Saturday, May 14, 2011

Offroad: Gold Butte - Jumbo Creek Mine

It's plain to see why the "old-timers" decided to put in so much effort exploring around the Jumbo Creek Mine area. Quartz has always been known as a harbinger of precious metals because the same geologic forces which produce them produce quartz as well. And there's a lot of it, at least on one outcropping.

We've been there several times but we've never been able to find any thing left of the once "Jumbo Creek Mine" besides the white post in the middle of a quartz tailing's pile so attesting to its name. No mine entrance. No left over mine equipment. Nothing!   [A free Google Earth file of this route is available at: Google Earth Trail FileOffroading Home.]

In fact, there is no mention of it on either our GPS maps, our topo or other paper maps or even the official USGS "US Features" file which lists every registered landmark and geological feature in the CONUS. To make the enigma a bit more of a mystery, we stumbled across several BLM "mine-type" officials on our way down the Gold Butte Backcountry Byway who had come to The Butte to blow up some dangerous old mine entrances.

We told one of the fellows about where we were going and, after checking his "official maps," he announced that there wasn't supposed to be a mine there. I offered to take him with us because that's where we were heading and he acted like he was struggling trying to figure out how he could break it to his companions that he was staying. Finally, however, he succumbed to the airline ticket which was apparently in his pocket and declined our offer.

This trip we did stop off for a look-see at the Devil's Throat before continuing on to old Gold Butte where we stopped to stretch our legs. We went to visit the old arrastra in the foothills which we have also visited many times. It's the only one I know of but recently it's been intimated that there are two! If any of you know where the other one is – please let us know.

Arrastra's, Patio's and Silver

You probably know that an arrastra is not a new technology, in fact it isn't even a pioneer type mechanical instrument. It's ancient – similar in concept to old olive presses, grain mills and the like. A crude, shallow circular pit is paved with stone (or made out of stone) and a large block of stone, attached by a beam to a central rotating post, is dragged around reducing the ore to a fine mud. In the case of Gold Butte, it was gold, silver and other precious metals.

What you may not know (unless you're a mining type like Gordon) is that even after all the backbreaking work to make mud, it is only the beginning – there's still the "Patio Process" (or in some circles, the Mexican Process) to do before you get to see the pretty stuff.

No kidding, that's what it's called and it's been used since the late 1500's to extract silver from native rock. In Spain, the crisis of the day was the fact that the high-grade silver ore over in the conquered-America's was dwindling! Add to that the fact that a law had been passed making it illegal to enslave the locals, and you've got serious overhead (imported African "workers" were expensive!)

A merchant named Bartolomé de Medina made it his business to study the issue and gave credit to a mysterious encounter with a German man known only as "Maestro Lorenzo" for telling him that silver could be extracted using mercury and salt-water!

He decided that "the America's the place I oughta go..." so "he loaded up the truck and moved to Mexico... hills that is... colonies... silver mines..." Well, once he got settled, he spreading a foot or so of his arrastra-mud all over his patio and sprinkling salt water, magistral (copper sulfate) and mercury over the top of it. After making his horses tromp on it for several weeks, lo and behold he found he could get much higher yields of silver than ever before. All the baking in the sun and complex chemical reactions had converted the silver to native metal, which then formed an amalgam with the mercury and so could be recovered.

Several years of perfecting his recipe made for him his fortune and brought into existence a whole new job classification. It was quite a feat to know just how much of each ingredient to add, how much mixing was needed, and when to halt the process. It took an: Azoguero (quicksilver man).

"Tweaking" the Method

This "patio method" was used extensively in Mexico from its development until the early 1600's when "pan amalgamation" began. If, instead of using one's patio, you heated the slurry in a shallow copper vessel, it took only 10-20 hours to extract the metal instead of weeks! Isn't technology grand? And this was used, until around 1860 when a new tweak to the method was implemented in the mines of Nevada.

Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats.”
Howard Aiken
Well, they didn't call it Nevada back then, it was called: Washoe. These guys replaced the copper pans with iron tanks and mechanical agitators. To 1,500 pounds of ore sand you add water to make a slurry and drop in 70 pounds of mercury along with three pounds each of salt, and bluestone (copper(II) sulfate). Agitate and heat with steam pipes and voila… you've got silver-mercury amalgam.

