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Between 1830 and 1850 Chilean silver mining grew at an unprecedented pace which transformed mining into one of the country's principal sources of wealth. The rush caused rapid demographic, infrastructural, and economic expansion in the semi-arid Norte Chico mountains where the silver deposits lay. A number of Chileans made large fortunes in the rush and made investments in other areas of the economy of Chile. By the 1850s the rush was in decline and lucrative silver mining definitely ended in the 1870s. At the same time mining activity in Chile reoriented to saltpetre operations.

Placer deposits of gold were exploited by the Spanish in the 16th century following their arrival in the same century. However, only after the independence in the 19th century did mining once again get prominence among economic activities in Chile. Following the discovery of silver at Agua Amarga (1811) and Arqueros (1825) the Norte Chico mountains north of La Serena were exhaustively prospected.

In 1832 prospector Juan Godoy found a silver outcrop (reventón) 50 km south of Copiapó in Chañarcillo. Godoy successfully claimed the discovered outcrop in his name and the name of José Godoy and Miguel Gallo. The finding attracted thousands of people to the place and generated significant wealth. During the heyday of Chañarcillo it produced more than 332 tons of silver ore until the deposits begun to be exhausted in 1874. A settlement of 600 people mushroomed in Chañarcillo leading to the establishment of surveillance system to avoid disorders and theft of ore. The settlement evolved over time to a town named Juan Godoy which came to have a plaza, school, market, hospital, theater, a railroad station, a church and graveyard.

Following the discovery of Chañarcillo many other ores were found near Copiapó well into the 1840s. The many findings resulted in the court of Copiapó receiving numerous claims (denuncios). In 1848 another large ore deposit was discovered at Tres Puntas sparkling yet another rush.

Copiapó experienced a large demographic and urbanistic growth during the rush. The town became a centre for trade and services of a large mining district. In 1851 Copiapó was connected by railroad to Caldera, its principal port of export. The mining zone slowly grew northwards into the diffuse border with Bolivia. Agriculture in Norte Chico also expanded as a consequence of the rush.

By 1855, Copiapó was already in decline. At the end of the silver rush, rich miners had diversified their assets into banking, agriculture, trade and commerce all over Chile. Example of this is silver mining magnate Matías Cousiño who initiated coal mining operations in Lota in 1852 rapidly transforming the town, from being a sparsely populated frontier zone in the mid-19th century, into a large industrial hub.[7][8][9]

In 1870, 1570 miners worked in the Chañarcillo mines; however the mines were exhausted by 1874 and mining ended in 1888 after the mines became flooded.[10] Despite this, Chañarcillo was the most productive mining district in 19th century Chile.

A last major discovery of silver occurred 1870 in Caracoles in Bolivian territory adjacent to Chile. Apart from being discovered by Chileans, the ore was also extracted with Chilean capital and miners.

Category: Historical Mines

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