Durango Part II: Mining for Gold and Other Gems
Durango is a fairly large town. (Translation: They have a Wal-Mart AND a Dairy Queen.) We went downtown one day to have a look around and found the downtown area to be vibrant and thriving. It is the only downtown area we have run across recently that's big enough to have parking meters and pay parking lots, although parking rates are still fairly reasonable.
Downtown Durango has many of the usual downtown businesses such as bookstores, lawyers' offices, banks, insurance agents, coffee shops, etc.; and they also have plenty of tourist shops selling Indian jewelry, T-shirts, art, and gifts. The photo below shows a section of Main Avenue.
Although Durango has retained a lot of its old-time charm, it has come a long way in a little over a hundred years since its founding. The photo below shows a mural on the side of a downtown building depicting Durango in 1890.
Adding to the old-time charm of Durango is the General Palmer Hotel, which is located on Main Avenue about a block away from the Durango & Silverton Railroad station. The General Palmer was built in 1898 and boasts Victorian elegance. The hotel is a real gem because they have maintained a Four-Diamond Rating from AAA for the last 25 consecutive years.
We enjoyed walking around the downtown area, but the real reason we went was to find the Zuberfizz Factory. Zuberfizz is a soft drink that is a product of the Durango Soda Company. The factory is located right downtown, although the entrance is on a back alley and is a little hard to find. But it turned out to be a jewel that was worth the hunt.
Unfortunately, we were just a little late to watch the bottling operation, but one of the co-owners of the company gave us a quick tour of the facilities. There's not much to see (a couple of tanks and the bottling machine), but he took the time to explain how they made their soft drinks with pure cane sugar instead of less-expensive, high-fructose corn syrup. They also only use glass bottles because they say cans and plastic bottles can alter the flavor of the sort drinks.
Zuberfizz seems very popular in the Durango area where even the Wal-Mart in town carries their root beer, but they don't seem to have much distribution outside Colorado. However, you can order their products online.
They also have a little soda shop at the factory where they serve soft drinks, ice cream sodas, and hot dogs. Zuberfizz has old-fashioned favorites like root beer, cream soda, and ginger ale. We got the opportunity to sample some of their soft drinks and ended up with a carton of key lime cream soda. Yum. :>)
One reason downtown Durango is so popular is they have lots of nice restaurants. Durango has almost as many restaurants per capita as San Francisco, which is known as the restaurant capital of the West. As we walked around town, we checked out menus that some of the eateries had posted outside. Many of the dishes sounded delicious; but unfortunately, most of the restaurants were out of our price range.
We did, however, find one affordable eatery that was a diamond in the rough. A little north of town on the way to the campground was an establishment called Serious Texas Bar B Q. Serious Texas Bar B Q is not fancy, but it has a lot of atmosphere. The decor is rustic with rough wood and corrugated iron. There is a rusty, metal sculpture of a mariachi band on the roof and plenty of pickup trucks in the parking lot. We have found the presence of pickups is usually a sign of good barbecue.
You order your food at the counter and carry it to your table yourself. There is seating at picnic tables either inside or out on the porch.
Texas Bar B Q serves delicious smoked meats like beef brisket, pork loin, Texas sausage, and turkey. The meats are served sliced, without sauce, on a sheet of butcher paper. There is barbecue sauce on each table in a huge bottle. The sauce is a delicious combination of the tart, vinegar-based, western North Carolina sauce and sweet, Kansas City style sauce that is a little thicker. The smoked pork loin is also served with pineapple-jalepeño salsa that Paul loved. They also have ribs and sandwiches. Prices are reasonable at $6.50 for a half pound of meat. The side dishes are so-so, but the smoked meats more than make up for them.
Durango, CO, was named for Durango, Mexico. The name comes from a Basque word "urango" meaning water town. The name is very fitting because the Animas River follows a C-shaped course through town.
The official name of the Aminas River is El Rio de las Animas Perdidas, which roughly translated, means River of Lost Souls. It was so named because several Spanish explorers who set out on the river disappeared and their bodies were never found.
Today, the river is a real treasure and is an important source of recreation in the area. Durango must have more than a dozen river outfitters. We saw their converted school buses everywhere with kayaks and inner tubes on the roof, towing trailers piled high with rubber rafts.
When we rode the Durango & Silverton Railroad, we saw many rafters on the upper part of the river below Silverton. This is where the outfitters take you if you want a little wilder ride since there is more drop to the river in the mountains and, therefore, more white water.
We also saw many people with rafts, inner tubes, and kayaks floating on the river through town. This is where the outfitters take you if you want a milder, more relaxing float trip.
