Gold Assay: Days of the Gold Rush

I have always considered myself to be somewhat of a rebel. An adventurous spirit that found intrigue in what most people would consider absurd at worst; and at best, a romantic with an obsession for days long since past.

The days of the Gold Rush fascinated me. Not merely because of the prospect of gold, but for the courageous spirit that all those “rebels” shared in pursuing their dreams on the frontiers they forged. And for their camaraderie with their fellowman. They came from many walks of life, but one common thread bound them. It was the pursuit of a different life… a better life, and the courage to seek it, even at the risk of life itself.

Historians have painted that period of time as one of transition. They’ve portrayed the men and women who escaped the East as people who wanted to merely find the “mother lode,” as people who were looking for a quick buck. But they were people not unlike you and me, looking for a different way of life… a simpler way of life. They were “rebels” in their own right, who left the comforts that bound the masses in the East, looking for freedom from the trappings that surrounded them, freedom to live as their forefathers had done many years before. They had a love for life, nature, God, and their families.

I, too, feel this, as each of you do, when I happen to pass through a ghost town with its ramshackle buildings, boarded windows and windblown streets. As a child, I developed a fascination with the people that might have risked everything in order to pursue their dreams. My family’s first trip to Colorado was dotted with stops in all the ghost towns we’d pass. Peering through windows, I could gain some semblance of how life was lived. I was awe-struck by their perseverance. It fed my desire to know these people as I grew, and I pored over the many books that told their tales.

gold rush

My father had a love for Colorado, as his father before him, and as I do now. He was fortunate enough to purchase claims in that beautiful state. All in all, there are approximately thirty mines. Some of them we’ve found, others have been more elusive. So every chance we have to leave the warm Texas coast, we search for them. Scaling the high red boulders with our binoculars in search of a small wooden stake. I’m not sure how many of you have tried this feat, but it can only be compared to searching for a “needle in a haystack.” Sure, we could have the six hundred plus acres surveyed, but truthfully, that’s half the funfinding those small, blackish holes tucked beneath a rocky ledge.

My two brothers and I, all grown with families of our own, scouted for two weeks one summer. We located the majority of the mines with my father. This was their first and last attempt at this, as they don’t share the love my father and I have for this endeavor. They would be quite content to pay someone to do this, but not Dad and I. We continually go back, taking assays from the tailing piles and venturing into the “safe” mines. I can’t imagine a summer without this ritual, and every year we get a little more daring, a little more involved. Hardrock mining knows no small investment, no small risks. It requires calculated risks and as much money as you can spare for assays, equipment, trips and the like.

Truthfully, I feed on the risks: crawling over the damp soil in a space so narrow that I must diet extensively every time I plan a trip up, wading through waist-deep water trapped between cave-ins, and clawing my way over steep embankments of loose dirt to get an assay from the face wall. My father waits pensively outside the mine, as I radio to tell him I’m fine and I’ll be out momentarily. After another hour, I make my way to the light outside, dirty, wet, and smiling with what I believe to be a good ore sample in my gallon size Ziploc bag.

It was on one such adventure that my older brother and father retrieved The Assay that has prodded us on. My younger brother and I sat outside the mine as they ventured to the face wall about 300 feet within the dank mine. This was a bit more than either of my two brothers cared for, with the waist-deep water, cave-ins and bats. So, The Assay or not, it was their last trip to date. We returned home and received The Assay a week later. We knew by simply looking at it that it was good ore, but we had no idea that it was that good! The gold content was 54 oz. a ton, with traces of rhodium! My father and I immediately planned our next trip for the following summer. Due to our obligations, he with his real estate office, and I with my position as an assistant manager at a fast food restaurant we couldn’t just turn around and head back. And if we had been able to, we certainly couldn’t get the equipment required to extract the white quartz, with its streaks of gold neatly laced through it, from deep within the mine. It was time to plan.

