If gold - lusty, glittering gold - was king of the old West, silver - shining, elegant and seductive - was queen.
If gold called men to California, tempting them with promise of riches, it was silver that eventually sustained the dream.Perhaps less celebrated than the gold rush, the silver story in California was equally dramatic.
In fact, notes L. Thomas Frye, chief curator of history at the Oakland Museum, the pot of gold at the end of the California rainbow quickly turned out to be silver-lined.
The gods smiled on a few who struck it rich in the gold fields. But very few. And it didn't take early miners long to realize that everything that glitters was not gold. Silver was only slightly less fickle, but enough so that in the end, it was the silver fortunes that changed San Francisco into the most important city on the West Coast, that poured money into the development of Los Angeles, that created a new social elite who demanded and flaunted expensive possessions and lavish mansions.
Nor was the so-called Golden State the only place silver reigned. In our own Beehive State, the mansions lining South Temple still call attention to another chapter of the metal's history.
Silver was "blue-looking stuff" to be dug out of the ground and fashioned into ornate show pieces. It was versatile enough to be used in a myriad of ways, to show off not only the skill of the workers but the tastes and values of the owners. In that way, it is an incredible record, telling things about the past that words cannot.
A fascinating look at the silver story is featured in an exhibit at the Utah State History Museum entitled "Silver in the Golden State/Silver in the Beehive State."
The traveling exhibit, put together by the Oakland Museum, features 500 pieces of California silver borrowed from California or Nevada and other artifacts of the past trace the history of how silver was discovered and mined, the glory of the Comstock Lode and Cerro Gordo, the work of silversmiths and finally the 20th century production of silver. It is complemented by an exhibit of silver pieces from Utah.
"Silver is beautiful, it represents wealth," says Deborah Cooper, exhibit coordinator from the Oakland Museum, who traveled to Salt Lake for installation of the exhibit. "But we didn't want to provide just a look at beautiful silver. We wanted to put it into context, to show its place in the popular culture."
And reflected in the shimmering surfaces is more than just a precious metal.
"Silver has been used to mark important occasions. Silver pieces are heirlooms handed down from generation to generation, a part of family heritage," said Cooper.
Actually, the story of California silver starts not in California, but in Nevada. There, the ore was discovered in rich abundance in mines such as the Washoe and the Comstock Lode. But, points out Frye, the exploitation of the Comstock by California entrepreneurs forged an intimate and enduring link between that state and the Nevada Territory.
The story of mining in Utah in a well-known part of our history. The first mines were discovered by Colonel Patrick Conner and his soldiers in the spring of 1863.
However, it was not until the joining of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 that silver mining really became economically feasible. A few figures tell the story: In 1869 an estimated $2,319 of silver ore was shipped from the territory. A year later, the value of all mineral including silver ore shipped from the state jumped to $628,386.
By the turn of the century, Utah was one of the leading silver producers in the country, accounting for 20 percent of the national output by 1904. In 1870 there were some 500 people working in Utah's mines. By 1914, there were more than 10,000 miners in the state.
And, in fact, the impact of Utah's silver stretched far beyond its borders, says Phillip Notariani, cordinator of museum services at the Utah State Historical Society. Utah silver made fortunes for many in California, New York and even Europe. The famous Emma Mine was for a time the center of financial international intrigue.
"Discovery and the mining and milling of silver forever changed the cultural and economic face of Utah," he says.
The glory age of silver lasted through the mid-19th century. And therin lies another silver tale: of boom and bust, certainly, but also of human nature. When it was an elitist material, when it was a barometer of social status, silver was flaunted.
When, in the mid-19th century a process was invented that enabled artisans to electroplate a thin layer of silver onto a base metal object, thus reducing the price and availability of silver goods, things were never quite the same. Silver for the masses was still beautiful; but the image was, if not tarnished, at least a little dulled.
It's all there, in the Utah Historical Society exhibit; the mines, the methods, the glory, the grandeur, the transitions to modern times.
Some of the artifacts associated with Utah's silver mining industry that are on display include a silver tea set that belonged to Ogden Mayor Lester J. Herrick; the William Randolph Hearst trophy (standing three feet tall, the trophy was won by the state of Utah at the 1908 National Irrigation Congress for the best crops raised on irrigated lands); a key fashioned from silver from the Park City mines used as part of the Utah display at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition; the silver pen that Grover Cleveland was to have used to sign the enabling law in 1894 that established the state of Utah (except that he forgot to use the pen); a silver sacrament service used by a Park City ward at the turn of the century, a silver chalice used by the Greek Orthodox Church in Price.
"Silver in the Golden State/Silver in the Beehive State" will run through Oct. 7. The museum is located at 300 Rio Grande, at the west end of 300 South. Hours are: Monday and Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. The exhibit is closed on Tuesdays. Admission for Historical Society members is $3 for adults, $1.50 for children and $7.50 for families. For non-members, admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children and $10 for families. Group tours are available.
For added interest, drawings will be held each month to give away two or three modern silver-plated pieces from Felt Buchorn.
The California part of the exhibit was organized by the History Department of the Oakland Museum in Oakland, Calif., with generous support from the Wells Fargo Foundation, the Oakland Museum Association and the City of Oakland. The complementary Utah exhibit was coordinated by the Utah Historical Society.
Exhibit design for the Utah show was done by Chad Smith and Astle-Ericson & Associates.