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Digging It: Juniata Professors Team Up for Course on Mining

(Posted January 24, 2005)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- A Juniata College historian who loves to dig up facts and a Juniata geologist who loves to extract lessons from the earth are teaming up for a spring semester course that examines the history and cultural and environmental impacts of mining in the United States as well as the rest of North America and South America.

"The entire history of North America is founded on the search for commodities and resources," says Ryan Mathur, assistant professor of geology. "Christopher Columbus and other explorers were seeking gold when they came to the New World."

Mathur, whose research focuses on how to better identify copper deposits, will teach "Mining in the Americas" with David Hsiung, Charles A. Dana Professor of History, whose research interests focus on environmental history in colonial and revolutionary America. Although the respective expertise of Mathur and Hsiung would seem to be at odds, the two professors have made sure the course will not degenerate into a "mining is good vs. mining is bad" debate.

"My aim is not to make the argument that we should pillage the earth," Mathur says. "At the end of the course, I hope the students will understand why mining is necessary."

"In every course you teach, you hope the students look beyond the 'good or bad' argument," Hsiung says. "I want them to see the familiar such as a mining operation, but in new ways. I want them to turn on the lights in their dorm room and realize that the copper wire used to make the light operate had to come out of the ground."

The two professors have structured the course around four resources that have to be mined: gold, coal, copper and oil. Each section of the course will examine how and where each resource is mined, as well as the environmental impact and cultural and historical impact.

The lectures in the course will focus on specific historical periods associated with each resource. For example, the segment on gold mining will focus on Alaska's Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98 as part of Hsiung's lectures, while Mathur focuses on how gold formed in that particular place and how mining technology was used to extract the resource.

The students in the course will be expected to create four presentations, each centered on the relevant resource, on how mining operations in the Americas affected a specific place and time. "We expect most of the students will focus on mining operations in the United States, but we hope some will examine other areas such as silver mining in Mexico, or gold mining in South America in Incan times," Hsiung says.

The professors also will take the class on several field trips. For the course segment on oil, the class will visit Titusville, Pa. to see the Drake Well Museum, which celebrates the 1859 discovery of oil in Venango County along Oil Creek by Edwin Drake.

The class also will visit the site of a strip mining operation, either a working site in West Virginia, or a former strip mine in central Pennsylvania. "Geology is place-specific, and in visiting a strip mine site you can see the contours of the geology and see what has happened," Mathur explains. "If we went down into an underground coal mine, there would be obvious safety concerns and you really can't see anything but the rock formation in front of you."

Mathur says he is looking forward to sharing how mining and the search for valuable resources spurred migration across the country and into new areas. "When you think about it, what drives people around the earth is the search for commodities and resources," he says.

For Hsiung, the stories of how people endured through personal hardship to seek fortunes in gold fields and oil reserves are captivating. "King Midas wasn't the only one struck with gold fever," Hsiung explains. "In the California Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Rush people sold their farms, pulled up stakes and set out. The question I would like the students to answer is 'Would you do this if you were in the same position?'"

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.