Breckenridge Experience
A Prospector's Perspective
As appearing in The Gold Nugget, September 1999
by Frank Fannon

[Hardrock Miners]

I recently spent several days in Breckenridge. It was quite an enlightening and educational time. While I didn't have the opportunity to do any actual prospecting this time, I intend to go back with my metal detector and maybe my sluice and pan.

The town has a lot of history that is very interesting. For instance there is a bar/saloon that was able to remain open during prohibition because at the time, Breckenridge was not officially part of the United States. Due to cartographers' error, a 10-mile stretch of land was missed. Thus, the town did not officially exist!

There are a number of mining tours that are sponsored by the historical society. The cost of the tours is $5.00. The first tour was the Lomax mine; that was one of the first in the area and used hydraulic force as the means of mining. They have some of the equipment from the times, including the high-pressure nozzles (monitors), a giant wooden sluice, a shaker table, and miscellaneous other pieces of equipment. The tour also includes a slide show illustrating what life was like in the town as well as a number of mining pictures. They have an interesting collection of various tools used in the mining process on display. For the uninitiated the tour ends with the opportunity to do a little panning in some large tubs of water.

Another mine tour, again sponsored by the historical society, was at a mine that is approximately 1-1/2 miles south of the town. The name is the Washington mine. Developers nearly bulldozed this mine property. Somehow, the historical society was able to obtain a 99-year lease on the property and saved it from being destroyed. As it is, there are some condos up to 50-100 feet from the mine property. At the time the mine was working, the miners had to walk the 1-1/2 miles from the town, uphill to the mine. It was only uphill one-way fortunately!

This tour begins with some local history and lasts approximately ninety minutes. It begins with a short walk past the original dynamite shed and makes its first stop at an ore cart. The guide explains how the ore was originally blasted down in the mine, moved to the vertical shaft where someone would put the ore into the bucket that was then hoisted to the top and dumped into a cart. The cart was then moved down a track where another miner, usually someone who had been crippled, sorted the ore into what they thought would yield gold, silver, or a number of other minerals. The gold ore would be sent 1,400 feet below to a stamp mill where it was crushed into dust. The gold would then be extracted. There is an original miner's cabin that you can go into. Although this one was brought from another location, they were all much the same. When a prospector, after having sample assayed, finally decided he had found a good location, he would file a mining claim. I think that each claim was good for an area 50 by 100 feet. In any case, the miner had a specific amount of time to make $400 worth of improvements in order to keep the claim. What most of them did, was to build a cabin, eight-logs high and approximately 10 to 12 feet square. As far as the government was concerned, a cabin such as this constituted the required improvement to the claim property. In many instances, the cabin would be built directly over the vertical shaft. It would have a trap door and a windlass set over it for access by the bucket. This was very interesting, especially since the guide seemed to be very well versed in the local history.

One of the worker positions was the rookie miner. This was, basically, the last miner hired. He had to perform all of the unsavory tasks. For instance, he had to be the first person to climb down the ladder each morning. If any of the ladder rungs were loose or broken, he would find it. He also had to check to see that the mineshaft and tunnels had not been flooded overnight. By him going down first, he chased the rats away from the shaft. When they were blasting, they would count the number of blasts to ensure that every one they set properly exploded. If the count came up short, guess what? The rookie miner had to go check. If he found the fuse and unexploded dynamite, he had to relight the fuse and run.

The rookie/trainee miner was so designated to keep the miners working at the same mine. It discouraged the men from seeking work at another mine, perhaps looking for more money. The rookie designation had no bearing on the person’s experience; it dealt with being the last person hired. After seeing what tasks befell them, who would want to change jobs? Besides, everyone in the mines got paid $3 a day, except for the hoist operator who received a bit more—approximately $0.50 per day additional. The blacksmith, for keeping the drills sharpened, got approximately $1.00 per day more.

