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The Industry That Won the Frontier West Gets Its Due at a Colorado Springs Museum

By Linda Wommack
8/17/2017 • Wild West Magazine

The Western Museum of Mining & Industry is easy to dig.

Gold! Exclaim that word to any Old West aficionado and his thoughts will usually turn to the nuggets James Marshall discovered in the South Fork of the American River near Sutter’s Mill— the impetus, after word got out, behind the California Gold Rush. While many of the so-called Forty-Niners never struck it rich, by 1852 prospectors had gleaned an astonishing $81 million worth of gold from California’s rivers and Sierra foothills.

But that was just the beginning of the rush for riches on the frontier. In 1858– 59 miners made a series of ore strikes— silver in what became Nevada, and gold in Idaho and Colorado. The resulting two-pronged rush sent California miners surging to the rich Comstock Lode (which triggered the founding of Nevada Territory in 1861) and would-be miners from all over to the Rocky Mountains under the slogan “Pikes Peak or Bust.” Thanks to the latter Fifty-Niners, Colorado Territory became a reality in February 1861. Colorado Springs, near the base of landmark Pikes Peak itself, would not rise for another 10 years, but that city soon became a resort destination. Today it hosts the Western Museum of Mining & Industry, celebrating the industry that put it on the map.

The first significant gold discovery in what became Colorado came in July 1858 at the mouth of Little Dry Creek (in the present-day Denver suburb of Englewood). Over the next two years some 100,000 prospectors converged on the region. Two veterans of the California Gold Rush made substantial Colorado finds—George A. Jackson in January 1859 at what became Idaho Springs, and John H. Gregory that May on the North Fork of Clear Creek (at what became Gregory Gulch). Together, placer miners and hard rock miners took in so much gold that the area earned the title “Richest Square Mile on Earth.”

Silver brought further riches to Colorado. The first strike came in the Montezuma district in 1864; the big one followed in 1874 near the mining camp that three years later became Leadville. Prospectors in nearby California Gulch had been finding gold for years, but when miner William Stevens took heavy black soil samples to an assayer, he found out that the black sludge was cerussite, a silver-rich mineral. Stevens’ samples assayed at 2½ pounds of silver to the ton, and by the time Colorado became a state in 1876, the silver boom was on. Leadville area mines produced 10,000 tons of silver, 100 tons of gold and, later, nearly 2 million tons of zinc and more than 1 million tons of lead.

Colorado’s richest gold bonanza centered on a volcanic bowl on the south side of Pikes Peak. On October 20, 1890, Robert M. “Bob”Womack discovered float gold in the waters of Cripple Creek that assayed at $250 to the ton, and by 1893 the Cripple Creek district was known as the “Greatest Gold Camp on Earth.” (Author Linda Wommack is a distant relative of Bob Womack.) Miners would extract $500 million worth of gold from the area.

The Western Museum of Mining & Industry showcases period mining machinery (including hoist engines used to raise ore buckets from deep shafts; you can’t miss one 500-hp engine). On a hill behind the museum stands the Yellow Jacket Mill, one of the last working stamp mills in the country, acquired in 1970 from the Montezuma district in Summit County. A Fraser & Chalmers model dating from 1900, the mill is stacked in three levels, allowing gravity to move the ore from one process to the next. A jaw crusher at the top level crushed ore into ¾-inch chunks, and ten 900-pound stamps at the second level pulverized the ore. The ore then passed through a mesh screen onto the mortar box and finally onto the amalgamation table, the final separation process before shipment to the smelter.

Visitors to the grounds can look over a 1920 Osgood steam shovel used in the Wyoming mines, an 1838 Cornish steam engine (a mechanical wonder in its day) and a massive horizontal 1895 Corliss steam engine that crews assembled onsite in 1973 and then built the museum around. Indoor exhibits explain the various types of mining and take an honest look at the hazards involved. Call 800- 752-6558 or visit www.wmmi.org.

 

Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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