Welcome to the Phoenix mine, an actual workable "hard rock" goldmine that has been mined off and on since 1871. A hard rock mine is one tunneled into solid rock. I'll be your guide for your tour today. First I will give you a brief overview of how the minerals were deposited here, and then tell you a little bit about how the prospectors and miners found the gold deposits. After that, I will take you into the mine itself, and explain the workings of the mine. I'll be using a few of the specialized terms the miners used that differ from our everyday words, but I'll explain them as I use them. If you have questions as we go along, I'll do my best to answer them. You are welcome to take pictures or videos as we go through.
We do not actually "work" this mine while taking visitors through, because the dust, noise, and loose rock could be quite hazardous to your health (as well as being illegal) unless we furnished special protective equipment for each one of you. Some people have been upset by this practice, but we hope you understand.
We ask you for your own safety not to try digging into any of the walls, or climb on the rocks off the walkway. Also, we request that you not take any rock samples while in the mine. Samples are available at the front counter. If anyone gets nervous or scared while going through the mine, let me know and I'll do my best to get you outside as quickly as possible. The mine is currently owned by Al Mosch, who is a third-generation Colorado miner. His grandfather, Rudolph, was a sturdy person, who actually walked out here to Colorado from New York, after arriving in a ship from Germany in 1883.
First, a short explanation of how the various minerals got here: As the Earth was forming millions of years ago, and the mountains were being raised up, cracks developed in them. Over many years, water gradually entered through the cracks, and worked its way down to the hot molten layers of minerals below. The water was heated, and rose back up through the cracks, bringing with it many minerals in solution. These minerals were deposited in the cracks, and built up first into tiny into crystals and in some places they totally filled the cracks with solid deposits of the minerals. These filled areas are called veins or lodes, and the ones that contained gold and silver are mainly what the early prospectors and miners were searching for. The veins containing these rich deposits are commonly called "ore," as opposed to the base rock the mountain was formed from, which was generally considered waste rock and discarded in "dump" piles outside of the mines.
One question that I am sure has been in many of your minds as you've traveled out here and noticed all of the piles of dirt and rock on the mountainsides marking old mine sites is, "How did they know where to start digging?" Unless a prospector (who is the person looking for mineral sites, as opposed to a miner, who is the person digging it out after it's found), was extremely lucky and just stumbled upon an outcropping of ore, he would generally start by "panning" for gold along a stream or river bed. The prospector would usually work his way upstream, checking for gold in his pan at intervals. When he found some "color" or a "flash in the pan" (their term for the presence of gold), he would dump it out and keep working upstream until it was no longer present. Then he would backtrack just a bit and start searching above that spot on the hillside, knowing that gold is about the heaviest mineral around here, and would be washed downhill by rain and snowmelt. When he found what he felt to be the source of the gold, he would either crush a bit and pan it to check for gold, or take a sample to the closest "assayer" to be analyzed. An assayer is a person who tests the ore for content and value. If it were indeed a good "strike," he would file a claim and have the rights to mine there. At this point, he could either become a miner and work the claim himself, or sell it to a miner or mining company and keep prospecting. The claim for the Phoenix mine was sold back in 1872, a year after its discovery, for $5,000. This is the same price Al paid for it in 1972, as a "worked out" mine.
We are entering the main "drift" through a "portal." The drift was the tunnel that the miners opened to reach sections of the vein, and is mostly through waste rock. A crosscut was another horizontal tunnel that connected two or more drifts. Generally they had about a 1% grade going uphill into the mine. This allowed the empty ore cars to be pushed in relatively easily, while gravity helped move the full cars back out. They held from 1/2 to 1 ton of material when full. A portal was an opening into the tunnel from the outside for entrance or exit. I'll explain shortly how these drifts and other openings are made. Looking up here where I'm shining the light, you can get your first glimpse of the Phoenix Vein. This is the vein that this mine was built around. At this point, it is badly weathered and oxidized from its constant exposure to the outside air and weather. As we get further along the tour, you will see much prettier areas of it. The Phoenix vein contains gold, silver, copper, pyrites, iron, and various other minerals. Many of these "gold" mines actually produced as much (or more) silver as they did gold. The vein ranges from about 2 to 12 feet in thickness, and stretches from the hillside above us down at least to, or through, the highway below. It continues ahead of us into the mountain for a considerable distance.