By the following summer, the real estate market had taken a turn for the worse. Although my father’s 30 odd years of being in the business had cushioned his fall, it was impossible for him to contemplate leaving at this time. He was a one-man operation and had no one to “keep shop” while he was away. I found myself at a meager waitressing job, due to some unfortunate circumstances with my previous employer. I had to take the job, as one of those “bread and butter” opportunities. I was unable to leave also, so again I planned… for the following summer.

The mine that The Assay had come from had been closed in 1908, due to a flood that washed out much of the rail system This was their only means of getting the ore down the rugged mountain to the smelter that operated in the larger town below. Thus, the mine was closed. The mine had been purposely blown shut in two areas and then boarded at the opening. Steel rods had been carefully welded to close one of the largest producing mines in the area. It remained intact until we blew the mine open in 1988, the same year we got The Assay. A few miners held onto their claims and mined what they could, but, not having the necessary equipment, they too pulled out, leaving behind their few cabins, with stories etched on planks of wood that lined the walls of many of the mines.

What was left of the rail system was taken in 1917, as our nation prepared for war. After the death of one of the original owners of the mine, it was sold to a foreign company that had no concept of the treasure it held and was oblivious to the people who had given their very lives in search of a better one. We speculated that this foreign company won it in a “card game” of some kind and simply held on to it, until my father read their ad in the Wall Street Journal. He moved on this opportunity, based on what he already knew of the area.

We planned to take off for the mining property come the first of spring. Then quite unexpectedly, I received a sort of “windfall” from my former employer early this past November. I convinced my father to let me buy into the mines and go up to work the claim. He was reluctant. After all, I was a 28 year old woman and would be alone in some pretty wild territory, and winter was here. My only means of getting into the property would be via the truck that had been stored at my parents’ cabin for the past year, several hours to the south of the property. I had to go. I tried as best I could to explain to my father that it was something I had to do. I have always believed it is better to have tried and failed, than to have never tried at all. I wasn’t sure this was something I could do, but I knew I must try.

I knew that it would be near to impossible to stay at the cabin and drive in to the property on a daily basis, so I had to come up with a plan. I had a tent that I had bought several years back for the children and me to camp with, so I decided to take the tent and live in it until I fashioned some sort of roof on one of the dilapidated old cabins that rested in the gulch.

It took me a week to pack. I packed everything from a galvanized tub to bathe in, to mortar and microscopes. I had a trailer hitch installed on my Chevy Cavalier and rented a small trailer. I sat my children down, who are 8 and 10 years old, and explained to them what I was doing. I’ve always been fortunate to have parents who are always supportive of me, and children who are very understanding of their kooky mother. My son, the 10-year old, had one reservation as he had peered into the dark mine a few years back, “Momma, you’re not gonna die up there, are you?” I reassured him I would not.

The next day my younger brother helped me pack what I could into the small trailer. I bathed the dog, Charlotte, and loaded her and everything else that went into the car. I pulled out that evening at seven and arrived at the cabin at noon the following day. The dominoes began to fall. The water pump was out. The water heater was out. The truck blew the transmission as I was heading into town… uphill. Murphy’s Law was in effect from the very beginning, but I remained undaunted… until, until I had to hire a gentleman to take me, my dog and all my belongings to the mining property. The rugged dirt road that led to the gulch was not one to be taken in anything but a 4×4.

I was running out of time and options, as I was to report back to work for my previous employer on December 31. This was part of our contractual agreement.

I had chanced to meet Ken when I purchased a small pot-bellied stove from his mother’s shop. I contacted him and he agreed to come to the cabin at ten o’clock the following morning. We loaded the bed of his red Ford truck and Charlotte and I jumped in the front. We headed for the mining property. Ken was a man of about 32 years, with rugged good looks, never married, and owned his own business. He was a shy man, but was quite talkative this day as his truck carried us to our destination.