That worked for most mines, except up around Austin NV, where their ore had arsenic or antimony sulfides, or galena or sphalerite. But, not to be outdone, it took Carl Stetefeldt until 1869 to discover up in Reno that if you roasted such adulterated ore with salt it converted the silver sulfides to silver chlorides, and then that could be recovered in amalgamation.

The final step in all of these processes is to bake the amalgam in high heat to vaporize the mercury away and leave silver metal behind in the fireplace. It takes about two pounds of lost mercury for every one pound of silver extracted. AND that, my dear chaps, is the rub… Mercury Poisoning!

Quicksilver and Dementia

Mercury is one of those geologic oddities which we used to readily obtain as children in order to coat penny's and make them look like dimes. It is a metal, but liquid at room temperature. It can also be a solid AND even a gas.

After enough workers got sick and even died, it was discovered that mercury is poisonous. It can be absorbed through the skin but even more readily through airborne vapor!

Common symptoms of mercury poisoning include: peripheral neuropathy (numbness, itching, burning or pain), skin discoloration (pink cheeks, fingertips and toes), swelling, and desquamation (shedding) of the skin.

Even more significant, mercury blocks the degradation pathway of catecholamines so the excess epinephrine causes profuse sweating, tachycardia (faster heart beat), increased salivation, and hypertension (high blood pressure). As usual, it affects children more severely than adults and can cause both kidney and psychiatric break-down (emotional lability, memory impairment and insomnia.)

Mines and Rumor's of Gold Butte

With proper recognition and the latest treatment many, but not all, of the symptom's can be reversed (it's pretty hard to restore a damaged kidney or brain cell.) What has all this got to do with our ride today you ask? Well, I'll tell you.

Almost no specific records of specific daily mining activities are still available today for the mines around the lower Gold Butte area. So, for example, we don't know miners habits or proceedures – like did they wear gloves, masks, shower daily, wash their hands, ventilate the amalgum firing stove or use it to cook their meals, or clear off the board before they laid their sandwich down, etc..

It is known, however, that at the mine formerly known as "Treasure Hawk" mercury amalgamation was used. What does still exist, is a bucket-full of stories about the odd activities of "Crazy Eddy" and his shotgun-enforced, isolationary ways.

Ed owned the mine before the latest owner, John Lear, bought it and ran it – until last year when he lost his mineral-lease from the BLM. After we had explored the Jumbo Creek Mine tailing's pile, we took a short jaunt over to where they were "dismantling" the Treasure Hawk. Two college type kids were there camping and bulldozing the site flat.

As luck would have it, we also met with another BLM guy there "checking up on their progress." It was he who told us more of both Ed and John, and the stories which surround them. Now, as I think back on what he told us, It isn't clear to me which of the two went with each of the stories he told. He did say that he saw one of them, many times, up to their elbows in mercury and said it was habitual. Both of the characters were/are quite "colorful."

Back on the Trail

There may be more to the old malady "gold fever" than most of us realize. It seems that a lot of old miners had some pretty odd behavior. And, speaking of behavior, we needed to get a move on because I wanted to show Gordon the back way out which Charlie had taught us. We went to Pierson Gap and turned right at the trail which then went up along the west of Azure Ridge Draw.

This time, however, we turned west on the trail over to Bill's Spring and the remains of what looks like a cowboy motel. A very long cement pad on which is fun to analyze all the stud anchors and imagine what it used to look like. Not very ancient, but historic none-the-less.

Of course, from there it's only a hop-skip-and-a-jump across the road to Willow Spring (today only imaginary) and Garden Spring, still full of desert-cooling, critter-drawing water.

Before returning back to the road and home, we followed a little used trail above the corral and pond into the hills. It wasn't much, but it did give some beautiful views overlooking desert washes before it ended at a turn-about in front of a drop-off.

To see the lower Gold Butte riding area, in a full day full of historic sites, this is a good way to go!

Learn A Little More

Speaking of poisoning (at least in a broad sense) I ran across an odd but poignant public service ad sponsored by "Partnership for a Drug Free America" on You Tube the other day. Unfortunately, it's all too familiar to anyone who has raised or even knows a teenager!

Congratulations It's a Teen


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