Down here, covered with a protective grate to keep people from taking the "5 second tour," is an old "winze," which is a shaft leading down from the drift to another tunnel. The winze goes down for about 500 feet at a roughly 45-degree angle, opening up to the outside just above the highway below us. This drift and the winze were made in the 1930. Another 100 feet below is a second drift, with yet another drift 100 feet below that. We don't spend much time in the lower drifts because they're not as safe and solid and dry as this level. The little tracks here are a "skipway" and the metal bucket riding upon them is called a "skip bucket." The bucket was used for hauling ore or waste rock up out of the winze for loading onto ore cars, or for carrying equipment up and down (it holds about 1/3 ton). This bucket is operated by the air-powered hoist you see here. In the mine, air- or water-powered equipment is preferable to electrically operated tools because it is more durable under the conditions, and generally easier and cheaper to repair.
On this side is the "healing chamber" that was blasted out. Many people believe that the gold, silver, copper, and other minerals here have a healing or restorative power, and like to lie down in here for health reasons. Rumor has it that students from local colleges have been known to spend some time in here before finals. As long as people believe it helps, that's half the battle. It is also our first aid room, and has a cot and medical supplies. This room is also being temporarily used to store some of our Halloween decorations. Each year, during October, we run evening "haunted mine" tours that are quite impressive. If you happen to notice any hands or feet sticking out somewhere during your tour, they're just leftover rubber props.
Over here is something we like to keep rusty and dusty. It is a rescue basket, required in all mines. It is used to take an injured person to safety. They get strapped in, and the basket can be carried or hoisted out of danger. Al's father was caught in a cave-in at a different mine, the Gumtree, and broke many bones in his body, but survived and continued mining.
These large tanks are used to store the water and compressed air for for various mining operations.
Now I will explain the basic drilling and blasting procedures used to make the drift and remove the ore. Holes need to be drilled for planting the charges deep into the rock, because just attaching them to the surface wouldn't remove much rock. In the early days, the drilling was done by hand. One or more miners would use a drill steel and single or double "jacks" (we call them hammers or sledgehammers) to drill the holes for the explosive charges. If it was just a single miner, he would use a single jack, and pound the steel into the rock. You will notice that the steel has a chisel-shaped tip. The miner had to rotate the steel about 1/8th of a turn with each blow to keep it going evenly into the rock and not jam. If more than one were drilling, one would hold and rotate the steel while the other or others would strike it with double jacks. If that sounds a bit suicidal, it really wasn't, because they had to take turns. If you hit someone's hand, they would have a chance to get even shortly. What does sound suicidal, though, is the method the steel-holder used to signal the doublejackers to stop. He did it by placing his thumb over the head of the steel (usually just illuminated in the early days by flickering candles)! If any of you wish to give it a try, or have your picture taken holding them, go ahead, but please be careful.
Miners would normally drill a rectangular pattern of about 8 to 10 holes, 2 to 6 feet deep if by hand, or 24 holes if using machinery. The hardness of the rock and the strength of the miners determined how deep they could drill per day, but 2 to 6 feet was usual. After the holes for an area were drilled, they would clean the dust and debris out, and the explosives expert, called a "powder monkey," then loaded the holes with explosives. Various types were used, depending upon the decade. These charges were then hooked up to timed lengths of fuse, for two purposes. First, so they could count the charges as they went off, and second, to control the pattern of the blast. Normally, the center would come out in a pyramidal shape, then the sides would come in, the top would come down, and the bottom row, called "risers," would blast the rock up and out. Usually, a large "mucksheet" of iron or steel was laid on the ground in front of the blast area to catch the rock as it came out. A 24-hole pattern, 6 feet deep, would usually remove about 20 tons of material.