When we reached the mouth of the gulch, much to my dismay and disappointment, it appeared that the only snow that had fallen in these mountains was in the gulch. From here it was at least three miles in, maybe more, through 8 to 12 inches of snow. There was little doubt that the truck could make it in, but we both agreed it would never make it back up the steep ravine. I stuck to my guns. “We can just unpack it here and I’ll camp here tonight. I’ll start packing it in come morning.” Ken said nothing, then, “Why don’t we walk down the gulch and see if it gets any better?” I agreed.

We walked down the narrow road as the snow crusted on our boots, then melted and ran down into our 100% waterproof boots, making a slushing noise as we tramped through the snow. We zigzagged along the road, stopping at the old remnants of cabins as we passed. Noticing the mountain lion tracks and droppings, Ken said, “You know they call this cat country?” I nodded and placed my hand naively on the .44 that I had never fired, strapped about my waist, “That’s what this is for.” Ken shook his head and smiled, “that’s just gonna make ‘em mad.” I nervously glanced at the overhanging ledges above and thought how it wouldn’t seem strange to see one peering over at us. I ran ahead to catch up with Ken. Charlotte ran ahead to catch up to us.

About an hour later, we stood at the base of the mountain where the mine lay about 50 feet up. I turned to Ken and said. “I’ve got to go in.” “Let’s go,” he replied.

He followed me up the narrow trail that led to the face of the mine. We hurriedly removed our wet boots and slipped our wet feet into the hip waders I had been carrying in my backpack. Then, placing our hard hats on, we entered the mine, shining our flashlights through the darkness. A friend of ours had entered this very mine and had ended up being a doormat for some nameless mountain lion who merely wanted out. Ken was walking quite briskly until I related this story to him. Then he moved slowly and cautiously behind me. Charlotte followed us as far as the first cave-in, where we left her whining behind us. I turned to Ken before scaling the massive cave-in through the narrow hole. “If there’s something in here, it’ll be here. I don’t think it’d wade through the water. Just stand back and I’ll get out of their way, as best I can.” I said somberly and maybe a little menacingly. After all, I still owed him for the crack about my gun. Then, feeling a little guilty, I unstrapped my gun belt and handed it to him. “You make ‘em mad.”

My flashlight gave little sight through the darkness, as I cautiously grappled up the loose dirt. My hardhat knocked gently on the rock overhead as I reached the top. I stood atop the cave-in and quickly guided my light through the blackness of the cavern, looking, but certainly not hoping to find anything. The cavern stretched about 15 feet above my head and at least that far in every direction. The darkness was dotted with small clusters of dew that formed on the moist soil and shone like diamonds when struck by the light. I knelt down and called for Ken to follow. I waited as he scrambled up the embankment, his hardhat thudding, too, against the small passageway. I greeted him with, “Ever been in a gold mine before?” “Only once,” he replied, as he got to his feet. “Cripple Creek. Real tourist trap.” “Well, this ain’t Cripple Creek!” I laughed. “No,” he said looking a little bewildered, “No it’s not!”

Having entered the mine on one occasion before with my father, I knew basically what lay ahead. Presently I sat down and scooted over the edge of the other side and lay back carefully as I slid down the muddy, rocky slide. I found my waders touching the water below. Ken’s waders rested gently against my back. I speculated that he didn’t want me getting too far ahead of him. I placed one boot into the murky water and rested it on one of the few remaining rails that lay within the mine. The water came to rest just beneath the top of the waders, although, after a few careless steps, I had managed to practically fill my boots. Ken found great amusement in my angry protest about wet pants, only moments before he found himself in the same predicament. I whispered, “Thank you, Jesus,” as he sloshed behind me.

The smell of the earth was heavy in the air as I scrambled to the top, clanking my hardhat as I climbed, but equally glad I had it on! The climb was more difficult because of the wet waders, and I thought how comical we must look, my arms flailing wildly for something to hang onto, Ken pushing me from behind (no pun intended), as I made my graceless ascent. After I made it to the top, I lay flat on my stomach and extended my arms and took one of his hands. Then I crawfished backwards and, you guessed it, down the other side ..,quickly. My legs sprawled in the water and I was taking on water quite rapidly. At first, I was bewildered by the cold water rushing in my boots, but then my laughter echoed Ken’s from above. “I meant to do that.” I said seriously, as I emptied my boots. Ken slid down and joined me, chiding, “It’s a good thing we had these waders!” We both laughed.

