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Home -> Chalkley J. Hambleton -> A Gold Hunter's Experience -> 5

A Gold Hunter's Experience - 5

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Quartz mills were nearly all run by steam and the fuel was pine wood cut
from the mountain sides, every one taking from these public domains
whatever he wanted. The principal features of our mill were twelve large
pestles or stamps, weighing 500 pounds each, which were raised up about
eighteen inches by machinery and dropped into huge iron mortars onto
the small pieces of rock which were constantly fed into them by a man
with a shovel. A small stream of water was let into the mortars, and as
the rock was crushed into fine sand and powder it went out with the
water, through fine screens in front, and passed over long tables, a
little inclined, and then over woolen blankets. The tables were covered
with large sheets of brightly polished copper. On these polished plates,
quicksilver was sprinkled and it was held to the copper by the affinity
of the two metals for each other. As the water and powdered rock passed
over the tables, the quicksilver, by reason of its chemical attraction
for gold, would gather up the fine particles of that metal and, as the
two combined, would gradually harden and form an amalgam, somewhat
resembling lead. Coarser grains of gold would lodge in the blankets,
owing to their weight, while the small particles of rock would pass
over with the water. The amalgam was put into a retort and heated over a
fire, when the quicksilver would pass off in vapor through a tube into a
vessel of water, and then condense, to be again used, while the gold
would be left in the retort, to be broken up into small pieces and used
as current money. In order to save as much of the gold as possible,
these copper plates required close watching, constant care and much
rubbing to remove the verdigris that would form.

About the first of November our mill was completed, and we expected to
operate it a good part of the winter with the quartz of other miners,
together with that which we would take out ourselves from our own mines.
A large well, or underground cistern, was dug under the mill house,
which was fed by copious springs, and promised to furnish an abundant
supply of water. To furnish water for the numerous mills about Mountain
City and in Nevada gulch a large ditch had been dug, which started up in
the mountains near the Snowy range, and wound like a huge serpent around
promontories and the sides and heads of numerous gulches, with a slight
incline, for some fifteen miles. It passed around the hills which
bordered Leavenworth gulch, a few hundred yards above our mill site.
About the time the mill was completed the water was turned off from this
ditch on account of freezing weather and the near approach of winter.
Very soon after, the beautiful springs which supplied our tank and the
gulch with water, all dried up. They had been fed by seepage from the
big ditch. With the disappearance of the water vanished all prospect of
running the mill before spring, when the melting snow would furnish a
supply. It seemed like a bad case of "hope deferred." But the bracing
air and climate, outdoor life, constant exercise, coarse food and pure
water were too invigorating and stimulating to the feelings and hopes to
allow one to feel much depressed or discouraged. We looked forward to
the next summer for the golden harvest.

Stubbs built us a one-and-a-half-story-cottage out of sawed lumber,
boards and shingles, with one room below for living, eating, cooking and
storing provisions in, and one above for a dormitory. A corner of the
latter was partitioned off into a small room for him and me, with a bunk
for each, under which we stored our twelve kegs of powder, as being the
safest place we had for it. We slept on beds of hay with our blankets
over us, and in very cold weather piled on our entire stock of coats and
some empty provision sacks. In the room below was a good cook stove, and
there was wood in abundance, so we kept comfortable, though the house
was neither plastered nor sheeted, and considerable daylight came in
through cracks in the siding. We had a table and benches made of boards,
and Stubbs made me an armchair and a desk for my account books, papers
and stationery. What a luxury, after four months camping out, to be able
to sit down in a chair, eat from a table, sleep on a bed, write at a
desk, read by a candle at night and have regular, well-cooked meals.

To a lover of the picturesque in scenery our location was ideal.
Immediately around us was a semicircle of high, steep, pine-covered
hills spotted with prospect holes. To the east, through an opening in
the intervening mountain ranges, the plains were in full view over a
hundred miles away. Sometimes for days, they were covered with shifting
clouds which seemed far below us. Then an east wind would drive the
clouds and mist slowly up into the mountains, swallowing up first one
range and then another, till only a few peaks would stand out, above an
ocean of fog, and finally we would be enveloped ourselves. Ascending a
hill a few hundred yards above our house and looking westward over a
great depression or mountain valley, one had in full view the Snowy
range over twenty miles away, with its crests and peaks covered with
perpetual snow, and Mount Gray still further in the distance. In the
fall and winter almost every day local snowstorms and blizzards were
seen playing over this great basin and on the sides of the distant
range. Our location was some nine or ten thousand feet above the sea.
The lightness of the air gave some inconvenience and many surprises to
new comers. They would get out of breath in a few minutes in walking up
a hill. I would wake up several times in a night with a feeling of
suffocation, draw deep breaths for a few minutes and thus get relief
before going to sleep again. It took ten minutes to boil eggs, two to
three hours for potatoes, and beans for dinner were usually put on the
fire at supper time the day before.