Then, the low person on the mine's pay scale, called a "mucker," would load the rock into a mine car using a "muckstick" (most non-miners today call them shovels). This was the person who was very careful counting the charges as they blew, because it obviously wasn't a good thing to hit an unexploded charge with your muckstick. As the cars were filled, they were rolled outside the mine. If it was just waste rock from the drift, it would be emptied onto the "dump," the piles of larger rock debris you see dotting the hillsides. If it was valuable ore, it would go to the "mill" for further processing. I will explain the milling processes toward the end of your tour. The piles of finer dirt you see, usually yellowish or greyish, are from the mills and are called "tailings." Most mines just used manpower to push the cars, but some used mules or ponies. Mules were usually preferred, because they were less skittish and could handle heavier loads.
This little box with the T-handle is a detonator, sometimes nicknamed a "Wiley." It contains a magneto that, when the handle would be pushed down, would generate an electrical charge that would ignite the electrical blasting caps of some types of fuses. Others fuses were lit using a flame of some sort. You are all welcome to give the detonator a push; it's not hooked up.
The miners used various styles of lights in the mines. The earliest miners used candles. The mine would ration out the relatively expensive candles, but the miners had to purchase or make their own candle holders. They would conserve candles as much as possible so they could take the stubs home with them. A lot of times, when using powered drills, they would blow the candles out while actually drilling and work in darkness. Later they went to oil lamps or water/carbide/acetylene lamps, and now mostly use battery-powered lights.
Shortly before the turn of the 20th century, the first air-powered drills were invented and put to use in the mines. The mine owners loved them, because they could drill much faster than by hand, letting them get their investment and profits out much sooner. The miners, however, had a different opinion of these early drills. They quickly earned the nickname of "widowmaker." They were a dry drill, which means as they chewed their way into the rock, clouds of dust came out. This was mostly silica, which acted much like ground glass on the miners lungs and caused a fatal condition called "silicosis." The protective masks or bandanas worn by the early miners actually just gave them a false sense of security, because it was the finest powder that would go through the cloth that caused the most damage. It would gradually grind away at the miner's lung tissue and esophagus and, morbid as it sounds, cause them to actually drown in their own blood. Their enlarged and pockmarked noses, prominent in some of the old photos, were actually caused by this silicosis, not alcohol abuse. The life expectancy of a miner operating one of these drills on a daily basis was 6 months to 3 years. Less if he was a smoker, longer if he wasn't. Why would they do it, knowing this? They needed a job, had families to support or no way back to where they came from. Luckily, it was only a few years before someone thought of hooking a water line to the drills and running water through a hollow steel. Mud came out instead of dust, messy but much safer. Plus, the water lubricated the tips, making them stay sharp longer.
The drills were normally supported in drill stands like this one. The "Rambo" concept of holding one and drilling wasn't done very much, because of the drills' weight (100-200 lbs). To give you some idea of how much they weigh, there are a few old drills leaning against the wall over here. You can go over and tip the top of one out from the wall just a bit to get a feel for it. But be careful to not to drop it on your foot, or more importantly, the guide's foot!
