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An Exciting Day in 1956 at Summitville Mine (2nd 1956 Mining Story)

March 30, 2012

Historical Prologue

Summitville Mine was started about 1870 and worked for several decades by many different small gold mining companies. At some time (my best guess is the 1920s or early 1930s) all the mines were consolidated into one huge enterprise. (Everything I say about the period before 1955 is based on my memory of the abundant physical evidence I could see, the many old mining records I consulted in the engineering office that summer and the then 20-year old memories preserved by Leadville miners I got to know. The overall picture is surely correct but dates and numbers are no more than educated guesses.) 

In the mid-1930s about 1,000 miners were working eight different levels in South Mountain with the 3,500 foot long Reynolds Tunnel at 11,400 feet above sea level giving access to the lowest level. (By 1955 this tunnel was used as the prime example in several textbooks on mining.) There were essentially no shafts in the mine, and ore was removed from stopes alongside the main tunnels.  The Reynolds tunnel was completely straight with a 2% grade for drainage except that about 400 feet from the entrance it passed through about 40 feet of very unstable rock and a U-shaped offset had been built there. The miners had lived in three huge dormitory buildings of which we reopened one and number of cabins built on company land. Right next to our dormitory the main engine room housed three gigantic diesel air pumps each capable of supplying compressed air to hundreds of pneumatic Jack-hammer wielding miners.

The ore was gold, silver, copper and other metals as sulphide ore. When mining exposes sulphide ore to oxygen from the air, oxidation creates sulphuric acid. Like most mines, Summitville makes enough water to wash out and dilute the acid quickly. However the tiny steel rail (about 25 pounds per yard) used to roll ore carts out of a mine is corroded by even this dilute acid pretty quickly. The rich ore at Summitville makes enough acid to compromise rails in only a few months.

[[This really is related!]] By 1944 the US was clearly winning World War II in Europe but shifting the effort to the Pacific required a huge increase in ship building and thus a much increased need for steel.  The government removed the priority for steel rails from precious metal mines.  Since the rails at Summitville corroded in a matter of weeks the enormous mining operation had to be shut down quickly.  The substantial infrastructure was surprisingly well moth-balled.

In 1955 Research Incorporated (successor of Exploration Incorporated)  which employed me bought the lease and sent a small crew (described in my earlier story) to reopen the mine. At that time any gold mined in the US had to be sold to the government at the ridiculously low price of $35 a Troy ounce. It was widely understood that the real value of gold was about $350 per ounce. Thus no mining company removed gold unless it was part of ore with great value in other metals. We were not there to mine gold but to prove how large the reserves were.

After re-opening and repairing the Reynolds tunnel, our miners used their savvy to core drill in directions where they hoped to find rich gold deposits. They quickly proved millions of dollars worth of reserves even at $35. It was believed in 1955 that the US could not sustain the $35 dollar price for much longer. In fact it lasted for more than 20 years. So by the end of the summer the company was sitting on a future bonanza of enormous proportions.

The Actual Story (which needed some of this background.)

One morning all twelve miners were working deep in the Reynolds tunnel, when the gigantic air pump suddenly speeded up because of the loss of back pressure. Air started rushing out of the Reynolds adit with a mighty roar and force enough to pick up stones the size of a walnut. The company had allowed three young childless wives to live with their husbands in our huge dorm. They instantly descended on me in the first stages of hysteria. Any woman who marries a miner knows that there is a nontrivial chance that her man will die underground.

It took about 4 hours to drive a four wheel drive jeep to the nearest town. Sometimes I had a radio telephone but Dirk had taken it with him that day. I tried to soothe the wives, but I was really pretty scared myself. As the mining engineer I was legally responsible the safety of our operation.

My first question was whether I should turn of the air compressor.  I decided not to do so because it seemed most likely that a new cave-in had occurred at the unstable section of the tunnel. If the men were trapped behind an impenetrable cave-in, conceivably the pump was delivering them some air. So I put on a hard hat with a fresh lamp and started into the maelstrom issuing from the adit (tunnel entrance).

To my ENORMOUS relief, before I had gotten far in, I met the men walking out and laughing. The 10 inch diameter steel pipe that carried compressed air into the mine had simply come apart.

I felt at the time, and still feel, that I handled this scary situation as well as I could have. (Afterwards I did realize that it would have been better to turn off the compressor. With it running I could not have heard anything inside the mine and my visibility was minimal with dust and small rock rushing towards me.) However, I knew then and for the rest of the summer, that if something really serious happened, my ability to rescue the miners was minimal.

In 1984 a predatory company, Galactic Resources, in no way related to the company for which I had worked, bought the lease, ground up much of South Mountain (which held all the mine tunnels),  and created a 300 foot tall leach stack which they sprayed with sodium cyanide solution  to extract the gold.  After recovering about 11 TONS of gold they abandoned the whole operation in 1992 which became the absolutely worst Super Fund Site in the US.  I have never been back but Google Earth and other web sites show the horrible mess they left behind.  (About 9 TONS of pure gold had been recovered from 1870 through 1944.)


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