Coin and bank bills were seldom seen. The universal currency was
retorted gold, broken up into small pieces, which went at $16 an ounce.
Every man had his buckskin purse tied with a string, to carry his "dust"
in, and every store and house had its small scales, with weights from a
few grains to an ounce, to weigh out the price when any article from a
newspaper to a wagon was purchased. No laws were in force or observed
except miners' laws made by the people of the different districts. When
a few dozen miners, more or less, settled or went to work in a new place
they soon organized, adopted a set of laws and elected officers,
usually a president, secretary, recorder of claims, justice of the
peace and a sheriff or constable. Appeals from the justice, disputes of
importance over mining claims, and criminal cases were tried at a
meeting of the miners of the district. We were in the district of
Russell's gulch. Sometimes we had a meeting of the residents of our own
gulch. One chap there stole a suit of clothes. The residents were
notified to meet at once, and the same day the culprit was tried and
found guilty, and a committee, of which I was one, was appointed to
notify him to leave our locality within two hours and not to return, on
penalty of death. He went on time. Had he been stubborn and refused to
go, I don't know what course the committee would have taken. This member
of it would have been embarrassed. An adjoining district was made up
mostly of Georgians. They had their own tastes and prejudices. Soon
after we came to the mountains, at their miners' meeting a man was
convicted for some offence and sentenced to receive thirty lashes from a
heavy horsewhip. The day for the execution of the sentence was regarded
as a kind of holiday and the miners collected from all the country
around. All our men, including Sollitt, went to the whipping. Stubbs and
I stayed at home. We had no relish for that sort of amusement. A thief
was more sure of punishment than a murderer. There was so much property
lying around in cabins unguarded, while the owners were off mining or
prospecting, that stealing could not be tolerated, while the loss of a
man now and then by killing or otherwise did not count for much.

When it was found that the mill could not be run during the winter, we
discharged all the men except the cook, and two others, who were kept to
help do a little mining on two of the claims that we had secured by
trade and purchase. A shaft about three feet by six was sunk in each,
which followed the vein of mineral quartz down to a depth of thirty to
fifty feet. In one, the vein was quite rich in places, but only two or
three inches wide, and it would not pay to work it; but the hope that
kept us, like hundreds of others at work, was, that the vein would widen
out when we got a little deeper and grow richer as it went down. This
hope was never realized. The other shaft was on a lode called the
Keystone, and developed a wide vein of black pyrites of iron that much
resembled that which was being taken out of the best paying mines, and
most of the miners that examined it declared that we had a bonanza. Of
course we were in good spirits, but we did not care to run in debt in
order to take out more mineral than we got in sinking the shaft, of
which there were several cords. I worked a part of each day in the
shafts, with the others, to learn the details, drilling, blasting and
picking out the "pay streak." Then I spent a good deal of time looking
around among other mines, and the mills that were at work, to learn what
I could. Quite a number of other miners were at work in the gulch
sinking shafts on their best claims and taking out ore to be crushed in
the spring. To some of these we furnished provisions to enable them to
keep at work. Most of the roving, restless, fickle people had gone home
in the fall and those who stayed were men of grit and determination.
Some of them were well educated and intelligent. Every little while
somebody would strike a small pocket, or a streak of very rich ore,
which would help to make everybody else feel hopeful. And so the winter
wore away.

There were four families in the gulch this winter, including that number
of women, several children and three young ladies. The young men buzzed
around the homes of the latter like bees about a honey dish. These
families united and had a party on Christmas Eve. Three cottages were
used for the occasion, one to receive the guests in, ours for the supper
room, and another with a floor for dancing. We regarded this as the
"coming out" of the youngest of the young ladies. Several ladies from
Russell's and other gulches came to the party. Among those living here
were quite a number who brought a few books with them. No one person had
many, but all together they made quite a library and were freely lent. I
remember borrowing and reading by the light of a candle, in these long
winter evenings, some works on mines, Carlyle's works, a few histories
and several novels. The almost universal amusement with the miners and
others was card playing, confined to euchre and poker. Every miner had
a pack of cards in his cabin if not in his pocket, and generally so
soiled and greasy that one could not tell the jack from the king.
Gambling was common and open in Denver and Mountain City, and not
unusual elsewhere. Playing for gain was never practiced in our cottage.
When poker was played, beans were put in the jackpot instead of money.

