Gold Hunter's Experience, A

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 Senator.

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.

Geo. M. Pullman wanted to experiment on a load of the ore from our noted Keystone lode, as it looked so rich. When it was going through the mill, the amalgam piled up so fast on the copper plates and appeared so rich that he at once came up to see me and proposed that we buy, on joint account, the adjoining claim on the same lode, as I knew the owner and had formerly had an option on its purchase. A few hours later, when they had cleaned up and retorted the amalgam he came galloping up again on the old mule to stop proceedings, as they got very little of value from the amalgam, and that mostly silver. Thus that gleam of hope quickly vanished also.

Late in June, with Tobias as a companion, I took a trip of observation over the range into the wild regions of Middle park. We carried our blankets, flour, bacon, coffee and sugar to last a week, also tin cups, plates and spoons, a frying pan, gun, pistol, hatchet and belt knives. Walking the first day slowly up the slopes through the pine forests, around the head of Nevada gulch, and along the high ridge south of Boulder valley, we camped for the night just below the timber line so as to have fuel for a fire. A few tracks of Mountain lion were seen in the afternoon. The trees grew smaller and smaller till the last seen were old ones covered with moss and only a few feet high. After leaving the line of timber growth, the ground for some miles was thickly carpeted with mountain moss, then in full bloom in rich colors of red, white, blue and yellow. In the afternoon we reached the top of a high peak on the crest of the range where all was desolation, and nothing grew. The peak was a vast pile of broken rocks and stones partly covered with snow. To the North Long's Peak stood out above everything else. To the East one had a grand view over a wilderness of mountain ranges and peaks to the great plains in the dim distance. To the South, beyond a range of other snow-capped peaks, towered Mount Gray. Within a mile of us in full view, were seven mountain lakes from ten to a hundred acres in size, and one of them, which was screened from the sun's rays by a steep rocky ledge, was still solid ice from the freeze of the last winter. To the west was visible a circle of mountain tops, thirty or forty miles away, and surrounding the great basin, a mile below us in elevation, which constituted Middle park. The afternoon was bright and pleasant, and we decided to spend the night on the peak, to see the sunrise and enjoy the view in the clear morning air. We made a bed with flat stones and rolled up in our blankets for sleep. Then the wind blew over us and up through the crevices in the rocks under us and soon our teeth were chattering and we were chilled through and through. To keep from freezing we climbed in the darkness, over the rocks and down the mountain side to a sheltered nook, then rolled up and went to sleep. During the night I was awakened by some animal sniffing about my head and pulling at my blanket. A yell, a start and two or three stones thrown after him, sent him off among the rocks, and I never knew what it was. At daylight we again climbed up the peak, saw the sun rise, made a breakfast of bread and sugar as we had no fuel to make a fire, and then started down the mountain. The little streams and pools coming from the melting snows the day before were now all frozen up.

By ten o'clock we were down where the vegetation was luxuriant, the flowers in bloom and the butterflies flitting about them. Along the stream that we descended to the westward, was a series of beaver dams continuing for several miles, covering two or three acres each, with breasts four or five feet high formed of logs and brush. Out in the middle of the dams were the beavers' houses, partly under water and rising a few feet above. Many of the logs, cut off by the beavers to form the dams, and the stumps on the shore where they had gnawed down the trees, were twelve to fifteen inches through. Further on we saw bear tracks in the mud along the stream. When we camped at night we made a bed of pine boughs, and over it a small shelter with branches of trees cut with the hatchet. We built a fire on the side hill above our sleeping place beside a fallen tree. In the night it burned through and a log rolled down the hill over us, and we awoke with a sudden start. I thought of bears and instantly seized my hatchet and knife for defense, before realizing the true situation. Old skulls and bones of buffalo were plentiful, showing that the animals had once occupied these fertile valleys. On starting back we followed an old animal trail, the general course of which was headed toward the range, though it wound around the mountain sides and gulches in all directions. We felt sure it would lead over the Snowy range at the easiest passage. After following it two days, often climbing over and creeping under fallen trees, it brought us through a low pass to the head waters of South Clear creek, whence we had an easy trail down hill most of the way home.

Though far away from the seat of the civil war we did not escape its excitements. The Southerners were numerous in the mountains, and of course all sided with the South. They and the Northerners were very suspicious of each other, and each party bought up all the guns they could get in the mountains. During the summer of 1861 much fear was felt that a rebel force might march up the Arkansas and, with the help of their friends here, capture the whole settlement. But when the Southern troops were defeated and driven out of New Mexico by the Union forces in the following spring, all danger was over and "Pike's Peak" was loyal. The Southerners gradually left to join the rebel army. We got news from the East in six days, by telegraph to Omaha, the overland mail coach to Julesburg, near the forks of the Platte, and by pony express from there to Denver. St. Louis papers were eight days old and Chicago papers ten days old when received.

