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Home -> Chalkley J. Hambleton -> A Gold Hunter's Experience -> 4

A Gold Hunter's Experience - 4

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We reached Denver on the 18th of September about noon, being forty-nine
days out from St. Joe. Stubbs met us five or six miles out on the road.
This gave him and me a chance, as we walked along, to talk over the
condition of things and our plans for the immediate future. He had been
in Denver over a week waiting for us and had had no tidings of the train
since I wrote him from Fort Kearney. He had considerable liking for
display and had evidently told people in Denver that he was waiting for
the arrival of a large train of machinery and goods in which he was
interested. He thought it would be a scene to be proud of to see
fourteen new wagons, heavily loaded and drawn by forty yoke of oxen,
come marching into town in one close file. When he saw only nine wagons
straggling along over the space of a mile, covered with dust that had
been settling on them for weeks, with oxen lean, footsore, limping and
begrimed with sweat and dirt, and teamsters in clothes faded, soiled and
ragged, his pride sank to a low level, and he did not want to go into
town with the wagons. The train did not tarry, but crossed Cherry
Creek--then entirely dry, though often a torrent--drove up the Platte a
mile or so and camped for the day on the south or east side of the
stream. Stubbs and I spent a couple of hours looking over the town and
calling on some acquaintances and then went to the camp.

Denver was at that time a lively place, with a few dozen frame and log
buildings, and probably a thousand or more people. Most of them lived
and did business in tents and wagons. A Mr. Forrest, whom I had known
in Chicago, was doing a banking business here in a tent. The town
seemed to be full of wagons and merchandise, consisting of food,
clothing and all kinds of tools and articles used in mining. Many people
were preparing to leave for the States, some to spend the winter and to
return, others, more discouraged or tired of gold hunting, to stay for

When I went to the camp in the afternoon Sollitt and all the drivers
wanted to go back to the town to look it over and make a few purchases.
I told them I would look after the oxen till evening, when the herders
for that night would come and relieve me. The afternoon was clear and
warm, though the mountains to the west were carpeted with new-fallen
snow. I went out in my shirt sleeves, without a thought of needing a
coat. The oxen wandered off quite a distance from camp in search of the
best grass, and I leisurely followed them. Late in the afternoon, and
quite suddenly, the wind sprang up and came directly from the mountains,
damp and cold. Soon I was enveloped in a dense fog, and could see but a
few yards away. I lost all sense of the direction of the camp or town,
and the men at camp did not know where or how to find me. When night
came it grew so dark that I could not see my hand a foot from my eyes,
and could only keep with the cattle by the noise they made in walking
and grazing. Later the fog turned into a cold rain, with considerable
wind, and was chilling to the bone, so I was booked for the night in a
cold storm without supper or coat. To keep the blood in circulation I
would jump and run around in a circle for half an hour at a time.
Sometimes I would lean up against one of the quiet old oxen on his
leeward side, and thus get some warmth from his body and shelter from
the wind. When the oxen had finished grazing and had lain down for the
night, I tried to lie down beside one of them to get out of the wind,
but the experiment was so novel to the ox that he would get up at once
and walk off. During the night the oxen strolled off more than a mile
from camp. When morning came I was relieved by the men and was ready for
breakfast, and especially for the strong coffee. In times of exposure
and extra effort, coffee was the greatest solace we found.

When on a visit to Denver, twenty-three years afterwards, I tried to
find out just where I spent that night. An old settler of the place
decided with me that it was on the elevated ground now known as Capitol
Hill. During the day we crossed the Platte and went forward with the
train to the foot of the mountains, and camped some two or three miles
south of where Clear creek leaves the foot-hills. Next morning Sollitt
took twelve yoke of oxen with two drivers, and started back for the four
wagons and two men that had been left behind on the plains. Our
teamsters, who had volunteered to drive oxen to the mountains without
pay, had now fulfilled their agreement, but most of them were glad to
stay with us for awhile at current wages--about a dollar and a half a
day. The prospect was not as golden, and the men were not as anxious to
get to mining as they had been when a thousand miles further east.

Stubbs had spent a month among the mines and mills, and his observations
made him rather blue. The accounts he gave me were most discouraging. He
was inclined to think that the best thing for us to do was to go into
camp for the winter, look around, watch the developments, and in the
spring decide where to locate, if at all, or whether to sell out, give
up the enterprise and go home. The proposition was not a bad one, by
any means; but I was too full of determination to do _something_, to
think of sitting down and quietly waiting six months, after all we had
gone through, to get there. I thought we would all be better satisfied
if we were to pitch in and make a vigorous effort, even if we failed in
the end, rather than to quit at this early stage of the hunt.

