Monday, September 14, 2015

And We Think We Have it Tough...(Part 2)

 (Miners winching up gold-bearing material, Utah, late 1800s.)

From a purely gold mining standpoint, the level of effort we put into our small-scale activities and the difficulties we experience is relatively inconsequential when compared to what the old timers endured in their search for, and recovery of placer and lode gold. You can't mine or prospect in a vacuum, which is why I place such importance on knowing something about those who came before you and the difficulties they faced. It's my contention that you'll never be a well-rounded miner if you know nothing of mining history. Thus, this particular series of posts.


(Old timer panning for color.)

It could be said the lowly gold pan (or batea in Latin America) was responsible for opening up more territory and triggering greater human mass movements than any other tool ever devised by man. Add to this the fact that the gold pan was instrumental in discovering most of the significant gold strikes in the American West and Southwest and you may start viewing that pan of yours in a much different light. Despite its humble origins, the gold pan was worth more than its weight in gold and probably still is. Finding "color," or traces of the presence of gold was first and foremost in the minds of the old-time prospectors and miners. Any time they came across a likely looking spot, the very first thing the old timers did was break out a shovel and a gold pan. In wet placer ground their task was made all the easier by the presence of water but arid or desert ground didn't deter the old timers from dry panning or using part of their precious water and a small wash tub to check for color. Fundamental to all of this preliminary effort was, once again, the gold pan or batea. Ditto for the far end of any real mining performed using equipment such as the rocker, the sluice box, or the dry washer. Those gold concentrates had to be panned out and the gold they contained recovered and placed safely into a miner's poke. The gold pan was, and still is, indispensable to small-scale gold miners everywhere. I doubt there's a person anywhere reading this post right now that doesn't have a gold pan in his or her possession. If you don't and are interested in all things gold mining, you better get one fast! Like they say, "It's a no brainer."

(Yours truly checking out a "coyote" hole in a historic New Mexico gold mining district.)

In their search for gold and its recovery, the old time prospectors and miners went to great lengths to make things happen or, alternately, prove to themselves that the yellow metal they were after was too sparse to mess with. Actually, the descriptor "great lengths" is an understatement in this context. I've been around enough old-time lode and placer workings to say that I've been both impressed and horrified at some of the risks the old timers took to get at the gold. For example, what you don't see in the photo above (me at the entrance of a "coyote" hole) is that the entrance is just high and wide enough for a grown man to crawl through and once inside it opens into a "room" about forty-by-forty feet square with an overhead or ceiling about five and a half-feet high. Once inside this hole there is absolutely NO shoring or bracing with wooden beams, just tons and tons of hanging gravel and rock, ceiling, floor, and walls alike. The entire inside is covered with miner's pick marks and loose gravel can be dislodged by giving it a good whack with a geologist's rock hammer. Can you imagine working inside this potential tomb? Stooped over or squatting down and swinging a pick or wielding a shovel? Never knowing if, or more likely, when the ceiling or walls would collapse on top of you, burying you alive with little or no chance of being rescued? In the old days miners consistently put life and limb at risk to get at the gold, placer and lode. Some paid the ultimate price for their obsession with the yellow metal. Again, I urge you all to stay out of old mine shafts, tunnels, deep prospect pits, and "coyote" holes. You're not going to find anything in those spots that's more valuable than your life. Please remember that, OK?

(Miners using a hydraulic "monitor" to break up auriferous ground.)

Of all the placer mining methods used in the American West, the most effective at moving or breaking down massive volumes of gold-bearing dirt was hydraulicking. On the flip side of this coin, hydraulicking was also (by far and above) the most destructive method ever devised and used to work placer ground. The overall environmental damage caused by hydraulicking was, simply put, staggering. The only modern mining method that gives hydraulicking a run for its money is open-pit mining using heavy equipment and the cyanide leaching process. A typical hydraulick rig employed a large-diameter, heavy canvas hose or cast iron piping and an over-sized, high-pressure water nozzle known as a "giant" or "monitor." The monitor was large, heavy, and unwieldy, to say the least. Because of this it required a supporting swivel stand or rotating pipe connector so that the operator (miner) could aim it laterally and vertically. Directing a monitor under high-pressure water was no easy task and required a decent amount of strength and stamina from the operator. The use of monitors and hydraulicking on a large scale first took place in the California Motherlode region not many years after the discovery of gold there in 1849. One of the big lessons those Argonauts learned in the Motherlode after the initial rich discoveries there was the basic premise that the more gold-bearing material you moved and processed the more gold you recovered. A simple equation that is as applicable today as it was back then. One unique thing about the California Motherlode was its propensity for ancient auriferous river beds (Tertiary channels) that were left high and dry hundreds of feet up the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas, especially in the northern mines (from Nevada City northward). Miners and small mining bands or companies soon figured out that they could cut down, or "blast" these gold-bearing gravels from their hillside resting places by using streams of high-pressure water. Thus the monitor and the principle of hydraulicking. Once blasted out and loosened, the slurry material was then directed into a series of extra-long sluice boxes known as "Long Toms" and the gold eventually recovered. Hydraulicking worked better than anyone could have imagined but its environmental impacts were soon felt downstream as farmers and ranchers in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys saw their water sources dry up or become rivers of muddy sludge and silt. To understand this a bit better, imagine an eight-inch monitor spewing out 185,000 cubic feet of water per hour at a velocity of 150 feet per second! Whole hillsides disappeared under this force along with their trees, plants, and shrubs until only bedrock remained, especially when multiple monitors were used in concert together (sometimes as many as 10 monitors worked side-by-side in California, 24 hours a day, seven days a week). You can only imagine the massive amounts of water needed to fuel these monsters and their destructive power. It was said a solitary individual couldn't even swing a heavy, iron pry bar through a six-inch monitor's water stream operating a full volume. Oh, since it relates to the previous section you may also want to know that a number of hydraulic miners were killed as far as 200 feet away when a misdirected stream of water from a monitor was accidentally sent their way. Eventually the farmers and ranchers downstream had their say and hydraulicking on a large scale was finally outlawed in California in 1884. If you ever get up to the Northern Motherlode region of California, make time to visit Malakoff Diggings State Park just outside Nevada City. You'll get a first-hand view of the power and force of hydraulicking.

My best each and every one of you.

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

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

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