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-an excerpt from "Minerals, Metals and Gems" by A Hyatt Verrill

We often hear the expression "a regular gold mine" used when referring to some exceedingly remunerative matter. But it would be far more appropriate to say "a regular coal mine" or some other kind of mine, for gold mines are not by any means as profitable as are many other mines.

Some gold mines, it is true, pay enormous dividends, but for every gold mine that enriches its owners there are dozens, which leave their owners far poorer than before. There is a deal of truth in the saying that "more gold has been put into mines than has been taken from them". Of course this is not actually the case, for all the gold in the world has been taken from mines.

Gold mines, however, are very tricky propositions and, paradoxical as it may seem, the richest gold mines are often the poorest, for a mine of high grade ore is usually "spotty" and most of the profits are expended in working worthless material in efforts to find rich pockets and veins.

Placer mines where the gold occurs in grains and nuggets in the sand or loose gravel may be an exception to this, for in most instances the precious metal is fairly evenly distributed in placer deposits. But even placers may have rich and barren areas. A prospector who finds a outcrop of ore shot with gold and assaying hundreds of dollars to the ton, or who pans the gravel of a stream and finds a "string" of gold worth several dollars in the bottom of his pan, may think himself a potential millionaire. Yet he may not be so lucky as some other man who discovers an area of sand containing so little gold that it is worth only ten or twelve cents a ton. In fact, some of the best paying gold deposits in the world assay less than fifteen cents of gold to the cubic yard of sand, for by using huge dredges, enormous quantities of material are scooped up, screened and passed through sluices so economically and cheaply that they yield tremendous profits.

For some mysterious reason, gold has a strange lure and fascination for the majority of human beings. Even platinum, which is far more valuable, lacks this irresistible power to lure men ever on a search for riches. Perhaps it is because the yellow metal has been so long regarded as the synonym of riches and the standard of monetary values. But every largely, I believe, it is because (as every old prospector and miner knows’) "gold is where you find it".

No one can foretell where gold may or may not be found. It occurs in almost every kind of rock and in nearly every part of the world. It may be found "from the grassroots down" as the miners say. It is always recognizable when in metallic form and a little of it goes a long way. But its very value often misleads the gold hunter. A few cents' worth of gold flakes in the bottom of a pan appears like the promise of a fortune to the initiated, and many a man has gone stark raving mad when he found a streak of a few dollars’ worth of gold in his pan or chipped off a fragment of rock to find it shot full of gleaming yellow threads and "ferns." 

Ordinarily when we think of gold and gold mines, we associate the metal with certain localities, such as California, Mexico, South America, India, Africa or some other distant land. Yet for all one knows there may be gold in one’s own garden, in the trout brook where one has fished, in the bed of the nearby river, or in the veins of minerals on neighboring hillsides or the outcropping ledges of pastures.

Even trained geologists sometimes slip up when it comes to the matter of the presence or absence of gold, for even if there are no recognized gold-bearing minerals in a certain district, there may be gold from other sources. On one occasion I spent an afternoon panning the sand of a small brook in Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts, and secured about half a dollar’s worth of gold. Not that I dreamed of finding "pay dirt", but merely to prove that because there were no gold-bearing rock formations in the vicinity was no proof that gold did not exist. Whence did it come you may wonder. From glacial sand brought from farther north where gold does occur. I knew that the chances were that the vast accumulations of glacial sand contained some gold, that during thousands of years the gradual washing away of the sand would have concentrated the heavy metal in the ravines cut through the gravel by rains, and I was right.

