Sunday, October 25, 2009

Argo Gold Mill

Last weekend Liz, Jen, and I went to Idaho Springs for a look at Colorado's mining history. Perched on the hillside above the town sits the Argo Gold Mill, a structure dedicated to breaking down gold bearing ores to extract the precious minerals inside.

Ironically, the first stop on the tour is the Double Eagle Gold Mine, a small hard rock mine that never really produced much of value. The mine is a great way to start the tour though, as it really gives you an idea of how the miners worked.

The real reason the mill was built in this area was the Argo Tunnel, originally called the Newhouse Tunnel after the man who built it. The Argo Tunnel is a 4 mile bore that goes under the mountain all the way to Central City. There are dozens of mines between Idaho Springs and Central City and most of them connect to the Argo Tunnel. The tunnel performed two vital functions. Firstly ground water was able to drain out of the mines through the tunnel and into Clear Creek in Idaho Springs, obviating the needs for expensive pumps. The tunnel also allowed the miners to drop their ore down instead of up, and move it via small mine trains to the central ore processing point of the gold mill.

In 1943 four miners working a load in a mine connected to the Argo tunnel set off a powder blast, and opened a passage to an adjacent mine that was NOT part of the unified network. This mine had been abandoned in the 1920's when it's pumps could no longer keep up with the influx of water in the deeper tunnels. The full mine's worth of water poured into their shaft, killing the miners and scouring the Argo Tunnel of its supports, tracks and equipment. In fact, an ore train was shot out of the tunnel and across the valley by the force of the waters.

This disaster, combined with the US government ordering all miners to work only on minerals necessary for the war effort signaled the end to the operations of the Argo Mill and tunnel. However, the tunnel still performs one of it's functions impeccably, draining water out of the mines above, though now that water is heavily polluted, and must be cleaned before it enters Clear Creek.

The Mill sat empty and abandoned until the 1970's when it was purchased, added to the National Historic Register, and opened to tourists. It's really fascinating to see this piece of Colorado's History up close, and though many of the large grinding machines are gone, you can still get an idea of the effort that went into extracting gold from the tons and tons of Rocky Mountain ore.

At the bottom of the mill there is a small museum, and part of the museum shows how certain minerals fluoresce under ultraviolet light. I took the opportunity to have some fun with long exposures and my zoom lens.

The final stop on the tour was a chance to do some gold panning. It was a little tricky at first, but once I got the hang of it I managed to find a few flecks of gold at the bottom of my pan! I was surprised and a little proud to see the glinting specks amid the mud and sand. We got to put our gold in small baggies to bring home, a fitting souvenir from our day in the Colorado Mineral Belt.

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