"Gold conjures up a mist about a man, more destructive of all his old senses and lulling to his feelings than the fumes of charcoal."Charles Dickens
Thousands of old lode mines await discovery
When we stand in court and argue in defense of dredging we often forget a suction dredge is merely a tool used in mining. Mines come in all different types, but the river placer claim tends to be one of the easiest and most efficient methods of mining. It often leads to larger scale mining and serves as a stepping stone to those who wish to start mining without a huge investment.
To some suction dredging may be a form of recreation, but should they ever hit the paysteak which pays a couple ounces a day the recreation quickly stops in favor of actual mining. While we may argue over the term "recreational mining" it doesn't really matter. You have a mining claim and you have a tool to recover gold. Some hit it big, some hit a little and some plain just miss it, but at the end of the day the dredge is merely the tool you used based on your circumstances, being primarily water.
The hard work of digging out an old tunnel begins
If you're like most, eventually while out dredging you're going to come across a quartz in the bedrock and wonder whether it holds any gold. If you're anywhere in the Motherlode of California the answer is almost certainly yes. The question really becomes how much. This question can often only be answered by taking some samples and having an assay done, but these quartz veins criss cross the Motherlode often following the fault lines. Occasionally, if you're downstream from a lode source you may begin picking up rough, or coarse gold. The gold which isn't weather warn. With a little prospecting work with your dredge you can probably find where this source is entering the river. Then it's just a matter of following it up hill.
It's unlikely, but possible to discover a new lode source passed over by the previous prospectors. They were pretty thorough in their searching, largely because there were thousands of prospectors in the area you are now mining by yourself. If your patient, and observant, you can see the signs of their prospecting everywhere. It's more likely you'll find gold passed over in an old lode mine and that's the strategy of many modern day lode miners.
These old lode mines are everywhere. If you've spent even a little time out prospecting you've run across them. Often nothing but a trace of tailings remains, but every on occasion you'll find the remnants of the tunnel and often you'll find the vein poking up on the surface. When you do - follow it. It's interesting to see how the old miners followed it. Just a few weeks ago I was setting out some markers on a new section which bordered my lode mine. I walked one side of the canyon up, then returned on the opposite side of the canyon a little higher on the hill. A couple hundred yards from the entrance to my lode mine I found the clear evidence of some hard rock tailings. I spent a little more time in the area, shot a quick bearing on it and came to the conclusion this was actually the same lode I was working.
Opening a lode mine is far different than dredge mining. At the end of a day of dredging you could pan out and see how you were doing. With a lode mine you have a day of digging and no gold, the next day will be the same. You may invest months of digging only to find the old timers didn't miss any gold. There went the whole season.
The current California dredging ban has forced me to expand prospecting. For 15 years I spent my summers in a remote canyon just running the dredge and recovering gold. It was like clockwork. Get up in the morning, pull on the wet suit, start the dredge and dredge all day. Pan out in the evening and repeat the next day. With the dredging ban I spent the first few years looking for better claims, and finding them. Then testing them, dropping some and picking up new ones. Always trading up.
As I expanded my prospecting I started coming across more and more lode sources. For years I ignored them and just continued up the canyons looking for the placer gold. Some of these old mines still had cabin sites and railroad tracks, but invariably the tunnels were always collapsed. I really had no interest in spending a summer digging in the dirt, so I just kept moving.
On the trail into one of my claims there is an old lode mine. It was last claimed in the 1960's and little is left except for the tailings. This particular lode mine the tailings are primarily crushed quartz. Every day I would walk by this mine paying little attention to it.
One evening on the way out of the dredge claim I paused to sample some of the tailings and to my surprise found some bits of lode gold. Hmm, that shouldn't be there. A few days later I put a sluice in the water and ran a few buckets and came up with more bits of lode gold.
My first thought was they were sloppy. They were throwing bits of gold over the hill with their crushed quartz tailings and I didn't give it much more thought that year.
Running some tailings through a highbanker
During the winter I found my thoughts returning to that lode mine. If you're a miner you know you spend a lot of time in the winter thinking about what you're going to do the next summer. I found my thoughts wandering more and more to the lode source, and less to the placer mine. I couldn't help but wonder why they were crushing their quartz on site, and if they were throwing away gold I wondered how much they were keeping.
The next summer I returned once again with a sluice and some buckets and ran some samples from different spots in the tailings and they kept showing gold. I decided to file a claim.
