Peter Shelton

Hidden High Grade

Posted in How the West was Lost, Road Trips West, Watch columns by pshelton on June 21, 2011

In the compressor house next door to the mine portal they gave us yellow hard hats and waterproof rain jackets. Then we climbed aboard the trammer and straddled its hard metal bench. A tour guide who calls himself Rock Chip swung up on the engine, and the trammer clanked and jerked into the tunnel. The light of the outside world, the warm summer sunlight of Ouray, quickly shrank to a silver dollar behind us, then vanished altogether.

I’d lived on the Western Slope for 35 years but had never until last summer taken the Bachelor-Syracuse Mine Tour. This is practically criminal. The story of the white man in these mountains is the story of silver and gold, the invisible puzzle of ore bodies underground; of dynamite and doublejacks, drill steel and miner’s lung; of unimaginable riches – for the few anyway, and the hunger for it by the many – that has been supplanted only in the last couple of decades by a tourism industry that feeds on this legacy. To even begin to comprehend the San Juan Triangle (Silverton, Telluride, Ouray) you need to understand at least a little bit about the mining. And to understand the mining, you have to go underground.

The dark would be complete if it weren’t for the occasional bare overhead bulb. In fact, later in the tour Rock Chip turned off all the lights including his headlamp. The darkness is total. You wait for your eyes to adjust and they never do. Other senses sharpen. You hear water running alongside the tracks, draining out of the mine at 900 gallons per minute. You feel a cool, damp breeze wafting downhill through the tunnel. Only it’s not a tunnel, said Carl Dismant, the spry 70-year-old who owns the Bachelor-Syracuse now. A tunnel has openings at both ends, he said. This is a drift, the Syracuse drift, bored 5,000 feet into the mountainside to meet the Bachelor shaft, which was begun, on the other side of Gold Hill, in 1888.

The darkness is like being blind. Alfred Castner King was blinded inside the Bachelor in 1900 when a charge set to advance the drift a little father exploded prematurely. King stayed on in Ouray as a kind of poet laureate of the mines. It comes as no surprise that his 1907 poem “Avalanche” begins in a purely auditory world, in a cabin, at night: “Just then a crashing sound was heard, / That caused each ruby cheek to blanch, / Though no one moved nor spoke a word, / All listening to the avalanche . . .”

Rock Chip lit a candle and placed it in a crevice in the rock. This is what the first miners would have had for light. If your candle flame blew out, Rock Chip said, “It was probably the Tommyknockers. They are good spirits; they protected the miners. If your candle went out a second time, that probably meant bad air . . . Instead of canaries, the miners here had rats. You’d feed ‘em and they’d follow you around. They were good CO2 indicators. When you walked into bad air, the rats knew it. It was time to get down and crawl out along the rails.” The Tommyknockers could sometimes be heard banging on the rock in places where there were no drifts or stopes or shafts. Some believed that these were warnings of impending cave-ins.

Rock Chip picked up a piece of drill steel, like a long, handle-less stone chisel, inserted it into a one-inch diameter hole in the wall, and invited tour guests to strike it with a doublejack, a ten-pound, two-fisted hammer. In the old days, one man swung the doublejack, while the other held the steel, twisting it a quarter turn before each blow. When the hole was deep enough, they stuffed it with dynamite.

The clang of steel on steel echoed through the confined space. The name doublejack comes, Rock Chip said, from the Cornish miners who came over to work the San Juans rush. “They were such good miners, used to working narrow seams of coal, the Romans took them all over the empire . . . Nobody here could pronounce their names, so they called them all Cornish Jack.”