Even if geologists can state where gold should not occur they cannot declare positively where it may be found, for many auriferous rocks, or rather formations where gold might be expected, do not contain any trace of the precious metal. On the other hand, familiarity often breeds contempt, and people dwelling in a district where gold may occur in paying quantities may never dream of trying to find it near home. How many of the residents of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont or Massachusetts have ever thought of their states as potential sources of gold? Yet gold has been obtained from placers at Byron, Maine, and elsewhere in that state, and at one time Vermont was the second largest gold-producing state in the Union. Gold has been washed from the sands of streams in Vermont in various places. Nuggets weighing several ounces were taken from a brook near Brattleboro, and a nugget weighing more than eight ounces was found at New Fane. Perhaps my readers may wonder why, if gold was once mined in Vermont, it is no longer produced in the state. There were several reasons why the industry was abandoned. Very largely the men engaged in the mining were inexperienced, lacked technical knowledge, and did not have enough capital to continue work after exhausting the surface deposits. Moreover, they were not geologists or mineralogists, not even real prospectors, and drove shafts hit or miss with the result that large sums of money were thrown away on barren rock. Perhaps the chief reason was the outbreak of the War Between the States which drew a very large proportion of the male population from the state, leaving only the boys and old men to carry on essential industries. Perhaps, also, mining was too much of a gamble for the hard-headed, unromantic Vermont Yankees, for mining is the greatest of all gambling games, and gold mining is the greatest gamble of all, a gamble in which a millionaire may become a pauper or a penniless prospector may become a multi-millionaire almost overnight. It is also one of the most romantic, exciting and adventurous, as well as dangerous, of all industries.

The search for valuable minerals leads men to far lands, into unexplored jungles, across burning waterless deserts and through untrodden mountain ranges. They face a thousand perils from disease, savages, noxious insects and wild beasts, and they endure untold hardships, for the wilder, more remote and more inaccessible the spot, the greater the chances of finding a fortune in mineral deposits. Even when a mine has been established dangers and adventures are ever at hand. There are floods, fires, deadly and explosive gases, cave-ins and slides to be reckoned with. A cable or rope may break and send scores of men to their deaths, a blast may bury men alive or a sudden inrush of water may drown them like rats. At any time the lode may peter out or a fabulously rich vein or pocket may be discovered.

Wherever there are miners or prospectors there are countless tales and traditions of strange happenings, amazing adventures, lucky strikes, and incredible heroism. Doubtless many of these stories have been garbled and exaggerated as they have passed from mouth to mouth through the years, but very largely they are narratives of actual occurrences, and while some have become miners’ classics and are known to miners and prospectors everywhere, others are local. Thus in Nevada one hears of Lucky Baldwin who, unable to pay his board, was kicked out of his lodging house on Saturday night, but was a millionaire on Monday morning. In Montana everyone knows the story of Helena which owes its existence to the discovery of "Last Chance Gulch" in 1864, and the tale of Marcus Daly whose last dollar was spent in sinking a shaft in the Anaconda silver mine with the forlorn hope of striking a rich deposit, only to discover the copper lode which made him a multimillionaire and transformed Butte from an almost forsaken town to the greatest copper-producing district on earth.

There is also the story of the prospector who, half-starved, weary and "broke" after months of combing the hills and deserts in a vain search for gold, threw himself down to rest before giving up in despair. As he sat there, utterly discouraged and forlorn and mentally cursing his ill luck, an inquisitive gopher emerged from its burrow and the disgruntled prospector idly picked up a lump of stone and hurled it at the creature. As it struck a rock and broke one of the pieces glittered in the sunlight. Wearily rising, the prospector examined it and gasped in utter amazement. Almost unable to believe the evidence of his own eyes he stared at the fragments of stone he had used as a missile. Everywhere the rotten quartz was filled with veins and flakes of the precious yellow metal. The bonanza of which he had dreamed was beneath his feet. Unwittingly, guided by chance, he had come to the "end of his rope" and had rested his tired body beside a lode of fabulous wealth, and the "Gopher Mine" poured millions into his pockets.

Sometimes these tales of the miners have a humorous side. One prospector, so the story goes, found "color" in the bed of a stream, and, panning here and there, he followed it up. The washings showing more and more of the yellow grains as he proceeded. Somewhere farther up the brook there must be a wonderfully rich placer deposit, and filed with golden dreams the prospector pushed on. Then suddenly all traces of color ceased. Not a single tiny flake of gold showed in the string of black sand in his pan.

Again and again he tested the sand and gravel but with the same result. Here was a mystery. Never in his long career as a prospector had he met with a similar state of affairs. Below a certain spot in the stream there was abundant color; above that spot not a trace of gold could be found.

