Monday, May 4, 2015

Of Tellurides, Hoaxes, and Cripple Creek (Conclusion)

 (Cripple Creek, Colorado around 1890.)

After "Chicken" Bill nearly met disaster via the hangman's noose for his Mt. Pisgah gold hoax stunt, the folks around Cripple Creek, Colorado settled back into dormancy as before. Nearly everyone forgot about gold in the area...all except one, that is.

Interesting Looking Rocks

Bob Womack was a well-known figure among ranchers in the Cripple Creek area and had worked for a number of them, including the Broken Box Ranch which was his current employer around 1889 or so. Now Bob, much like "Chicken" Bill, had a propensity for strong drink and tall tales. Unlike "Chicken" Bill however, Bob could be a likable sort of nuisance and the locals tended to tolerate his drunken antics. When he wasn't drinking, riding fence, telling tall tales, or herding cattle, Bob looked for gold in the streams and low-lying areas around Cripple Creek. This made Bob Womack an anomaly of sorts. Although some of the tried and true cowboys of that era knew a little bit about gold prospecting or mining, most were not very knowledgeable in that regard...except Bob Womack.

 (Bob Womack: cowboy, prospector, and finder of gold at Cripple Creek.)

The local citizenry and even his ranch bunkhouse mates considered Bob's constant babble about gold in the Cripple Creek area to be clear evidence that the cowboy's brain had been addled by too much alcohol. As far as they were concerned, Womack's persistence in believing that gold was all around them was just another "humbug" piled on top of many. So when Womack started up again on gold they simply laughed at him and walked away. Bob was not to be deterred, however...public ridicule notwithstanding. He continued to prospect and sample for gold around Cripple Creek and in 1890 he found small amounts of placer gold on Mineral Hill, just to the north of town. Additionally, Bob had picked up some very interesting looking rocks that he surmised might need assaying in Colorado Springs.

 (The rocks that Bob sent for assay looked something like this...in fact, this sample is from Womack's El Paso mine.)

Those rocks of Bob's were rich telluride gold ore and once the word got out about his finds, the stampede for Cripple Creek gold began and in 1891 the Cripple Creek Mining District was formed. And what of Bob Womack? He who found the literal pot of gold at the end of a rainbow he called the El Paso Lode? Bob sold his claim for a bottle of liquor and $500.00 in cash. That same stretch of ground would go on to produce 28 millionaires over time. That's how unbelievably rich Bob's find was but it did him little good as we 've already seen. He died in 1909 of a stroke and had spent the years since selling the El Paso helping his sister run a boarding house. Contrast Bob's story to another local prospector, Winfield Scott Stratton, a former carpenter. He sold his Independence Mine claim to the Venture Corporation of London, England for a whopping $11,000,000 (USD)! No wonder poor Bob Womack had a stroke...

What Saved the Day

Right off the get go Cripple Creek hard-rock miners were stymied by the light silvery appearance of the ore they were digging. What they were dealing with was, of course, sylvanite and many would-be miners abandoned potentially rich finds because they simply couldn't believe that gold could be anything but yellow in color. They weren't used to identifying, mining, or processing refractory ores like tellurides. Even the stamp mills that were brought in to crush Cripple Creek ore managed only a poor recovery percentage of the gold contained in those hard-to-handle Cripple Creek ores. Even the small amounts of free gold obtained were coated or tarnished with a film of iron telluride that resisted all attempts to amalgamate it using mercury. Meanwhile, gold extracted from less balky Cripple Creek ores was shipped to smelters in Pueblo and Denver.

(Open pit gold mining in the Cripple Creek/Victor area.)

What saved the day for Cripple Creek was the arrival of experienced hard-rock gold miners from Deadwood, South Dakota and the Black Hills area. They too had come across some tellurides there and after much trial and error had come across a chlorination process that was encouragingly effective in getting the gold out and away from its iron and sylvanite coatings. By 1889 chlorination and a modified form of the cyanide leaching process proved to be the right ticket for getting the gold out of Cripple Creek's tellurides. The district boomed and silver and lead miners working at the mines at Creede and Leadville departed for the golden ground at Cripple Creek, leaving the mines at the previous locations at a near standstill. By 1899, Cripple Creek's mines had produced over one million troy ounces of gold. Mining continued in varying degrees at Cripple Creek until World War II when mining ceased for the most part. By the early 1970s, commercial mining concerns once again were active in the area and, as far as I know, there still are some large-scale open pit operations going on in the Cripple Creek/Victor  areas.

What's the moral of this story? Know what you're looking for and when you find it, hang on to it...

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2015

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com

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