The usual route from Denver to the gold fields, was to the north of
Clear creek, by Golden City to Blackhawk, and then to Mountain City.
Stubbs selected a route further south, because there was a fine camping
place, with good grass, about fifteen miles, or half way up to the gold
fields, from the foot of the mountains. The roads were quite passable up
to this camp, though the hills were steep. With the drivers and oxen
that were left after Sollitt started back, the wagons were gradually
taken up to this mountain camp, while he was back on the plains and
Stubbs and I were looking over the gold region to decide on a final
location. The weather was pleasant and rather warm during the day, but
frosty at night. We still slept in the open air, and our blankets were
often frozen to the ground in the morning.

There was more or less gulch mining and prospecting[2] going on over a
large section of the mountains, but the principal part of the lode
mining, and most of the mills that had been located, were confined to a
field not over five or six miles in extent, the center of which was
Mountain City, now Central City. There were fifty or more mills already
up and in running order. They varied in capacity from three to twenty
stamps. Some were running day and night crushing quartz that was
apparently rich in gold; some were running a part of the time,
experimenting on a variety of quartz taken out of different lodes and
prospect holes, and generally not paying, and some were idle, the owners
discouraged, "bust," and trying to sell, or else gone home for the
winter to get more money to work with.

[Footnote 2: "Prospecting" included the searching for
gold in almost any way that was experimental. Going off
into the unexplored mountains to hunt new fields of
gold, whether in gulches or lodes was prospecting.
Digging a hole down through the dirt and loose stones in
the bottom of a gulch to see if gold could be found in
the sand was prospecting. Sinking a shaft into the top
dirt of a hillside in search of a new lode, or into the
lode when discovered to see if gold could be found there
was prospecting. And manipulating a specimen of quartz
by pulverizing and the use of quicksilver to see if it
contained gold was also prospecting.]

The most of these mills were located about Mountain City and Blackhawk
and in Nevada and Russell's gulches. The rest of them were scattered in
other small gulches or mountain valleys in the vicinity. The richest
mines being worked were the Bobtail, Gregory, and others, in Gregory
gulch between Mountain City and Blackhawk. The other principal gold
diggings were some seventy miles further south, near the present site of
Leadville. These I did not then visit. Nearly all of these mills had
been brought out and located during the year 1860. Ours was about the
last one to arrive that season. It was evident that the business was not
generally paying. The reasons given were, that the mills did not save
the gold that was in the quartz, and that those at work in the mines
were nearly all in the "cap rock" which was supposed to overlie the
richer deposits below. The theory was that the deeper they went the
richer the quartz. There were just enough rich "pockets" and streaks
being discovered and good runs made by the few paying mines and mills to
keep everybody hopeful and in expectation that fortune would soon favor
them. So they worked away as long as they had anything to eat, or tools
and powder to work with.

After looking over the fields a number of days, carrying our blankets
and sleeping in empty miners' cabins, Stubbs and I concluded to locate
at the head of Leavenworth gulch, which was about a mile and a half
southwest of Mountain City, between Nevada and Russell's gulches. The
side hills were studded all over with prospect holes and mining shafts.
Several lodes, said to be rich in gold, had recently been discovered,
and a nice stream of water ran down the gulch. Only three mills were in
operation there, and a number of miners who were developing their own
claims strongly encouraged us to come, promising us plenty of quartz to
crush. Several parties were gulch mining there with apparent success,
and during the short time that I watched one man washing out the dirt
and gravel from the bottom of the gulch he picked up several nice
nuggets of shining gold, which was quite stimulating to one's hopes. I
afterwards learned that these same nuggets had been washed out several
times before, whenever a "tenderfoot" would come along, who it was
thought might want to buy a rich claim.

As soon as we located and selected a mill site, we went vigorously to
work, and all was preparation, bustle and activity. Stubbs was a good
mechanic and took charge of the construction. Others were cutting down
trees, hauling and squaring logs, and framing and placing timbers to
support the heavy mill machinery. As soon as Sollitt returned from the
plains, he, with a few of the drivers, went to work to get the wagons,
machinery and provisions from the mountain camp up to our location. In
many places, at first glance, the roads looked impassable. They went up
hills and rocky ledges so steep that six yoke of oxen could pull only a
part of a load; then down a mountain side so precipitous that the four
wheels of each wagon would have to be dead-locked with chains to keep
them from overrunning the oxen; then they would go along mountain
streams full of rocks and bowlders, and upsetting a wagon was quite a
common occurrence. I saw one of our provision wagons turn over into a
running stream, and, among other things, a barrel of sugar start rolling
down with the current.

