Cooperation, Confrontation, and Incorporation: Economic Strategies and Subterranean Forces on the Comstock Lode

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:00 AM
Washington Room 6 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Robert N. Chester III, University of California, Berkeley
Robert Chester, University of California, Berkeley



Cooperation, Confrontation & Incorporation:

Economic Strategies & Subterranean Forces on the Comstock Lode



On the Comstock Lode, the largest silver strike in United States history, corporations arose swiftly to manage the costly technical challenges of hard-rock mining precipitated by the volatile subterranean environments. Unions eventually formed to limit the power of concentrated capital to dictate wages. Strategies of both capital and labor reflected a strong desire to distribute the inherent risks of mining. These risks reflected explicit tensions between uncertainty and potential opportunity hidden in the mines. The sale of stock allowed corporations sufficient capital to buy costly machinery and build the infrastructure required for the operation of the mines. These companies also relied upon the human muscle power of workers to perform the strenuous and debilitating labor underground. Hazardous environmental obstacles made mining expensive for corporations but dangerous for workers. These circumstances created unanticipated yet circumscribed opportunities for labor. Increased demand for workers and extreme hazards contributed to better pay. Extraordinarily high wages were won through organization and were fiercely protected by white workers who combined interethnic cooperation with racist exclusion. Many believed their status as laborers only temporary. More than a few used their substantial income to purchase shares of the very companies who employed them. Virginia City and Gold Hill were not company towns; rather, these were communities comprised of many corporations. These workers actively contributed to the process that historian Alan Trachtenberg has called “the incorporation of America.”



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