Suddenly an explanation dawned upon the puzzled man. The gold must have been washed from a deposit on the land above the steep bank of the brook. Carefully and painstakingly testing the gravel he determined the exact spot where the golden flakes first appeared. Somewhere close to where he stood the ground beside the brook must be filled with gold. Digging his shovel into the sandy bank he dumped the soil into his pan, picked out the grass roots and larger pebbles, and proceeded to wash the residue. With a final expert twist he threw the water from the pan and a thrill of exultation ran through his veins. A little crescent-shaped string of gold proved his surmise bad been right. Feeling certain that he was about to strike it rich, he clambered up the bank, pushed aside the bushes and stood staring. Stretched upon the ground was a man. A man unquestionably alive although dead to the world. An empty whiskey flask beside him told the story of his stupor, but the prospector’s eyes were fixed on something else. A few feet from the unconscious figure, close to the verge of the bank, was a shovel, pick, and the sleeping man’s pack. Tossed carelessly upon the earth it had toppled over and from its opening the contents had been disgorged down the slope. Prominent among the litter were the remains of a shattered bottle, the unbroken lower portion still filled with gold dust and tiny nuggets. The mystery was solved. The heavy downpour of the night had washed the spilled gold into the stream and the dreamed-of "bonanza" was only the hoard of a drunken prospector.

The history of the rich telluride mines of Colorado holds an interesting story. Prospectors had always believed that gold occurred only in the well known metallic form, whether by itself or associated with other minerals, and no one dreamed that the soft, dull-gray, worthless appearing masses and crystals so abundant in certain formations were of any value.

Then it was discovered that these were minerals in which gold, silver, copper and other metals were chemically combined with the mineral known as tellurium, and that these tellurides were among the richest of all gold ores. The locations of vast deposits of the mineral which had hitherto been left untouched became transformed to most important gold-producing areas; millions of dollars’ worth of gold and silver were extracted from the telluride ores, and the telluride mines of Colorado, California and other portions of the world became famed for their richness.

Although no one, not in the "know", would ever recognize telluride as a gold-bearing mineral, gold as a rule is easily identified. Many a man has had golden dreams shattered by mistaking yellow mica or iron pyrites for the precious metal. So often have inexperienced persons been misled by the yellowish pyrites or marcasite, that it is commonly known as "fool’s gold". But it is not always the man who mistakes pyrites for gold who is the fool, for very frequently the two minerals are closely associated and much of the world’s gold is found in iron pyrites. Even if the colors of mica, pyrites and gold may be similar, the great difference in weight will always serve to distinguish gold, for next to platinum it is our heaviest metal. Unlike gold, platinum, which is even more valuable, is easily overlooked, for its dull grayish or bluish black color renders it inconspicuous, and in its native state it is usually covered with a coating of dull reddish rust. Anyone not familiar with it might easily mistake a nugget of the metal for an ordinary pebble unless it were lifted and its great weight attracted attention.

During the World War the value of this mineral increased by leaps and bounds to undreamed-of heights until it was worth more than one hundred dollars an ounce. Just stop to think what that means! Imagine a pound of metal worth over one thousand dollars. And platinum is so heavy that a very small quantity of the mineral weighs a pound. A million dollars’ worth of the metal could have been placed in a handbag when at the peak of its war-time value.

Yet there was a time when platinum was considered practically worthless. The old Spanish conquerors and discoverers, who ravished, pillaged, murdered and destroyed in their mad lust for gold, regarded platinum as a base metal and a great nuisance. Many of the placer mines they worked contained platinum which they found so difficult to separate from the gold that they actually abandoned the mines. Its softness rendered it useless for most purposes. It was exceedingly difficult to melt and was considered of so little value that about the only purpose it served was as a substitute for silver for making wash-basins, pitchers and other utensils, for pots and pans for the kitchens, and for making counterfeit coins.