As soon as everything was brought up to our final location, I sold some
of the wagons, some oxen and the pony, thus securing cash to pay help
and other expenses. I traded others off for sawed lumber, shingles,
etc., for use in building the mill-house and a cabin. Grass was very
scarce in the mining regions. One of the faithful, well-whipped oxen was
killed for beef (a little like eating one of the family). In this dry,
pure air the meat kept in perfect condition for many weeks till all
eaten up, and it was an agreeable change in our diet.

When we had finished the hauling of timber and other things, we sent
the oxen, still on hand, down to the foot of the mountains where there
was grass during the winter; for cattle would pick up a living among the
foot-hills, and come out in good condition in the spring. The distance
was some twenty-five or thirty miles. Early one bright November morning
I started down there on foot to make arrangements with a ranchman to
look after them. The air was so bracing and stimulating to the energies
that I felt as if a fifty-mile walk would be mere recreation. Being
mostly down hill, I arrived at the ranch before noon, did my business,
got a dinner of beef, bread and coffee, and felt so fine that soon after
two o'clock I concluded to start for home, thinking that in any event I
would reach one of the two or three cabins that would be found on the
latter part of the road. Walking up the mountains was slower business
than going down, and long before I reached the expected cabins it
became dark and I was completely tired out. I found a small pile of
dried grass by the roadside which had been collected by some teamster
for his horses. I covered myself up with this as well as I could, and
being very tired, was soon asleep, without supper or blanket. On
awakening in the morning, I found myself covered with several inches of
snow, and felt tired, hungry and depressed. I plodded along toward home
for a few hours, and came to a cabin occupied by a lone prospector, who
got me up a meal of coffee, tough beef and wheat flour bread, baked in a
frying pan with a tin cover over it. Soon after finishing the meal I
felt sick and very weak, and was unable to proceed on my journey till
late in the afternoon, when I went ahead and reached home long after

Leavenworth gulch was crossed by dozens of lodes of gold-bearing quartz,
generally running in a north-easterly and south-westerly direction. In
this district the discoverer of a lode was entitled to claim and stake
off 200 feet in length, then others could in succession take 100 feet
each, in either direction from the discovery hole, and these claims, in
order to be valid, were all recorded in the record office of the
district. Owners of these various claims, to prospect and develop them,
had dug the side hills of the gulch all over with hundreds of holes from
ten to thirty feet deep, partly through top dirt and partly through
rock. A few would find ore rich enough to excite and encourage all the
rest. More would find rich indications that would stimulate them to work
on as long as they had provisions or credit to enable them to go ahead,
hoping each day for the golden "strike." A large majority of these
prospect holes came to nothing. Many of the miners had claims on several
different lodes, and although they might have faith in their richness,
they wanted to sell part of them to get means to work the rest. We had
plenty of chances to buy for a few hundred dollars in money or trade
mines partly opened, showing narrow streaks of good ore, which,
according to the prevailing belief, would widen out and pay richly as
soon as they were down through the "cap rock."

While work was progressing on the mill I spent considerable time in
looking over these mines, and I went down numerous shafts by means of a
rope and windlass, turned by a lone stranger, who I sometimes feared
might let me drop. I listened to glowing descriptions by the owners,
examined the crevises and pay streaks, and took specimens home to
prospect. This was done by pounding a piece of ore to powder in a little
hand mortar, then putting in a drop of quicksilver to pick up the gold,
and then evaporating that fluid by holding it in an iron ladle over a
fire. The richness of the color left in the cup would indicate the
amount of gold in the quartz.[3] I could soon talk glibly of "blossom
rock," "pay streaks," "cap rock," "wall rock," "rich color," and use the
common terms of miners. I bought two or three mines, traded oxen and
wagons for two or three more, and furnished "grub stakes" to one or two
miners--that is, gave them provisions to live on while they worked their
claims on terms of sharing the results.

[Footnote 3: In testing quartz by specimens,
"greenhorns" were sometimes deceived by "loaded"
quicksilver, that is by that which had some gold in it
and would leave a "color" whenever evaporated. I knew
one miner who worked away in his mine, taking out quartz
all winter, and was in good spirits as he tested a
specimen of his ore every day or two and always found a
rich color. When crushed in the spring his quartz did
not "pay." The bottle of quicksilver he had used all
winter was found to be "loaded."]

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