Over Labor Day weekend I traveled with my family to Denver to visit my brother-in-law’s family. On the way, we stopped off at Cripple Creek, Colorado, to tour the gold mining district. I’ve been near there twice before but never took the chance to stop and visit, so this time I determined to get there no matter what. Since we left after my classes were over on Friday at 2:45 p.m., with occasional stops for food and stretching, we didn’t get into our motel until 2:30 a.m.
On Saturday I got up early and drove a couple of miles out of town on Highway 67 to the Mollie Kathleen gold mine. I arrived about 8:50 and the first tour was at 9:30, so I took the time to take photos around the mine site of the old equipment and original headframes. One person there told me a bear had walked through the site just ten minutes before I arrived.
At 9:30 we donned hard hats and were loaded tightly into the double-decker man skip to travel 1000 feet down to the bottom level of the mine. Jim Smith was our tour guide, and of all the tours I’ve taken of mines around the country, this was one of the best. Not only did he explain how the equipment was used, he actually demonstrated it (it is still in working order). We saw how hydraulic drills, stope drills, muckers, bucket dumps, and other types of equipment were used by the miners. The tour lasted about an hour. I videotaped the whole thing, but wasn’t able to take many photos because we moved through the tour fast enough that I couldn’t use both cameras at once.
Jim described how miners would discover a gold vein or deposit, and shafts and crosscuts would be dug into the bottom of the deposit so that it could be stoped upward (following the deposit as it twists through the rock), standing on planks using a stoping drill that could jam and flip you off the plank at any time. Some deposits were found filling cavities called vugs, where the gold would replace the granite rock and form rich veins. The normal grade of ore assayed at about $2 of gold per ore car; some of these vug deposits, such as the one in the Cresson Mine, assayed out at over $4000 per car. Miners were paid $3 per day at that time (the same as miners in the Tintic District in Utah) and it was common for miners to “high grade,” or smuggle rich ore samples out in the false bottoms of their lunch pails.
Mary Catherine (Mollie Kathleen) Gortner discovered the mine in 1891 shortly after Bob Womack and Winfield Scott Stratton had discovered their gold lodes. She was visiting her son, who was prospecting in the camp, and walked up Poverty Gulch to where he was working. As she sat down to rest, her foot kicked a rock that looked like promising gold float, and she followed the rock to its source (which had already been missed by numerous miners) and memorized its location – she was too afraid of someone jumping her claim to even mark it. When the rocks she hid in her dress assayed out as rich gold ore, she returned and staked a claim as one of the few women mine owners in the district. Since then, the Mollie Kathleen has been in more-or-less continuous operation as a producing gold mine; the Lanning family that owns it now still goes in during the winter to mine out veins. They can make a small profit, with gold at over $1200 per ounce now (the main problem for the gold mines in the district isn’t the lack of gold, but the lack of a local mill to process it). But the main source of income now is from the mine tours.
After the tour I visited the Cripple Creek Heritage Center across the street and took some panoramic videos of the town, as the view was great. There were headframes on most every hill and holes everywhere where prospectors had tried and failed to find gold. At the top of the major hills was a huge continuous tailings pile from the Cripple Creek and Victor Gold Mine, a large open pit/surface mining operation that is still operating. They are concentrating the ore through leaching the tailings piles, and it is interesting to see this modern mining operation superimposed on the older, historic mines.
Next post, I’ll describe the towns of Cripple Creek and Victor and some of the mines in the area.