On one occasion, while salvaging an ancient sunken galleon in the West Indies, one of my divers brought up a roll of platinum which he had found in the galley ef the ancient wreck. It was in a strip about three quarters of an inch in width and about as thick as ordinary tin. For a time I was puzzled as to why it had been kept in the ship’s galley. But the mystery was solved When we found a leaky copper kettle which had been repaired by a piece of the platinum riveted over the hole in the bottom.

With the great rise in value of platinum prospectors flocked to the districts where the almost priceless metal night be found, mainly Colombia and Panama. One man made a fortune by buying up a store of old counterfeit coins which had been defaced and thrown into a bin in a South American bank years before, the bankers having forgotten—if in fact they ever knew—that the counterfeit doubloons were made of platinum. Another man discovered that many of the gold coins of South American republics contained a small percentage of platinum, and made a tidy fortune by exchanging American gold for the coins and recovering the platinum contents.

In Colombia natives discovered that there was platinum in the soil beneath their homes. Houses were torn down and streams were diverted to flow through villages, and the streets were transformed into placer mines.

Many a story of some chance "strike" or lucky "find" of platinum was told. Some were pure fiction but many were true. Among the latter was the story of an Indian woman, a poor washerwoman who eked out a livelihood by laundering her patrons’ garments in the stream that flowed past her thatched hut. Like most South American streams, the river rose many feet during the rainy season and flowed between high, steep banks. In order to reach the stream where she pounded the soiled garments on the smooth water-worn rocks and rinsed them in the shallows, the woman daily traversed a narrow pathway that zigzagged down the slope. Here and there stones were embedded in the gravel making foothold more certain. But one day, with her basket of heavy sodden clothing balanced on her head, she toiled up the pathway and one of the stones became dislodged beneath her feet. She barely saved herself from tumbling head over heels down the bank. Although she man-aged to escape a nasty fall, her basket of freshly laundered garments went rolling down the bank leaving a trail of muddied underwear and linen to mark its passage. Furiously angry at the mishap and at having all her work to do over again, the woman seized the stone which had caused all the trouble, with the intention of hurling it into the river. It was not a large stone, merely a cobble no bigger than a good-sized mango, yet to her amazement it was as heavy as the big, old-fashioned iron, charcoal-heated goose which she used for ironing her laundry. Her curiosity aroused, wondering why a stone should be so heavy, she changed her mind about throwing it into the stream, and when next she went to town she carried the strange stone with her. One of her customers was a Gringo, an American mining man, and to him she showed the stone which had caused her fall and her extra labor.

The Gringo’s jaw gaped and he stared in speechless amazement as he saw the offending rock. It was a platinum nugget! A huge nugget weighing nearly twenty pounds, one of the largest platinum nuggets ever found.

Never again was the Indian woman forced to toil up and down the river bank and wash clothes from morning until night. Her find made her a rich woman, as riches were measured among her people, for it brought her the nice little sum of something over twenty thousand dollars in United States currency, or nearly fifty thousand pesos, quite enough to keep the lucky washerwoman in comfort, and even in luxury, for the rest of her life.

Another strange but true story is that of an American naturalist who was collecting specimens in South America, and in a remote district was temporarily dwelling in the humble home of a native "mestizo". The flimsy door of the palm-thatched hut would not stay open, and was held in place by a stone as a door-stop. One day, while preparing his specimens, the draught bothered him. Rising, he pushed aside the stone with his foot preparatory to closing the door. It seemed inordinately heavy for a rock of its size, and he picked it up to examine it more closely. In his astonishment he almost dropped it, for the stone was a ten pound nugget of platinum. Being an honest and an honorable man, as well as a scientist, he told the house owner of his discovery and offered to dispose of it and see that the native received its full value. When he continued on his way, he left the happy and grateful mestizo family comparatively rich.