He showed us a foot-wide vein of low-grade silver ore slicing vertically through the sedimentary rock. It was barely discernable, with flecks of galena (lead) ore shining in the low light. The silver itself is dull. Most of the veins in the Bachelor are between two and 12 feet wide, he said, not wide enough to make mining with big machinery profitable – too much waste rock. Instead, it was important to “mine it clean,” to just take out the valuable stuff. Carl Dismant started working the mine at 14, when his father owned it. He remembers hand-tramming one-ton ore cars down the tracks out of the mine. “Each car held 11 cubic feet, one ton. Coming back in [pushing the empty car uphill; the Syracuse drift has a one-half degree grade] you tried to stay bent over as much as possible. Man, your back! I don’t think there’s anybody nostalgic for those days.”

Later, Dismant told me about two contemporary Ouray miners, Ken Orvis and Lance Barker, who worked their Golden Wonder mine by hand to the tune of millions of dollars in high-grade gold. They did it by mining clean, wriggling through a vein no wider than a man’s shoulders.

The original location certificate for the Bachelor was filed by one George Hurlburt, according to Tales of the Bachelor Mine, a slim, readable volume by Jane Bennett, published in 2005. Hurlburt, along with the Armstrong brothers, Alf and Charley, ran a drift 500 feet in before they ran out of money. They were following something called a clastic dike, an intrusion of once-molten volcanic rock that sometimes led to ore pockets. In 1894, a man named Frank Sanders bought Alf Armstrong’s one-third share for $2,000, “$1,900 more,” Bennett writes, “than the going rate at the time.” But the infusion of cash was perfectly timed, and at 720 feet in, the men hit a “roll,” or flat sheet of mineralized rock out from the Bachelor dike. The ore contained 15,000 ounces of silver per ton, along with small amounts of gold, turning the Bachelor overnight into the top silver producer in the region. By 1907 (and despite the Silver Crash of 1893, when the U.S. government stopped buying guaranteed amounts of silver for coins), ore valued at more than $2 million – about $40 million in today’s money – had come out of the Bachelor portal. Hurlburt, Sanders and Armstrong were rich.

Frank Sanders took his loot and moved downriver to Delta where he started a grocery business and eventually became a banker. Charley Armstrong’s money dwindled away during the Depression, and he died broke at 83 in 1940. George Hurlburt, the surveyor who discovered the claim, was not apparently an astute businessman either, but was a pillar of Ouray society nonetheless. He went back to his surveying and died at the ripe old age of 88, of trauma, when he slipped on a steep hillside while carrying his heavy tripod.

The Bachelor stayed open through both world wars when demand for base metals – copper, lead, zinc – was high. There were rumors, though, of a significant body of silver ore near the 500-foot level of the Bachelor shaft, and it was decided to dig the Syracuse “tunnel,” from the west side of the mountain, to meet it. (Investors hailed from Syracuse, New York.) It took eight years to go a horizontal mile. “You know that S-curve in the middle of the Eisenhower Tunnel [I-70 west of Denver]?” Dismant asked rhetorically. “Their engineers were off by 16 feet. These guys went 5,000 feet and missed by half an inch.”

The new drift, opened in 1929, brought sweet air into the mine. It allowed the water to drain. And it allowed the use of compressor-run drills, so-called “widowmakers” because their dust filled miners’ lungs. Along the way, the Syracuse struck a surprise ore body 2,000 feet in, which kept the crushers turning at the mill down by the Uncompahgre River.

“Is the Bachelor mined out?” asked a guest on the tour.

“Oh, no,” said Rock Chip, who has not actually been a miner. “There’s lots left in here.”

“There’s a lot of low-grade ore,” Dismant corrected. “Nature hides the high-grade stuff. There are no road maps to it.” Dismant decided to start the mine tours business in 1982. He kept hauling ore out, at night, until 1988 when operations finally ceased.

In her book, Bennett writes that nobody knows how many miles of workings there are in the Bachelor’s 10 levels. She mentions “rumors of a drift with fabulous ore that was purposely blasted shut, hidden for a more opportune moment.” Dismant made no mention of this. He did talk about “the bug” – the miner’s addiction to the search. “Once you get it, you never lose it,” he said. “You hit high-grade, it takes six undertakers to get the smile off your face.”

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