930s than most of our politicians are willing to admit. Then, as now, Americans faced rising inequality of wealth and income, encouraged by government fiscal policies of laissez-faire economics. It happens generationally, they say.

When Muir writes of abandoned furnaces and fine hotels running with coyotes, I think of all the empty McMansions lining our suburban streets, sagebrush growing through cracks in the sidewalks. “…surely it is a fine thing that so many are eager to find the gold and silver that lie hid in the veins of the mountains. But in the search the seekers too often become insane, and strike about blindly in the dark like raving madmen.”