Yet finding platinum does not always mean that one has a fortune at one’s disposal. At one time I became rather interested in minerals and mining myself. It was during the World War, and prices of nearly all metals and ores were sky high. Deposits that ordinarily would not be worth working promised good profits, and for a time I became a most ardent and tireless prospector. Obviously I did not make a fortune, yet I came very near doing so, for a friend and myself discovered a stream whose sands carried high values in platinum and gold. Here, we felt certain, was a real bonanza. In a short time we would both be on "easy street". Every pan of gravel showed "color," and nearly every one showed tiny grains of platinum as well. Best of all it was not a spotty or over-rich placer. Nowhere did the values run high, but everywhere, over a wide area and for miles up the stream, the black sand and sticky clay just above bed-rock showed almost uniform distribution of the two precious metals.

Pages might be filled with an account of the difficulties and the hardships, the dangers and the setbacks we encountered, but that is another story. Setting up a temporary camp we cleared the jungle. In dugout canoes we transported supplies, lumber, machinery and equipment for, miles through swamps and drowned forests to our placer in the jungle. With only untrained Indians for our labor we built houses and sheds, erected machinery, set up sluices and screens, and prepared to make a stake sufficient to finance a real mining proposition. Floods caused by heavy rains carried away our dam and wrecked much of our equipment. But we carried on, moving everything to the summit of the banks out of all danger from future floods. We blasted away a great dyke of rock to divert the stream to another channel so we might excavate the former bed. The reports on samples sent to assayers encouraged us as they showed even better values than we had expected. Months passed, our sluices and jigs began to work, and our accumulation of concentrates grew, until at last with all available funds almost exhausted we made our first shipment. Back from the assayers’ office came the report that the concentrates assayed thousands of dollars to the ton. All we had to do was to wait for the returns from the refiners and we would have enough capital to go ahead at full blast.

But instead of the handsome check we so confidently had expected there came heartbreaking, bitter disappointment. The refiners had found it impossible to recover the platinum values. They could not separate the precious metal from the chromium crystals at a profit.

Even then we did not give up. Samples were sent to practically every firm accustomed to recovering platinum, but all in vain. Not one could find a method of refining the concentrates to leave even a margin of profit. We had platinum—platinum in abundance all about us—but it was as worthless as so much barren sand. Our dream of riches had gone the way of most dreams and we had awakened to the unpleasant realization that even the most precious of metals may prove worthless under certain conditions.

Perhaps some one, some day, may discover a method of recovering the values in our abandoned placer, and may reap the fortune which we did not make. If so I wish them all luck. As for myself that one bitter experience cured me of the mining fever, for I fear I am no gambler. But I must admit that it was a lot of fun despite our hardships and that there was never a dull moment while it lasted.

Perhaps the strangest thing about gold is the fact that, as far as utility goes, it is a very poor and almost worthless metal. For ages men have slaved and died for gold; some of the greatest wars have been waged because of it. Every variety of crime has been committed for gold, and gold has caused more human suffering, greater cruelties, greater oppressions and inhumanity than any other one thing with the possible exception of religion.

The yellow metal has also been one of the greatest benefactors of the human race. Gold and the search for gold have been the major reasons for exploration and discovery. Where gold has been found civilization has followed. Gold was the lure that led Columbus on his epochal voyage; gold was the incentive that drew the horde of Spaniards to the conquest of the New World; gold was the watchword of the buccaneers who preyed upon the Dons. Our own Great West, Australia, and many other lands owe their development and prosperity to gold, and more recently gold has resulted in the exploration and settlement of the most remote and wildest portions of the Philippines and New Guinea.

Yet were it not for the fact that gold is the recognized unit of wealth it would be worth less than copper, lead, iron, for its utility in arts and industries is very limited is far too soft to be of service for most purposes; it wears rapidly and about its only real advantage is the fact that it is practically incorrodible and imperishable. If all the nations of the world should do away with gold standard and should demonetize the metal, or anyone should discover a vast deposit of gold or invent a way of producing it artificially, it would become next to worthless. Strangest of all the gold standard owes its origin to a race who put no value on gold. It was the conquest of Peru and the millions of gold looted from the Incas by Pizarro and his followers that enabled Spain and other European nations to adopt a gold standard for their currency, yet the Incas themselves had no currency. They placed no intrinsic value on the metal. There was not even a word meaning wealth or riches in their language. To them gold was merely beautiful, enduring, and symbolic of their sun god.

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