Today was supposed to be a rainy sort of day so we headed off after breakfast to our first stop of the day; the Molly Kitchen Gold Mine in nearby (well, 40 miles away nearby) Cripple Creek, Colorado. Our first souvenir for the day was our admission tickets; the tour was $18 apiece but well worth it in our opinion.
Our tour started with Mike our guide as we entered the elevator cage after donning hard hats for the descent. The elevator has two cages one over the other and each holds maybe 4 people tops. Once in; Mike triggered the right number of bells on the bell cord to indicate the destination of the trip (ours was the tenth level down from the surface)…more details on the bell system in a bit.
The mine opened in 1890something and was the third or fourth mine on the mountain and the first one in Colorado that was owned by a woman. She had to take her husband who was a mining lawyer along with her to the claim office to get the claim registered as women in those days were severely frowned upon in mining towns other than in the kitchens, laundries, and establishments that provided…well, let’s just call it entertainment since this is a family blog:-) There are a total of 11 levels in the mine but the bottom one wasn’t fully mined before the mine shut down in the early 1970′s due to the smelting plant closing. Underground gold mines don’t have the loose gold like you’ve probably seen on Gold Rush on Discovery Channel…it’s mixed into the minerals in the ore. Once mined; the muck (hey, that’s what the call it) is delivered to the smelter where through a process using mercury and some other toxic chemicals the gold is extracted. The smelter leaves a lot of mercury contaminated dirt, stone, and tailings behind and the environmental concerns were the reason the smelter was closed. No smelter means that the 7 or 8 mines on the mountain closed despite there being plenty of gold left in the veins. When the mine was closed a yield of half an once per ton of muck was the break even point and the mine was yielding 10 ounces per ton when it shut down so there was a lot of money left in the ground.
Our tour started at the bottom of the elevator shaft 1000 feet below the surface (which was at 10,020 according to my GPS). You can see the previous tour group in the back left getting ready to enter the cage which is the red phone booth sized thing behind the grate in the center of the picture. The other cage is below the floor in this shot; the upper cage is loaded first and then the lower; unloading is in the other order. After the shot we turned 180 degrees and headed away from the elevator for our circular (more or less) tour counterclockwise through the mine level with about a half mile total in length.
Our first stop was a recreation of the original mining technique. This is called triple jacking where the jack (chisel) is held against the wall by one man and the other two take turns pounding it with sledge hammers until the holes are about 2 feet deep. Holes were drilled with a center hole about halfway between the floor and ceiling; a series of 4 in a square around it, another square of 4 around that and then more evenly distributed around the perimeter. Final holes were along the floor and ceiling. Black powder was placed into the holes with the exception of the center and the fuse was lit. The innermost square went off first collapsing the inside of the smallest square towards the empty center hole, then the next square, then the third ring and finally the ceiling and floor charges. The result was about 10 tones of rock being blasted loose and falling into the tunnel where it was ready to be loaded. This mining technique remained in use through the closure of the mine with just a couple minor improvements. First was an air powered drill which could drill deeper holes (about 4 feet) and then an improved air drill which could dig to 6 feet or so. Each of these was combined with improvements in explosives…first to nitroglycerine for the 4 foot deep holes and then to ANFO (a mixture of ammonium nitrate or fertilizer and diesel fuel). The drills were essentially developed to be able to drill deeper holes as improvements in explosives technology enabled blasting 20 and then 35 tons of muck per blast.
Once the muck was loose; laborers called mockers loaded the ore into carts; a half ton per cart which were moved to the elevator to be raised. The carts were originally moved by donkeys which lived their entire lives from birth to death in the mine and were therefore blind. In the 1930s or so it was declared that using donkeys was inhumane so they were abolished and humans pushed the carts for a few years until the invention of the air powered cart. About this time the mockers were also replaced with this air powered miniature backhoe like thing that picked up the muck and dumped it into the cart. Here is a photo of the muck loader being operated by Mike our tour guide.
And here is a photo of the third type of drill; the improved air drill. The second one had a much more complicated mounting mechanism so it had to be disassembled and reassembled for each hole.
Once the miners were in a vein (an area where there were the gold bearing minerals instead of just rock they mined to follow the vein. They much preferred to mine upwards so that gravity gave you an assist. The miners stood on boards or logs to drill and once the blast went off the muck fell to the bottom of the shaft where the carts were waiting. Here is a photo of one of the Mine Up areas; this one went up about 100 feet or so before being abandoned.
The walls and ceilings of the mine shafts are covered with magnesium sulfate which was carried in by water seeping into the mine and dissolving the minerals. You might know this chemical as Epsom Salts but it wasn’t available in enough quantity to make retrieval of it worth while.
Here is a second vertical shaft; this one goes up almost 800 feet before the vein petered out. The ladders were on the right side and the blasts were concentrated on the left side to fall down to the bottom for removal.
The miner’s restroom, rarely used as it was far from the business end of the mind so buckets were the preferred alterantive.
This gadget was invented to assist with the dreaded Mining Down; in which gravity was not your friend. It lifted 500 pounds at a time and has an ingenious arrangement that tips the bucket at the top to dump the contents into a cart. It was moved from a neighboring mine and was used to dig and remove muck from a 10 foot wide vertical tunnel that went down over 3000 feet before it was abandoned. I can’t even imagine how many trips up and down it made to move that much rock…500 pounds at a time. Manual labor for mucking made a comeback in Mining Down as there wasn’t room for any of the automated loading methods.
This chart shows the system of bells which was used to call for the elevator which was operated from the surface. It was invented by a guy whose brother was killed in an elevator accident. Each mine originally used a different bell code…which meant that an experienced miner who moved from one mine to another could get confused by the different system and hence get himself killed. This system slowly made progress until all of the mines on this mountain used it; it was then picked up by the state and mandated for use at all mines for standardization.
This is where the miners sat to eat their meals…yes, it’s the very first Hard Rock Cafe!
With that, we were back at the elevator where we made our way back to the surface. We grabbed this shot of downtown Cripple Creek, Colorado from right outside the mine…we had lunch down at Maggies Cafe in the Casino (one of many in town, seemed to be the chief income producing business these days) in the midst of a snow and sleet squall. Neil didn’t think much of that cold and icy stuff; especially after he jogged back to the car to keep Connie dry. It was only 75 yards or so and was downhill but the altitude of 9500 feet made it seem like he had run miles.
After lunch we headed home and spotted this heard of elk on the side of the road. Don’t know if they were a commercially farmed herd or not.
We were headed for our second hike at the Red Rock Canyon Open Space maintained by the city…but a couple things resulted in canceling of that part of our day. First; it was raining and we thought that wandering around on wet clay was not too smart. Second, we got the dreaded “Check Engine Light” coming on in the car so we headed over to the Mazda dealer to get it looked it; turns out we need a couple of sensors replaced so we’re dropping it off in the morning before heading off to our final fun thing for here in Colorado…a visit to the Wolf Sanctuary. Hopefully the weather will cooperate.