One of the best known miners in our region was Joe Watson, who came from near Philadelphia, in 1859, and he came to stay. Though quiet and unassuming he was nervy, determined, persevering and persistent. He discovered, staked off, owned and worked many claims in Leavenworth and other gulches. Sometimes he had streaks of luck and often the reverse. When lucky he would hire men to help him, when "broke" he would put more patches on his clothes, sharpen his own tools, borrow a sack of flour and work away. Some years later he discovered a really rich gold mine, then worked a silver mine in Utah and became a millionaire. During the spring of 1861 and the winter previous, he prospected in several of his claims, but fortune was against him. In July, when most of the other miners had left our gulch, he came back and quietly went to work in a claim that he owned on the hillside a few hundred feet above our cottage. In two or three weeks he took out from a narrow crevice two cart loads of top quartz which looked like rusty iron (not having got down to the pyrites), and he persuaded me to start up the mill and crush it. Very soon the amalgam began to pile up on the copper plates as I had never before seen it. The result of the "clean up" and retorting was $1,000 worth of shining gold. The next run, out of the same mine, produced but little gold, a good example of how that metal was found in streaks and pockets. Watson paid his debts, got a new suit of clothes, laid in a stock of provisions, and went to work again developing his mines. It was related of him that he went to Philadelphia one winter to try and sell shares in his mines, and that he wore a suit of Quaker clothes, used the plain language, attended Friends' meetings, and had good success in selling shares. Of these early workers I might name a few more who attained wealth or prominence; but the great majority—those who hoped and struggled and toiled without success, are forgotten.

The rich strike in Joe's mine made quite an excitement. Some others were inspired with renewed hopes and many visited the gulch to see the rich mine they had heard of. There was a small army of miners marching through the mountains constantly, going in all directions, leaving one place for some other where rich strikes were reported.

I concluded to make one more trial in the Keystone, dig a little deeper and see if the ore was any richer there. The result was a pleasant surprise, and gold enough to more than pay expenses. I hired a gang of men to work the mine night and day, and thus kept the mill going till the water gave out in the fall. As I had no skilled assistant I had to work at least sixteen hours a day in running the mill, procurring supplies and superintending everything. Some runs proved the quartz to be quite rich, though it varied greatly. We still believed in the theory that it would grow richer as we went deeper. I arranged to mine all winter and pile up the quartz for spring crushing.

In April, 1862, when provisions were nearly used up in the mountains and the early spring supply trains from the East were about due, there came an unusual fall of snow, eighteen inches deep, extending far eastward over the plains, completely blockading teams and transportation. A famine was threatened and people became panic-stricken. Flour rose as high as $50 a sack, and one day a small quantity sold for eighty cents a pound. Coffee and other things also advanced in price. We were on our last sack of flour, and I decided that when that was gone the men must all quit work and start eastward to meet the supplies on the plains. But the incoming trains soon began to arrive in Denver, and provisions were plentiful at usual prices.

When the mill was started up in the spring our hopes were dashed by finding that the quartz taken out during the winter did not pay as well as that of the previous season. The mine was down about a hundred feet, and the last taken out did not pay expenses, so I discharged the miners again. I was getting tired and disgusted with the whole business, and realized that it was about time to return East if I were going back there to settle down.

About the first of June, Mr. Ayres came out to spend the summer. He was so delighted with the beauty of the scenery and novelty of the business that he talked of sending for his family. The mountain sides were gay with wild flowers in full bloom in gorgeous colors. The shining gold that he could see taken out by several successful plants, delighted his eyes and stimulated his imagination nearly up to the point of genuine gold fever. His coming was of course a great relief to me by dividing the responsibility and work about the mill. We ran the mill night and day, crushed all the quartz that could be got and worked over a large pile of tailings that had accumulated below the mill, which paid a small profit. The summer's success was very moderate. About midsummer Mr. Ayres bought out my interest in the enterprise, with the understanding that I would remain till fall and assist him. He wanted to give the business a further trial. I determined to return to Chicago and try to take advantage of the tide of prosperity then beginning to rise in the East.

