Developing a Small-Scale Hard-Rock Mine (Part 3)

 (Old, small-scale hard-rock mines are scattered through the American West and Southwest.)

Making a go of a hard-rock or lode gold mine is no easy task. This is true whether you're a small-scale miner, a commercial venture, or a corporate mining giant. The main difference here is that the latter two entities usually have a lot of folding green to back their play, while you and I don't.

A Big Hole

This money issue is the key "make it or break it" parameter in developing placer or load gold mines in the majority of (if not all) cases. The larger the scale you're working at, the more money it's gonna cost you. Those commercial gold-mining crews on reality television are classic examples of this cost factor...and we're talking placer, not lode mines in that TV context. Hard-rock mines tend be even more costly to develop and operate. This is something the old timers knew well. It's also why so many of them sold off their hard-rock ventures to bigger, richer concerns who had the personnel and financial resources to make things happen. I once read a quote (no, not Mark Twain's similar quote) that went something like this: "A gold mine is just a big hole you throw money into." There's a lot of truth (and wisdom) in that statement.

 (None of us has money to throw away I suspect.)

Avoid Refractory Ores

But as small-scale guys and gals there are ways you can minimize the costs associated with developing lode gold mines, as long as you're satisfied with what you can pull and don't get crazy or greedy. My highly experienced New Mexico mining friend "Rattlesnake" Jim made a very insightful comment at the end of the first post in this series that dealt with assaying and free-milling ores. Jim's implication was that if you're into small-scale hard-rock mining you should only work those diggings containing free-milling gold ore and if you can see the gold you don't need an assay. He's right for the most part. Most small-scale miners will never have an assay done...I never have. But then my emphasis has always been placer, not lode, mining. However, if you were to stumble on some pretty decent hard-rock ground and decided to sell your claim to a larger operator and make your gold money that way, then you'll need that assay information as a potential selling point. That said, you should NEVER get involved in a lode gold mine containing refractory ores (as "Rattlesnake" Jim also implies). It's a lost cause because there's no way in heaven or here on earth you'll have the knowledge, expertise, equipment, or financial resources to handle those sorts of chemically bound gold ores. So if you're thinking about developing a small hard-rock venture, make damn sure you're dealing with free-milling ores. It's the only way you're going to get gold out of that rock and perhaps make a few bucks. OK, all this said, let's move on.

 (Stay away from refractory ores like tellurides.)

Things Can Get Sticky

Very few hard-rock gold mines are above ground unless they're a large-scale open-pit operation. So what's the first image that comes to mind when you're thinking about lode gold mines? Yep. Tunnels and shafts. Once you've discovered that mineralized ledge, vein, reef, or blow out your next step is to follow it wherever it may twist, turn, or plunge. In other words, your pick and shovel work should stick as closely as possible to that ore body. Here's where things get sticky. Very rarely do mineralized hard-rock gold zones follow a nice, even, horizontal path just inches below the surface. One way or the other, you're going to end up underground away from the light of day. Some lode shafts or tunnels are exploratory in the sense that you're trying to intersect a vein or veins while others follow a good (producing) lead until it disappears or "pinches out." The amount of work needed in these sorts of endeavors is nothing short of spirit breaking, not to mention the safety and health risks involved. That's why I recommend you work only the easiest to access and relatively richest parts of that lode as a small-scale person. The time, costs, labor, and dangers in developing hard-rock mines is wayyyyyyyy beyond anything you've ever come across in placer me on that. But I'm writing this series of posts and dispensing this info for those few intrepid souls out there who are dead set on making a go of it in small-scale lode mining.

They Need You

I've mentioned a good example of the "easy access, richest parts"  approach to hard-rock development in the past here in Bedrock Dreams. I had a former pard back in the 1980s who found a localized but very rich lode in the mountainous wilds of Montana that he worked for a number of years each summer to the tune of of well over a hundred and fifty thousand dollars (and probably more since he was a very tight-lipped individual). He worked this spot alone (never a good idea) but sunk no shafts or tunnels...just skimmed the cream from a vein of sugary white quartz shot through with crystalline gold. Everything he sold he sold as specimen gold...the optimum way to get the best price for attractive gold ore from collectors and museums. So see? It can be done because he did it. However, I don't want a single person out there thinking of going it alone in some potentially hostile environment like this cat did. Your wife or husband, kids, and family members love and need you, and no amount of gold is worth dying over and leaving your loved ones in the lurch, bereft and broken hearted.

 (You don't have to produce a lot of gold to make a lot of money if it's specimen quality.)

When we continue, I'll be talking about ways of getting that lode's gold-bearing material out of its current home. Until then be safe and, as always, keep smiling!

(c) Jim Rocha (J.R.) 2016

Questions? E-mail me at


  1. JR, A friend of mine that died a few years ago had an interesting way of hardrock mining. His name was "Dugout Dick" Richard Zimmerman. He was famous as "The Salmon River Cave Man". National Geographic magazine did stories on him as well as others. He had a half dozen or more tunnels he had dug, some 100 yards or so into the rock. He did it all with a hammer and chisel and a 5 gallon bucket. His hands and knuckles were as big as golf balls. He had been digging since 1948 and died in his mid 90's. He used mirrors bouncing the light from one to the next down the tunnel to get light to where he was working. I don't think he ever found much gold, but when he gave up on a tunnel, he would wall it off and turn it into a "house". He had apartments of a sort he rented out to folks for $10 a month, some a little more. As you can guess, some of these folks were not high class people, some on the run from the law, but it kept him fed and doing what he wanted to do. In the end, he lived his life the way he wanted,on his terms.....who doesn't want that? He was quite a guy.

  2. Sounds like he was indeed Gary!


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