9/3/2010: The Mining Law of 1866

September 3, 2010

SHRA has spent quite a lot of time in recent months doing work related to the 1866 Mining or Right of Way Act.  Among many other things, the law provides perpetual ROWs for uses that existed on public land at the time the land was withdrawn from the public domain.  There is a provision of the law that relates to roads, and another that relates to irrigation ditches.  The historical questions and policy implications of this law are significant.

In the West today, there are myriad groups fighting over these historic uses, which the federal government is in many cases trying to curb or eliminate (think of the “roadless” debates that have occurred over the past two decades).  As far as SHRA’s involvement, our historians have recently been researching the history of roads in national forests and the history of irrigation ditches in designated wilderness areas. In each case, the historical question is when the road or the ditch actually came into existence — was it before or after the government designated the land as a national forest and withdrew it from the public domain?  Sounds simple, but of course historical research never is!

The research has taken place in many locations and various archives, making these particularly interesting cases.  We have found rich sources in the Bureau of Land Management archives, the Forest Service archives, and most interestingly, in local archives.  Just yesterday, I uncovered 3 old photo albums that a 1920s mother made for her son.  They had wonderful, old photos of the first airplane  — called the “Tin Goose” — to land on one particular backcountry wilderness landing strip in the 1920s.  The albums also showed an old miner holding up a gold bullion cube and packing the rest of those nuggets out with his snow dogs.  In addition, the photos showed a well-known lake filled almost entirely with logs from the old logging days.  We also found old surveys and hand-written notes from the road engineer describing how difficult it had become to design a road up one particular summit, particularly when there was sometimes 12 feet of snow!

These cases have been some of the most interesting for our historians, due in part to the picture we’re getting to paint of settlement and life in these very remote areas of the West.  We’ve all read books on the West, but when you read the documents written by the people who were living on the ground and see the photos they took, you can almost feel what it was like for them, and how harsh life really was on a daily basis.  The number of these cases in which SHRA is involved is growing rapidly, as this important law becomes a more widely used tool to protect old and historic uses on national lands.  Professional historical research has been absolutely critical to our clients because of the important role that the historical facts play in these cases.  We can only hope that they’re all as interesting as these have been!