We learned about a number of superstitions held by the miners. For instance, they would not ride down into the mine in the bucket. They would load their tools and other equipment and have them lowered, but would climb down a ladder. They would, however, ride the bucket up at the end of their shift. The miners believed in Tommyknockers, who were 2-foot tall characters on which all of the bad things that happened were blamed, but who were also given credit for the good ones. One of the superstitions was that as the men finished their lunch, they would leave a bite of food for the Tommyknockers. The miners in this area were Welsh and were used to eating a meat-and-vegetable-filled pie. As you can imagine, their hands were pretty dirty after working, so they didn't want to eat the last bite from the part that they were holding on to, so it was left for the Tommyknockers. While this tended to 'feed' the Tommyknocker superstition, it did in fact attract and feed rats in the mines.

The men would keep an eye on the rats. They believed that the rats could sense if something bad was going to happen, such as a cave in. So if they saw the rats scurrying out of a tunnel, the men would race after them. Thus, the origin of the term, ‘Rat Race’.

If you have ever seen one of the hoists, you might have seen the bell codes posted that were used to tell the hoist operator what needed to be done. At some point, the state of Colorado implemented a standardized set of bell codes and they were printed at each hoist site. You will never see the bell code of 3-3-3 posted anywhere. For it meant, “We found the body, bring it up."

Another activity we did was to take a 2-1/2 hour 4X4 trip into the mountains. This trip begins at your hotel. It is run by Tiger Run Tours and costs $45 per person. This company has been offering tours for 30 years, and seems to have a pretty well-organized business. You begin by going by some rather large tailing piles of rocks and dirt that were the result of some major dredging years ago. Rather quickly, you begin going up into the mountains on a rough dirt road. I wouldn't even try it without a 4X4 vehicle. After some time you come upon what is left of a town named Preston. At one place you can see some crumbled walls and a roof sitting on a concrete pad. We were told that it was the remains of the post office and that it was the only building in town that had a concrete floor. You can see the mine workings across a small valley at which most of the town residents worked. We then went down and across the valley to the work location. There are the remains of a pretty big stamp mill and processing facility used to process the ore. The original building was over 100 yards long, but all you can see now is the beginning 3- or 4-story portion where the ore processing began.

After some more driving, you arrive at the 'base camp' for the tour. You have the opportunity to check in, pay up, and take a 'rest'. The site is also an abandoned mine site. They have a building that has examples of the types of tools used by the miners. You also go a little way into a mineshaft and see an example of additional processing that includes a crusher and a shaker table. Then you get back into the 4X4 to continue your trip.

From this point on, you get into some really rugged driving. You get to see hundreds of 'glory holes' that the prospectors dug in their quest for gold. You see an original cabin that people still inhabit as a weekend spot. Most of the tour goes through National Forest lands. It so happens that the property on which this cabin stands has been handed down through a family since before the surrounding area became National Forest. You see any number of old buildings and building sites as well a good-sized 'dump' where the miners tossed their old tin cans. We learned that many miners contracted lead poisoning from cooking their food in the cans over a fire. In those days, the cans were sealed with lead, that when heated leached into the food being cooked.

We got to see the Continental Divide, the site of the cartography error I noted above, as well as where a 'toll booth' was placed to collect tolls for people using the highest pass over the Continental Divide. Although we didn't see the actual site, the general area was pointed out where Tom's Baby was discovered. This was a 23-pound gold nugget that a miner discovered. When he took it into town, he wrapped it up like a baby, because he was afraid of being robbed. At some point, he decided to go into one of the many saloons in town. No one knows what happened, but he was found dead the next morning and, of course, the gold was missing. It appeared years later in an abandoned bank deposit box. It then disappeared for another period of time only to appear after someone in the Denver Museum of Natural History opened a box entitled 'Tom's remains', thinking that they were possibly bones, only to find the nugget. It is now on display in the museum.

Overall, I would rate these several days as very interesting, educational, and enjoyable.

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© 1999 Gold Prospectors of the Rockies