Mr. Ayres remained till late in the fall, then went to Chicago for the winter and returned to the mountains early in the spring of 1863, to give the business a further trial. But he did not do much mining or milling. During that spring and the following summer a fever of speculation prevailed all over the East, brought about by the war and the deluge of greenbacks. It extended to mining stocks, and especially to gold mines, as gold was then selling at a high premium—one hundred dollars in gold bringing $260 in legal tender currency. Mr. Ayres offered his plant for sale, went to New York in the summer and disposed of it in Wall street for $30,000. The mill was never afterwards run and I believe, none of the mines ever worked. Twenty years later I visited Leavenworth gulch. The mill and all the houses and cabins of my former days there had disappeared, and most of the old prospect holes and mining shafts had caved in. One familiar sight, however, remained. A load or so of black, rich looking ore was lying upon the ground unused and uncared for at the shaft of the Keystone.

On the 22nd of October, 1862, I left the mountains and gave up the mining business for ever. The next day at Denver I took passage for Omaha, in a two-horse covered wagon, with a man and his wife who were returning to their home in Baraboo, Wis., after spending two years in the gold fields with only moderate success. Another man also took passage making a party of four. Leaving the wagon to the man and his wife, my fellow passenger and I slept on the ground in our blankets, except occasionally, when near some ranch or settlement, we could enjoy the luxury of a haystack. When two or three days out of Denver we had a "cold snap" which froze the vegetables in the wagon and made sleeping out very uncomfortable. The woman did the cooking and the men collected the fuel. The other two men had guns and supplied us with small game. We saw a few dozen buffalo, but they were too far off to shoot. One day the two men went off on an all-day hunt among the distant hills, the arrangement being to meet us in camp at evening. I drove the team, and in the afternoon we came in sight of a camp of Indians with their lodges set up near our trail. The only thing to do was to drive boldly ahead. The woman sat on a seat well back in the wagon, and I sat forward with my feet out on a front step. I hung up a blanket close behind me across the wagon, so that the Indians could not see how many persons were in it. As we approached the camp about a dozen of them came out on the trail in front of us, motioning to me to stop and calling out, "Swap, swap, swap," meaning for us to stop and trade with them, but intending doubtless to find out how many were in the wagon, and rob us if they dared. Suddenly, when within a few yards of them, I whipped the horses with all my might, and drove furiously past and away from the camp. When our party met at night, all agreed that the day's experience savored too much of danger to allow the hunters to go out of sight of the wagon again.

We passed two or three camps of Sioux Indians along the Platte, but they gave us no trouble. When driving through the trees and bushes in a lonely spot about a day's journey below Fort Kearney, we suddenly met a band of mounted Pawnee warriors, who stopped us and in broken English asked where we were going, where we came from, if we saw any Sioux Indians, how big the bands were, if they had many ponies and how many days' journey they were away. We answered their inquiries, and they told us to go ahead. They rode westward, doubtless to make a raid on their enemies, the Sioux.

The weather was now getting cold; we approached the settlements and enjoyed the haystacks. One night, while camping near an Indian settlement on the Platte, I crawled well into the middle of a small rick of hay. The Indians were tramping around it and over it and howling and yelling all night, but I kept my berth till morning. We reached Omaha in twenty days from Denver. There I said good-by to my traveling companions and took stage for Iowa City, whence I could go by rail to Chicago. The stage trip was two days and nights of continuous travel, except short stops to change horses and get something to eat. We were packed three on a seat, with no chance to stretch out our limbs, and no opportunity for sleep, except such as could be obtained sitting upright and jolting over the rough roads.

After an absence of about two and a third years, I reached Chicago in the middle of November, 1862, a wiser if not a richer man.

After selling out my interest in the joint enterprise, I still had left some fifty claims on various lodes in the newer gold fields of the Clear creek region. Some I had pre-empted, and some I had bought in job lots from miners who were "broke" or were about to leave the mountains. Some had prospect holes dug in them and some were entirely undeveloped. They may have been worthless, and they may have contained untold millions. But I had given up the mining business. Some time after returning to Chicago I was making a real estate trade, and we were a little slow in adjusting the difference in values and closing the deal, and finally as "boot" to make things even I threw in these fifty gold mines. Perhaps this was a mistake and a squandering of wealth and opportunities. Had I only kept them, and gotten up some artistic deeds of conveyance, in gilded letters, what magnificent wedding presents they would have made. And the supply would have been as exhaustless as that of Queen Victoria's India shawls. In the long list of high-sounding, useless presents, the present of a gold mine would have led all the rest.

In summing up the losses and gains of the expedition, I have to charge on one side two years and four months of time devoted to hard work, with many privations, and about $500 in cash which I was out of pocket. On the other side, I had built up a fine constitution, increased in strength and endurance, gained valuable business experience, learned in a measure to persevere under difficulties, and to bear with patience and fortitude the back-sets, reverses and disappointments that so often beset us, and, finally, had learned enough not to be taken in by the schemers who are constantly enticing eastern people to invest in gold and silver mines. Did the enterprise pay?


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