By way of a prelude to this post let me say that, as a child, I was plagued with nightmares about elevator shafts. A tallish building in a nearby city had an elevator that, in the style of WWI-era buildings, was comprised of an open cage controlled by a matronly operator. On each floor the entrance to the elevator shaft was guarded by a collapsible metal gate that allowed the visitor to see, hear, and smell the greasy workings of the elevator in all its cabled creepyness.

I would stand next to the gate as the elevator went about its single-minded business and peer down into the dark shaft with its writhing black cables, fascinated yet deeply in tune with the prospects of what a fall down this hole would mean.  Like most young boys, I had bitter experience with the unblinking and impersonal side of gravity.

It was this memory that flashed into my mind yesterday as I stood in a manlift the size of a large domestic refrigerator, crammed tightly into the cramped cage with 6 other people. We looked like a can of vienna sausages.  The lift was a double-decker, with an identical cage of sausages below.

Crammed in Manlift

Crammed in Manlift

There we stood- a squashed parcel of humanity and hard hats in the orange lift, dangling above a 1000 ft column of air. Outside I could see the town of Cripple Creek, Colorado, sitting in the valley 400 ft below us. In two minutes, we would be 600 ft below the level of the town. As we began the descent and as daylight fell to darkness, I felt a my autonomic system select “Panic Mode”. But it was too late, we were committed. After 30 seconds, a graveyard calm replaced my momentary panic and all was well.

Double Decker Manlift at Mollie Kathleen Mine

Double Decker Manlift at Mollie Kathleen Mine

This was my first entry into the Mollie Kathleen Mine outside of Cripple Creek, CO. The tour begins in a drift 1000 ft below surface level. A “drift” is just a horizontal tunnel in an underground mine. I have toured a number of mines and caves and the common attribute to all of them is the absolute silence that is found underground. Today’s tour would be different.

The Mollie Kathleen Mine sits on the side of a mountain adjacent to the mammoth Cripple Creek and Victor (CC&V) open pit gold mine. The operators of both mines have independent claims to different parts of the same confined geological formation. The Mollie Kathleen is one of a great many underground mines in the area, of which only a very few are in operation today. It is presently open only for tours.  The CC&V mine is the only large gold mining operation in the area.

The CC&V mine is an open pit operation. Large hauling trucks carry 300 ton loads of ore rubble from the pit to nearby crushers which reduce the rock to 3/4 inch pebbles in preparation for the cyanide extraction process on the heap.  The rubble is the result of large scale bench blasting with ANFO blasting agent.

The CC&V does blasting on a regular basis. That day, while we were underground about 1-3 miles distant (my estimate), they set off a blast. We were down in the mine when the underground rumble hit. There was no ramp-up to maximum force- it began as a loud, strong rumble seemingly from every direction. We stopped in our tracks and instinctively looked at the ceiling trying to decide if this was a normal or off-normal event and, oh golly, will the the tunnel collapse? After 30 to 40 seconds the rumble subsided and the mine was silent again except for a few heartfelt expressions of relief. Clearly there was no danger for anyone, but the abruptness and the magnitude of the explosion only serves to remind one of the compromises made and the options lost while working underground.

1000 Ft down into the Mollie Kathleen Mine

1000 Ft down into the Mollie Kathleen Mine

The tour guide was a young ex-miner from Montana who explained mining practices and demonstrated the numerous pneumatic tools used by hard rock miners.  In part 2, we will look at some of the mine workings and other features of the Mollie Kathleen Mine.

Hard Rock Placard. Photo Copyright 2009 Th' Gaussling.

Hard Rock Placard. Photo Copyright 2009 Th' Gaussling.

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