A chunk of gold pulled right from the lode
A miner in the area had told me had seen the location document with a filing date of 1969. It was in a jar near the mine. I found the remnants of the jar which had broken and the remnants of water pipes, bracing and plenty of nails and bolts, but the tunnel itself was buried under slides. The mine's name in 1969 wasn't the same name as in 1859 when I found the only bits of historical records. If you've read enough mining history you know the bits you can glean are usually written only when the mine had a significant find so they tend to be glowing reports. You have to view them with a bit of skeptism, but there is plenty of history of this general trend producing some pretty good gold.
This mine appeared to be a small mine, something I found appealing to work as it looked like the majority of the vein was actually above ground and I wouldn't have to worry about underground mining. Looks can be deceiving and a term you learn quickly in the Motherlode is "chimney."
For those of you just starting out, a chimney is a vertical quartz vein which is usually loaded with gold. Lode miners look for them. In California almost all lode mines are feast or famine mines. You either have a pocket of gold, or you have nothing. In Nevada the big mines are true lode mines where they collect huge amounts of quartz and crush them getting only small amounts of gold per ton, but it adds up. Many lode mines in California don't pay enough in the quartz to even worry about crushing it, you just high-grade it.
After a few days of digging it became apparent my first thoughts on this mine were wrong. This was a much bigger mine than I had thought, and it wasn't a slot. The vein did run horizontal for a ways, above ground, but as I cleared both ends of the slot it became apparent there were two distinct chimneys. Which is good and bad. I was hoping for a horizontal tunnel entrance but as the days went by and more material was cleared it became apparent these were two vertical holes, and vertical holes with a water problem down there somewhere.
What became really apparent, however, is they crushed all the quartz on site. As I dug through the layers I could see where the 1960's mining operation had crushed their quartz, and as I dug deeper I could see where the material was from the 1850s. Even more interesting I could see what I thought was a very narrow slot, was actually a very wide vein which was covered by a significant slide prior to the 1960's. Reading the evidence it appeared the 1960's miners went straight for what must have been an open chimney, but completely missed the 1850s chimney on the opposite end of the slot.
As I dug my way down, clearing the above ground slot I hit a piece of corrugated tin from the 1960s. Small operations would often use some corrugated to catch the broken bits of quartz so I figured I had hit the bottom of the 1960s work. As I moved past the corrugated yet more crushed quartz began appearing - everywhere. It was clear this slot was filled with several feet of crushed quartz and it just kept going.
My plan for this summer was to locate the chimney. Once past the corrugated I kept going down. A couple feet lower than the corrugated I hit another piece of metal. This one was old, thick and heavy. It was iron.
Discovery of the original chimney
It took me a day to clear this piece of iron. I was thinking this was another piece of metal used to catch the crushed quartzz so I began sweeping up the tailings on top and sampling them. Virtually nothing for gold. That was confusing. You would think the gold was better the lower you got, but it got worse.
Finally, I had the iron cleared off and lifted it to get it out the way so I could working the slot and clearing the slides. When I lifted the iron...there was another chimney. The one the miners in the 1960s completely missed because it was buried two feet lower than their corrugated. I now had two chimneys. Both of them in serious need of work, but there they were.
As compared to dredging working a lode mine seems like running a movie in slow motion. Each day is mere drudgery of moving dirt, busting rocks with a sledgehammer and running tailings looking for gold. With a dredge you're at least seeing gold, and the end of the day clean ups are always exciting. With the lode mine the end of day cleanup consists of washing your face and arms which are covered in red dust.
Like dredging, it's addicitive. This past summer I didn't recover enough gold from this mine to pay for gas, but their was gold. I ran my metal detector over tons of quartz, figuring they missed something in the quartz chunks, but they didn't. Not a single piece of quartz had a hidden piece of gold, but I still had the hope. As we go into fall, my thoughts are on how to move more material and get the tunnels open, not on dredging. It may be just the natural progression from panning, to sluicing, to dredging to finally the hunt for the lode, but now that I have the lode I can't wait to get back to clearing it out. Knowing there is a chimney missed by the 1960s miners gives me hope there's still some nice gold in that vein somewhere.
I still miss the instant gratification you get with dredging, but with some patience and persistence I hope to make the lode mine pay off - big time. But, isn't that what we miners always say?