This is our "lucky bucket," originally used for hauling ore or equipment. It has been in various Colorado mines since the 1800s. It was given to Al when he was a youngster by an old miner who was dying, because Al was nice to the old man's black cat. Others in town hated the animal, but Al always petted it and fed it. It is claimed that this bucket has always brought good luck and prosperity to the mines it was in. Al gets testimonials from all over the world from people who have touched or rubbed or hugged or kissed the bucket and claim to have good fortune from the contact. Wealth, health, love, competitions, all sorts of areas. Here is a newspaper article sent in by a high school in Plano, Texas, who had a team come here for an "Odyssey of the Mind" high-school science competition. They all came through and touched the bucket, and they won the competition that year. This is a beer bottle from a small brewery in Wisconsin. The brewery would send a representative from the plant up here each year to rub the bucket, and had won their local brewing competition for a number of years. One year they sent a new employee up, who looked at the bucket, scoffed, called it superstitious nonsense, and wouldn't touch it. They lost that year. The next year, about a dozen employees showed up. They all rubbed the bucket, and mentioned that the previous year's visitor was no longer with the company. They returned to their winning streak. Visitors will occasionally treat it as a wishing well, putting money into it. Any monies that accumulate are given by Al to the Easter Seals campain for handicapped children just up the road. He is a strong supporter of them, having been instrumental in the construction of some of their handicapped-accessible nature trails. Another civic-minded thing that we can say about him is that part of the reason he has put much of the profits into buying up other old mines is to preserve the areas as wildlife habitats, safe from developers. The bucket is attached to an old hand-powered windlass, for hoisting tools and rock in the mine back in the days before powered equipment came into use.
This particular type of rock drill is called a "stoping drill." It was used mostly for drilling in this large cavern-type area called a "stope." The stope was drilled and blasted out following the vein, and goes up and back to the hillside above the parking lot, and actually through to the outside in a few spots. It continues on into the mine for quite a ways. These openings, called "raises," allowed the miners to crawl up and into it, and they shoveled the ore back down to the cars through them. Between the raises, at intervals, are supporting "pillars" of rock. These are left in place to help support the ceiling. If you think about walking up here from town each morning, crawling up into that stope dragging the drill, and drilling and blasting for 10 to 14 hours, getting maybe fifty cents to three dollars per day, suddenly that office or schoolroom on Monday morning doesn't sound quite as bad!
Below us, you can see another stope excavated chasing the golden dream. You will also see a memorial marker. This was not for a miner who died here, but instead for a gentleman that liked to visit us often. He was a heavy smoker, and when he was in his early 40s, it caught up with him. Before he died from lung cancer, he asked that we put up a marker to help persuade young people from starting to smoke. He knew that it is hard for an older person to quit, but hopeed this reminder will keep some of the young ones from starting.
This is another raise that opens up into the stope. As I shine my light up from this side, you can see how far up they went. It is one long, continuous "room."
Sometimes, the positioning of the pillars did not always work out for the best. This pillar here contains some of the "richest" ore in the mine, about 6 or more troy ounces of gold per ton of ore processed, and very much in the "high-grade" category. In contrast, other areas in here range from maybe 3 ounces per ton to less than an ounce. High-grade ore is generally considered to contain at least 1/2 ounce per ton. The large strip mines operated in Nevada, for instance, may contain as little a 3/100th's of an ounce per ton. You can see clearly the sparkle of the gold, silver, pyrites, and other minerals. There are several varieties of pyrite, the most well-known being iron pyrite, commonly called "fools gold." It has little value. Another variety found here, however, called "auriferous pyrite," is a gold-bearing pyrite that is quite valuable. We cannot safely or easily remove the rich ore from this pillar without weakening the entire structure in this area. Miners who got greedy and removed ore from their support pillars usually didn't make it to the candy store to spend it. Our only choices would be to fill in all around it with waste rock, or else start collapsing the mine in this area, removing it as we go. We could not just remove it and leave it unsupported for some future unsuspecting person to make a few taps and be caught in a massive cave-in.
The sign there about "high grading" refers to a supplemental income plan developed by some of the miners. If they found some lumps of gold or very rich chunks of ore, they'd just put them in their pockets, smuggle them out of the mine, and sell them. Naturally, the owners, who had invested in the property, rights, and tools, didn't approve, so it carried a pretty stiff punishment.