We waded through the murky water as it became much shallower about 50 feet down. Gradually, we found ourselves walking in only mud, as we neared the tunnel to the right. They refer to this as an adit. The main tunnel went another 50 feet and then took a 90 degree turn to the right. I knew this from my previous visit. The adit to the right was where The Assay had come from and that was where I was going. This was the most unstable part of the mine and the only part that was actively caving in. The other two cave-ins that we had crossed were the ones they had set to close the mine . I turned to Ken and said, “You’d better wait here. The last time I was here, there wasn’t enough room beyond the cave-in for two people. It won’t take me long.” “You sure?” “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”

The way I remembered it had been quite different from how it was now. Water had seeped in and was about knee deep, just before the cave-in. As I climbed the muddy embankment, I could hear only the distant drip of water. The warmth of the dirt felt good against my cold, wet skin, as I shinnied through the sludge. It was an upward climb of about 20 feet, zigzagging through the clay. The clay was streaked through quartz veins that ranged in color from white to aquamarine.

Once I reached the top of the cave-in, I realized that the whole cavern was nothing more than one large cave-in, and I called back to Ken. No answer. At first a flash of panic set in, but then I realized that the dirt had merely absorbed the sound, muffling it. At least, that’s how I reassured myself. The adit took a 70 degree turn to the left and I snaked my way through. I slipped into the largest room I had seen in the mine. It was 20 feet across and about 30 feet deep. At the far end of the cavern was where the Assay was taken and I scooted toward the wall. I hadn’t brought a pick, but I didn’t really need one. I scooped up a large aquamarine crystal that was encrusted with the grayish clay. Shining my flashlight around the room, I was struck by the beauty of the crystals that surrounded me. I broke off many samples and placed them in my bag, fairly sure they didn’t contain gold, but wanting simply to add them to my vast collection of rocks.

Having memorized the plat of the mine, I searched for the rest of the tunnel. My light came to rest on a small, and I mean small, opening on my right at the bottom of this massive pile of rock I was lying on. Lodged just below, through the opening was the most beautiful piece of ore! The white quartz crystal was about a foot across, with several bands of ore intricately laced through it, that shone bright as the sun when my light crossed it.

The opening was about 2 feet across and 18 inches high. It lay 6 feet below me at a 70 degree angle. My bag was already full of about 40 lbs. and quite heavy, but I wanted that rock! I had seen that ore before and I knew what the assay would read. Bracing myself against the overhang, I inched toward the opening feet first. It would be impossible to head down it, head first. I imagined myself as an ant being sucked into one of those well-known sand traps, although I probably wouldn’t be eaten, as the ant would, but at this point, anything seemed feasible. My feet stuck through the opening and I placed one foot on either side of the rock. I couldn’t budge it. After several attempts to dig out a larger opening, or to tear down the embankment so that I might be able to exit the hole after entering it to retrieve my prize, I was exhausted. My elusive prize sat just out of reach, as I stared grudgingly at its beauty.

My thoughts were broken by the muffled sound of falling earth. A chill cut through my bones. I sat upright and surveyed the room. Where I had been only moments before, dust rose above the musty soil. Suddenly, I heard my son’s questioning plea, “Momma, you’re not gonna die up there, are you?”

I grabbed the bag in my clenched fist and gave one more glance at my prize. Then I disappeared back the way I’d come. Ken was waiting anxiously where I had left him, and hurried toward me as I descended. Taking the bag from me he scolded, “Man, I was getting worried about you! You were in there nearly an hour!”

“I can’t believe that. It felt like only a few minutes.” “Yeah, well it wasn’t. I kept hearing that dog barking and you using the pick. It just seemed to echo.”

