The first gold lode discovered in Colorado was found where the town of Gold Hill, Colorado, now sits. Gold Hill is presently at the locus of the Four-Mile Canyon fire west of Boulder. As of  today, more than 170 structures have burned, including a few outhouses. 

Today, a single gold mining operation remains active at Gold Hill. The kid and I recently visited the area and I wrote a post about Wall Street, south of Gold Hill.

In the last few years I have been fascinated by what started as a simple question-  How did they get the gold out of the ore in the 19th century?  What has become apparent to me as a chemist is the extent to which reasonably sophisticated multistep extraction schemes were employed by 19th century mills and smelters. Their methods of processing would not be unfamiliar to alchemists who practiced similar arts over 400 years earlier.

The alchemists had techniques of calcination, comminution, lixiviation, and distillation available to them. In using these processes, they were inadvertantly performing reduction and oxidation reactions so as to alter the composition of substances with the hope of improving the prospects for isolation of desirable metals.  The 19th century gold and silver mill operators inherited these techniques and mechanized them. One of the key improvements over their medieval predecessors was that they had reasonably sensitive analytical methods as well as some scientific knowledge of the chemical behavior of materials- we call it chemistry today. As the 19th century American gold rush went forward, there became available new methods of gold and silver extraction involving mercury, chlorine, cyanide, and sodium or potassium sulfide and thiosufate.

Any 21st century chemist will recognize most of the inorganic chemistry of 19th century milling and smelting of metals.  But in those days it was not referred to as chemistry- it was known then as it is today as Extractive Metallurgy.

Much of the technology for extractive metallurgy traces back through European mining engineers who had come to the American gold and silver districts.  Two mining engineers in particular stand out in 19th century Au/Ag metallurgy- Guido Kustel and Philip Argall. More about these fellows at a later date. Suffice it to say that they were prolific problem solvers in a time when mine and mill operators typically had more investors money than sense.

Some Milling and Smelting Business Models

Prospectors working alone or with investors backing them would prospect a promising area of ground for gold or silver, looking especially for vein outcroppings. If they has cause for optimism they would file one or more claims for the right to have access to the minerals therein. A patented claim was a claim issued by the federal government as a deed that could be bought or old like a a parcel of land. Most of the land of interest was state or territorial land. Many times a claim was filed based on speculation, and a nearby claim with a vein that might go in the right direction would potentially be valuable.

The miners would begin to develop the claim by digging an adit and drifting horizontally following a vein system, or they might dig a shaft in a promising spot in hopes of intercepting a vein rich in value.  Since they were focused on veins which were visible to the miners, the miners were able to dig along the direction of the vein. In doing so, they could hand sort unproductive rock into a waste pile and collect concentrated ore separately.  But then what?

Some mine operators were wealthy enough to have their own mill or smelter to extract the value. However, the majority of mines would sell their ore to a mill, which might be many miles away. A price based on an assay could be negotiated, and the ore sold outright to the mill. The mill would make its profits by selling the gold or silver it extracted. Sometimes a mine would pay the mill a tolling charge and keep ownership of the gold or silver.

Milling and smelting could be a lucrative business or it could result in a total loss. Mills and smelters were run by companies who had plowed a significant financial investment int he operation. They relied on the productivity of the gold or silver district. Not infrequently multiple mills or smelters would appear in a district affording lots of competition for ore.   Milling and smelting was labor and energy intensive. Old photographs often show the mills sitting in a mountainous area clear-cut of trees. Wood was needed for buildings and firewood. Refining operations required many cords of wood to run the furnaces or to generate steam for the stamp mills.  If a mill ran out of fuel, their operations were threatened.

Many mines produced ore that was sold to the mill. Mine operators might be paid for the assayed value per ton of ore delivered, or they might be paid a fraction of what was extracted by the mill. The mill could be just down the hill from the adit or shaft, or it might be many miles away.  As a rule, transportation costs were quite high.  Some districts like Caribou had teamsters who would haul ore by horse drawn wagons to mills some distance away. Other districts had rail transportation.

Naturally, ore samples could be tampered with by miners interested in increasing the apparent value of their ore. Sampling methods were developed to produce representative samples for assay. Mills had assay offices to test for the value in the ore and to measure the fineness of their bullion.  Cuppelation was a standard method of providing a gravimetric determination of the gold content of ore.  More on cuppelation in a later post.

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