Spanish conquistadors sought gold in the desert of what is now the Southwest US, and the prospectors who hurried to California in the post-1849 gold rush also mined this area. However, the Mojave desert truly boomed as a destination for miners when the price of silver escalated quickly in the 1890s. Boomtowns such as Tonopah, Nevada, in the eastern Mojave, became the nation’s prime source of this precious metal. Some of these boomtowns, such as Ballarat, California, became ghost towns when mines closed after the panic of 1907, but others thrived through the 1930s. In addition to silver and copper, vast deposits of minerals useful to the nation’s burgeoning industries were discovered and mined throughout the Mojave Desert of California and Nevada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Large reserves of potash, soda ash, sodium sulfate, salt, and borax found in the earth around the dry Searles Lake gave rise to the twentieth-century boomtown of Trona, California. Rail lines were constructed through the desert to transport goods to markets and industrial centers around the US, as well as to ports where minerals could be shipped around the world.
A second, mid-twentieth-century boom period was fueled by the need for raw materials during the World Wars and the Cold War. Mining in these years was “big business” rather than the work of smaller, independent prospectors. Post-1920 mining in the Mojave Desert typically saw corporations running mines and processing centers, and company-run towns developing around these industrial centers.