“You couldn’t have. Charlotte’s outside. There’s no way you could have heard her and I didn’t have the pick, you did!”

Ken and I walked for some time without talking.

We waded back through the water, over the cave-ins, and toward the light that streamed in through the mouth of the mine. The sunlight seemed brighter, somehow. We squinted our eyes, shielding them from the light. The warmth of the sun felt good against our wet, dirty clothes. We sat quietly and changed out of our waders and wet socks, stuffing our cold feet into our near-dry, warm boots. I neatly packed the waders, hardhats, flashlights and wet socks into my pack for the long walk back up the gulch to his truck.

We made the climb in silence, as I mulled over the challenge that lay before me. My excitement over the ore I had been able to retrieve was tempered by the fear of staying out here alone. Alone in this wilderness was something I had always feared. It wasn’t so much being here…it was being alone. I knew this to be one of my greatest fears, but I also knew it was something I must overcome. To be alone in the mine would be terrifying, and the very thought of it made me shudder.

As we neared the mouth of the gulch where his truck sat, Ken turned to me and weighed his words carefully. “You sure this is something you want to do?” Staring ahead, I said self-assuredly, “Yes, this is something I have to do.” “Now,” he chanced, “no one’s gonna think you’re a…a..a wimp. I don’t know many people who could do this. Not with packing in all those supplies and all.”

He wa s right-although I had purchased the smallest pot-bellied stove, carrying it and all my equipment down would be a struggle. I cast a steely gaze at him, trying to rise above my obvious fear and stated flatly, “This is something I have to do.”

Ken shrugged and walked ahead of me toward the truck. I put my pack into the front and went to the tailgate to unload my supplies. Ken was standing in the bed of the truck and pushed a shovel toward me, pointing to a large pine in the gully.

“Better clear off a piece of ground for your tent. It’s gettin’ late.”

It was getting late. Up here it got dark at around 4:30 p.m. and it was nearly 3:30 already. I took the shovel and grabbed my tent, hoisting it over my shoulder. I slid down the small incline, seemingly making a shorter trail to carry the supplies down. The snow was deep under the pine and I shoveled through it to the frozen ground below. My thoughts were clouded. I can truthfully say I never knew a more gripping fear than what I felt. I have been in my share of tight situations, but never had I understood what “numb with fear” meant until that moment.

Thinking Ken was back at the truck, I sank to my knees in the snow, crying. The warm tears stung my wind-chapped cheeks as I knelt in the snow. I knew that this might very possibly be a choice of life or death. It was feasible to think that I might freeze out here or be attacked by some animal. I was 30 miles from nowhere, with no means of transportation or communication. My dream had been squashed. Circumstances that were out of my control had altered all my well-thought plans. I was crushed.

“It’d be just as easy to pack everything back up,” Ken offered. Startled, I stood, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. He added, “You could come back next spring. It’s not like you’re giving up.”

I couldn’t speak and kept my back to him, watching the tears run down the front of my jacket. We stood in silence, as Charlotte played in the snow, racing around, then falling and taking in a mouthful.

“I’m afraid.” I whispered. “Well, I would be too!” he said with a nervous laugh. “Where will I get firewood?” “I don’t know. I was thinkin’ about that all the way back from the mine.”

Turning to him, with obvious disappointment, “I don’t think I can do this,” I said with my lip quivering, “but I’ve come so far.” “It’ll still be here.” He paused, then solemnly added, his deep-set eyes unwavering and sincere, “It ain’t worth this.”

Those words rang true….it wasn’t worth this. I realized, as we made our descent from my little piece of heaven, that what was important to the people of yesterday is just as important to the people of today. Life, nature, God, and family. Although, we must realize that all of these are of equal importance and if you’re missing just one of these key ingredients, that little piece of heaven that we consider our dreams to be, could just as easily be our little piece of hell.

And what of the assay I took? Well, let’s just say now that we number them, and that was The Assay 11. As for me? I’m planning…with my family.