Colorado Gold Mining

photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.


Colorado gold mining could not have been accomplished without the sweat and toil of the "fifty-niners". These men were named this because that was the year gold was discovered in Colorado, 1859.


Out of the over 100,000 gold miners who traveled to Colorado in search of their fortune, only around 25,000 remained.

When these people arrived at the gold digs, they found the work hard, long and tiring.

The miners watched the old timers who were more experienced at coaxing gold ore out of the ground.

Old west miners used a pick, shovel and pan to search for gold.  It looked relatively easy to find gold this way.

When a likely spot containing traces of gold was found, the miners would stake their claim and the digging would commence.


It worked like this: gravel was placed in the pan and would be washed.  By swirling water around the pan and washing the gravel, the lighter substances would float away.

Gold, which is a heavy metal, would stay in the pan.  So gold would show up in the bottom of the pan.


Using a small pan was long and exhausting work.  It would go faster if a larger pan was used.

Miners were a smart bunch.  The bigger pan became sluice  boxes and rockers which allowed washing of more gold gravel in less time.

This process was called placer mining or the mining of free gold.  That which is found on the surface or in stream beds.


Many miners started following the streams to find the source of the water and therefore, the source of gold.

This process would lead them to the rocks and mountains.  With the use of picks and shovels, they would carve out veins of gold ore.

This was called hard rock mining.  Other names were deep and quartz mining.


Trying to get into a deep vein of ore by hand was extremely long and tedious.

Miners decided to blast the ore out of the mountain.  It was dangerous work.

Figuring how to get it out of the mountain after the rocks had been dynamited proved a large problem, but not one that stumped the miners for long.

A cage or elevator like device was developed to get the ore from the mines to the surface.


After the ore was brought to the surface it had to be crushed to separate the gold from the other minerals in the rock.

Hard rock mining involved use of more equipment, skillful miners and people to run it and knowledge of how gold is mined.  The hard rock process was much more expensive than placer mining.


As soon as miners began digging into the mountains, problems arose. 

Water would flood the mines and pumps were installed to get rid of it.

The tunnels had to be shored up by logs and wood beams to keep the soil from coming down on top of the workers.


Another problem encountered by the miners was how to separate the gold from rock after it was brought to the surface.

A stamp mill was used to crush the ore.  That was the easy part.  But it was soon found that most of the gold was lost with the waste from the crushing of the stamp mill.

Another way had to be devised to save all of the gold. No one knew what to do.

With the all the problems of mining the gold, people started to get discouraged and began leaving Colorado in the mid 1860's.


Along came a gentleman named Nathan Hill.  He was a chemistry professor back east.

He traveled to the territory to check on the family Colorado gold mining operations and saw how much trouble the miners were having.  Something had to be done.

For three years, Mr. Hill experimented with different ideas until he came up with a process. 

This device was called a smelter.  He developed the process, and opened the first smelter in Black Hawk near Central City in Colorado. It was the first in the territory.


Railroads arrived and tracks were laid between towns and mines so the gold could be transported quickly to the smelters and then on to mills all over the country.

With lots of hope, good luck, and ingenuity, Colorado gold mining has "panned" out (pardon the pun!) billions of dollars in gold ore since it was first discovered in 1859.



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