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Gold Hunter's Experience, A

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 good.

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.

[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 dark.

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.

[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."

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.


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