As you can see from this thermometer, the temperature is about 46 degrees. It stays within a few degrees of this year-round. Some of you might be thinking, "Gee, what an ideal spot for a wine cellar." Yep, in this cask is aging what samplers have claimed to be some of the best homemade wine they've ever tasted. Some, of course, attribute it to the "magical" powers of the minerals near it. No, sorry, I don't have a key to it.
Looking back behind the cask, you can see an old, unused section of drift. It doesn't look very safe, and it isn't. It was worked back in about 1936 by a group of miners who had leased mining rights from the then-owner. They hit another rich area of the vein further in on the drift. The owner of the mine, seeing the rich ore come out, managed to find a loophole in the lease and canceled it so he could have it all to himself. Before leaving, the miners blasted the drift shut at a weak point just this side of their rich strike. If they couldn't have it, neither could he! It's still back there. .
In this area, some movie scenes also were shot in the fall of 2003 for a 2004 John Sayles movie due named "Silver City" starring Daryl Hannah. The film crew was up here for two days and they were all very professional and courteous. The stars actually filmed in here were Danny Huston and Ralph Waite.
(Backtrack past the widowmaker and go up to the Resurrection Drift gateway.)
This is a newer, different vein in the mine. It was discovered in 1974. When they found the new outcropping on the side of the hill, they took a sample down to town to an assayer. When he tested this ore, he found it to be of high-grade quality, 1 to 3 oz of gold per ton. It was recognized as a new vein, and not from the Phoenix vein, because each vein has a distinct "fingerprint" because of the differing mineral composition and appearance. An experienced assayer or miner can often tell just which mine an ore sample came from. They named it the Resurrection Vein, because it brought the mine back to life. The raise at the end of the drift opens to the outside, and at one point during a tour Al was giving, a bolt of lightning blasted down through it. It grazed his shoulder and rendered him briefly unconscious. The visitors were safely escorted out, though. After Al was feeling better, he investigated the spot where the lightning had struck the floor of the drift. Old miner's tales mentioned finding rich ore by checking areas struck by lightning, because the lightning was attracted by the high metal content as an easy way into the ground. Sure enough, the rich vein continued down from the spot.
Now we will enter into the mill room. This room was blasted out by Al when he decided to try an unusual approach and build a mill inside the mine. Most mills are separate facilities, and either service just one mine, or a group of mines or community. As you look to the side here, you will see another view of the vein. This section is very rich in copper, shown by the greenish color as the copper has oxidized. Down the middle is a dark streak, which contains a mineral called "tellurium." It is used in photocells to generate electricity. Why would I mention this? We obviously have lighting in here. Yes, but we're not connected to the public power grid at all. Most of the electricity used in the mine comes from these banks of storage batteries, which are kept charged by an array of 18 photocells on the hillside above us. We have a main and backup bank of them, and can keep the lights going for three days with no sunlight. We also have a 110-volt generator for extra illumination and power if needed.
When large chunks of ore are brought to the mill, they are first crushed to gravel sized pieces in machinery such as this "jaw crusher." It was usually powered by water, steam, or whatever other power source the mill had at the time. You can see the inner jaw moving back and forth with tremendous power to crush the ore.
Then the gravel from the crusher was typically loaded onto belts that would convey the gravel into a machine, such as this "ball mill," designed to run on 440 volts AC. The mill would contain a number of these 5- to 10-pound manganese steel balls and water. The drum would rotate continuously at about the speed of an old LP 33-rpm record, and the tumbling action of the balls would do the rest. The ore's breakdown size and rate was controlled by the rotational speed and the number of balls. The gravel eventually would be ground down to a "slurry" of waste rock and valuable minerals, which would be conveyed out by other belts. From this point, they had several options to further process it. This ball mill was never actually operational.