Near the junction of Russell's and Leavenworth gulches, and about a
third of a mile from our location, was a mill owned and run by George M.
Pullman, then a comparatively obscure man, but later known to the world
as the great sleeping car magnate. He also had an interest in a general
supply store near Mountain City. He lived much of this winter in a cabin
near the mill, and rode back and forth to town almost daily on an old
mule. He wore common clothes like the rest of us, and the only sign of
greater importance that he exhibited was, that while I walked to town,
he rode the mule. He left the mountains the next summer for Chicago, and
entered upon his sleeping-car enterprise, which led to fame and fortune.

Another young miner that was much in evidence about Mountain City this
winter was Jerome B. Chaffee, who afterwards made a fortune in mines,
took an active interest in local politics and became a United States

In Mountain City there was an enterprising chap who started a pie bakery
and did an extensive business. Miners from all the country around, when
they came to town, crowded his shop for a delightful change from the
usual cabin fare. I went to town every few days for letters and papers,
or to visit the mills, and always indulged in this one dissipation. I
went to his bakery and feasted on pie. He had peach, apple, mince,
berry, pumpkin and custard pie, and never since I was a boy in the land
of pie did the article taste so good.

Within a hundred yards of our mill lived and worked the gulch
blacksmith, named Switzer. He sharpened our drills and did our smith
work generally. He had a bitter feud with a gambler in Mountain City,
which resulted in each vowing to shoot the other on sight. They carried
loaded revolvers for the occasion for nearly a month, and then happened
to meet in broad daylight in the principal street of the town. The other
fellow was the quicker--Switzer fell dead and we had to find another
blacksmith. No notice was taken of the affair by the authorities.

Sollitt became ill with what the doctors pronounced scurvy, and went
East before April. Stubbs and he disliked each other from the first, and
whatever one suggested the other opposed. This made it easier for me to
decide some questions, as I never had both of them against me. The
people here were generally very healthy. I increased much in strength
and vigor, and weighed 175 pounds for the first and only time in my
life. November was windy, stormy and cold, but in December the weather
was settled and pleasant. During the winter the mercury a few times went
below zero; otherwise the climate was delightful. The warm sunshine of
the last half of April melted the snow, thawed the ground and brought a
supply of water for the mill, even before the big ditch began to run. We
soon began crushing the piles of quartz that had been taken out during
the winter by various miners, and tried our own rich-looking black stuff
from the Keystone. The mill was run day and night. I took charge from
midnight till noon and Stubbs from noon till midnight. None of the rock
was found rich enough to pay for mining and milling. That tried in one
or two other mills was no better. General discouragement followed, and
everybody stopped mining in our gulch. Some went to work for wages in
other mines, to get a fresh supply of provisions, etc. Some went off
prospecting and gulch mining in the newer gold regions. Our neighbor,
Farren, moved his mill seventy miles away, to California gulch, near
where Leadville now is. A mill partly erected near our mill site, and
owned by a Mr. Bradley and a Mr. H. H. Honore, the father of Mrs. Potter
Palmer, was moved away to other parts, and our mill was left alone. The
gulch was soon almost deserted. Mines and mills seemed to be of no use
or value. Our whole enterprise had apparently collapsed, and the golden
halo, that for ten months had surrounded it, had vanished. Hope
departed, and for a few days was replaced by feelings of disappointment
and depression of spirits not often experienced by me. Stubbs abandoned
the business and decided to go home and leave me to hold the fort and
look after the wreck, as he called it, to see what could be saved.

He built a boat, had it hauled down to the Platte at Denver, piled in
his provisions and effects, launched it in the river and started down
stream, hoping to reach Omaha in that way. All went well for about a
hundred miles, when the water grew so shallow that he was stranded amid
the small islands and shifting sands. He got ashore, abandoned his boat
and took passage in an eastward-bound mule wagon. He and the principal,
Mr. Sollitt, afterwards sold out their interest in the enterprise to Mr.
Ayres for a small consideration.

In a few days I got over the "dumps," and spent a week or two visiting
the newer gold fields up the south branch of Clear creek, about Idaho,
Georgetown, Empire and Fall river, where new lodes were being discovered
almost daily. Not much gold was being taken out, but everybody was full
of hope and expectation and busy prospecting and staking off claims on
newly discovered lodes. I had some staked off for myself by some men who
had worked for us.

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