A TAILING TALE
Over the past few weeks, I have had the pleasure of spending several hours on two separate occasions with Richard (Dick) Ummel of Skyline properties in Black Hawk.
Dick has spent the better part of his adult life compiling a most impressive collection of photographs, maps, charts, books and stories on mining and miners in the Gilpin County area. He is currently working on a book that tells the story of local mining and the lives and challenges faced by those miners throughout the years. I am most anxious to read his book. However, as it is still in process I was most appreciative that he graciously and patiently took the time to share facts and stories with me that I’ve never before heard.
If you look at a cross section of a mine, you see vertical shafts connected by tunnels. I always thought the shafts were used to access the various tunnels, but learned from Dick that actually the gold is mined in the shafts and not in the tunnels. The gold veins run on a vertical slant beneath the ground and the miners follow the veins downward. The tunnels connect the shafts. When the miners had followed the vein down as far as they could before it played out, they moved one direction or the other horizontally through tunnels to begin another shaft.
Dick told me the story of the Idaho Springs, Argo Tunnel and the boost it gave to mining in Gilpin County. Dick said, “By the time they started building the tunnel in 1893, mining in Gilpin County was on the decline. Mines yielded tens of millions of dollars in gold during the boom days and everyone knew there was more where that came from. But, the mines continually filled up with water and pumping costs contributed greatly to the cost of mining as the shafts got deeper.”
It took 17 years before the Argo Tunnel reached Central City, over four and a half miles away. However, once completed, miners could drill and blast from below in the tunnel rather than working from above. The water filling the shafts and tunnels could spill down into the tunnel and eliminate the time and money spent bailing.
Clear Creek Canyon is well over 1,000 feet lower than the deepest Gilpin County mine. According to an article by Kenneth Jessen in the Loveland Reporter-Herald, the tunnel was the most ambitious and costly venture ever undertaken in either Clear Creek or Gilpin counties. It intersected directly or by crosscut tunnels an estimated 100 mines. At the end of the tunnel near Central City, it was 1,300 feet below the surface. The Argo Tunnel allowed mines closed for years to reopen.
They built the tunnel on a slight grade to allow water to flow in a flume out to the portal. For two-way passage of ore cars, the first two and a half miles of the tunnel was 12 feet wide with a double track. Beyond the end of the double track, the width of the tunnel decreased to ten feet allowing for a single track. They used electric locomotives for hauling.
In 1913, the Argo Reduction & Ore Purchasing Company formed to construct a mill adjacent to the portal. When completed, it was the largest mill of its type in the world. They incorporated the latest milling processes for the highest percentage recovery of precious metals. Rather than pay hoisting costs, many mine owners paid the tunnel company to haul ore out to Idaho Springs to the mill. During its nearly fifty years of operation, the mill processed over 100 million dollars of gold ore at the old time prices of $18.00 to $35.00 an ounce.
The Argo Tunnel remained in operation until 1943 when the tunnel closed following a tragic accident that took the lives of four men. The miners were drilling and blasting in the tunnel that passed near the Kansas vein. Pumping had stopped at the Kansas shaft and crosscut tunnels in anticipation that the mine would drain through the Argo Tunnel. Hydrostatic pressure caused the wall of the tunnel to burst, releasing the contents of the flooded mine, and drowning four men instantly. A fifth miner was bringing out an ore train when he heard a loud roar. Abandoning the train, he ran for his life and by the time he reached the portal he was swimming through the rushing stream. The water blasted from the tunnel like a fire hose for hours.
Today, the Argo tunnel continues to serve Gilpin and Clear Creek counties, draining and treating acidic mine water from the thousands of mines that form a labyrinth of tunnels beneath the many towns, subdivisions, state parks and opens spaces. This water, once treated is then safely returned to Clear Creek.
Published October 23, 2014 in the Weekly Register-Call.
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