One of the earliest processing methods was to combine the slurry with liquid mercury. The gold would bond with the mercury, leaving the waste rock behind. Then this gold/mercury mixture would be heated to boil off the mercury, leaving the gold behind. Of course, we now know that was a very dangerous process because mercury vapor is highly toxic. One of the other ways they discovered to process the slurry involved mixing it with a liquid cyanide solution. The gold would be dissolved into the solution, again leaving the waste rock behind. The gold/cyanide solution would then be run through charcoal filters which would trap the gold, while the cyanide could be reused. Periodically the filters were processed to retrieve the gold. The miners claimed this was much safer and that the liquid cyanide, properly handled, was not dangerous like cyanide gas. This cyanide process is still in use today, especially in the large mines with low concentrations of gold.
A third way to process slurry was supposedly discovered by a miner's wife in Australia. As she was doing the laundry, she noticed a ring around the wash tub. Not unusual, except that this ring was composed of various minerals, including gold. It turned out that the minerals would bond with the oil in the pine-oil-based soap they were using, and float to the top. Devices called "flotation cells" were invented, based upon this discovery, and came into use in the mid 1920s. One of the designs was patented by Thomas Edison himself, during a stay a short distance from here in Silver Plume. The slurry would flow into the cell, a mix of pine oil and other chemicals would be added, and these paddles would churn the mixture up to a froth. The desirable minerals would float to the top, where they could be skimmed off.
Another, purely mechanical method is the one we normally use. It is called a "shaker table," which we see here in the last area, along with a large flotation cell. The slurry would flow into this trough at one end of the table. The table would be tilted so that that the mix could flow down across it diagonally. The motor at the end would be started, and it would vibrate the table while the mix was flowing. Gravity would trap the heavier minerals by weight behind these little slats. First would come gold or lead, then iron and other minerals, allowing the water and waste rock to flow all the way down and off the far side to be discarded. When running, it would look almost like a rainbow, with bands of different colored minerals streaming across it, which could then be caught.
The desirable minerals separated out by whichever process used would then be sent to a smelter for further processing. The smelters would heat the minerals to a high temperature to purify and separate them. Then they could be poured into bars or ingots or whatever shape they wished.
As you look up above the shaker table, you can see a particularly beautiful area of the oxidized copper ore in the Resurrection vein.
I need to mention that this is a certified tourist mine, and is regularly inspected for safe conditions. We do a daily safety walkthrough of the mine ourselves, and periodically we go though doing what is called "barring down." That is when we take a heavy steel bar and thump suspicious or weak looking areas of rock, to loosen and remove any unsafe areas. Any that don't have a solid "ring" to them are dealt with. The wooden posts you see throughout the mine are just to support small areas of weaker rock. We are not trying to hold up the mountain with toothpicks. The solid rock walls and curvature of the tunnels and supporting rock pillars make this type of mine much safer than most others. Also, we rarely have a problem with dangerous gases, as opposed to, say, a coalmine. The wooden posts are adjusted with wooden wedges to the proper tension, which we can tell by tapping on the posts. They are "tuned" almost like a piano. Never go into an abandoned or uncertified mine, no matter how safe it might look. Many of these mines have been here since the mid to late 1800s, and can be very dangerous. Loose rock can fall or the walls can collapse. What looks like just a puddle of water could be the top of a deep, open, water-filled shaft. Also, large wild animals may have taken the mine for a home, and may not be as hospitable to visitors as we are.
This is the end of the mine tour itself. Does anyone have any questions? There are various booklets for sale at the front counter that better explain the mining process and history than can be covered in just this tour. There are some interesting books by Al, recounting some of his adventures over the years.
We also currently support two web sites, with pictures and more historical details. I hope you have enjoyed your tour.
As we exit, you will notice a fancy display of a cross-section of a different mine which was probably in their office or a presentation room to entice investors. Also, there are these maps showing a cross section of this mine, and an overhead view of the claims in the area. Where the claims overlap, the earliest claim has the rights to that ore. The claims give the owner the mineral rights from the surface to the center of the earth.
This narrative of a representative tour, written by George Page, was revised October, 2003. It contains more information than can be given in a 35- to 45-minute tour, so he tries to vary it a bit from tour to tour.