Durango has made a sterling effort to take advantage of the recreational aspects of the river by building a paved bicycle/walking trail along the river most of the way through town. There are also several parks along the walkway. We took a walk a little way down the trail one morning and watched the kayaks...
...and rafts go by.
Mining for gold and silver is an integral part of the history of Durango, Silverton, and other small towns in the San Juan Mountains. We decided it would be interesting to find out more about mining so we drove back to Silverton bright and early one morning to tour the Old Hundred Gold Mine. Although it took three and a half hours to get to Silverton by train, it is only about 45 miles north of the campground and only took a little over an hour by car. Well, OK, it takes an hour and a half if you stop a bunch of times for photos.
Unfortunately, it was another cloudy day in the mountains, as many days seem to be. Except for the day we left Durango, there were clouds over the mountains even when it was mostly sunny in Durango. Even so, the mountain views are gorgeous.
We got a few glimpses of the sun, but the clouds still hung around the peaks.
This view across this lake was very picturesque.
We got to the mine just in time to don our raincoats and hard hats and make the 11:00 tour.
The reason for the hard hats was obvious - low clearances and the possibility a loose rock could fall on your head from above. The reason for the raincoats wasn't immediately apparent, but we got a clue when the guide handed us a towel to use to dry off the seats in the mine car. Then we all piled in and headed off into the mine.
As soon as we entered the tunnel, we knew the reason we were all wearing raincoats and the reason we had to dry off the seats. There was water, lots of water - not dripping, but pouring through the rock over our heads. Fortunately, the heavy water is only for the first several hundred feet and it subsides when you get further into the mine.
In 1872, three German brothers by the name of Neigold arrived in the Silverton area and staked a mining claim in Number 7 vein. Gradually, the Neigold brothers had assembled a large block of claims. One good claim located in 1892 was called Old Hundred
The brothers sold out their claims to a mining company organized in Maine that called itself the Old Hundred Mining Company. By 1906, the mine had built its own mill and was shipping gold to the Denver mint.
However, shortly afterward, the gold was mined out. The Old Hundred Mining Company never turned a profit and defaulted on their payments for the claims to the Neigolds. The brothers were unable to resell the money-losing mine and eventually lost it due to unpaid taxes.
During the 1930s, new owners worked the mine sporadically, and it was still unprofitable. In 1967, a Texas oil company took out a lease on the property in the hope enough low-grade ore could be found to be profitably processed by new, more efficient milling and processing methods.
After spending more than $6 million driving over 5 miles of new tunnels into the mountain, they, too, gave up. Today, the mine is an official Colorado Historic Landmark and is operated as a tourist attraction.
Once inside the mine, we began the walking tour. The type of mining done in the San Juan Mountains is called hard rock mining. This refers to various underground methods used to extract ores containing gold, silver, zinc, copper, and lead. Soft rock mining is used for soft minerals such as coal.
In the San Juans, quartz is the indicator for gold-bearing ores. When miners found veins containing quartz, there would be a chance of finding gold ore along with it.
As we started our walking tour, the guide first demonstrated hand drilling methods used in the early days. Holes would be drilled in the direction of the vein in order to plant explosives. In the photo below, the guide recruited a brave volunteer from crowd to hold the drill while he used the sledge.
Then, the guide demonstrated an early pneumatic drill. The drill was mounted to a jack post and advanced into the rock by means of a screw with a crank.
The noise echoing in the confined space of the mine tunnel was unbelievable when the drill was running! And the early drills didn't use water to keep the dust down so the mine would be filled with rock dust. Many coal miners suffered from black lung disease from breathing coal dust. Similarly, hard rock miners suffered from silicosis from the rock dust. Later drills did use water and were more portable with a pneumatic leg for support.
Along the tour, we saw the mine elevator and learned about the bell the miners used to signal the lift operator as to what level they were on and where they wanted to go. We also learned about mine lights from candles in the beginning, to carbide lamps, and to the electric cap lamps used today. The guide showed how the miners would use their lamps to signal each other because they couldn't be heard with all the noise. In the photo below, the guide has his cap lamp hanging around his neck. That way, it would be available if he needed it, but it wouldn't shine into peoples' faces.
Also on the table were several types of lunch boxes used by miners throughout the years. Miners call their lunch boxes pie cans, no matter what type they have. This is because there were many Welsh miners whose wives made them meat pies also known as pasties for lunch.
Then the guide showed an example of the hole pattern used for explosives and how dynamite would be placed in the holes. Specific charge patterns would be used and certain fuses would be lit first. As the explosions progressed out from a central point, the rock from subsequent blasts would have someplace to go. Later, the development of blasting caps with precise time delays made the job of sequencing the blasts much easier.
After large quantities of rock were blasted loose, the miners would lay rails for the loader to come in and load the ore. The guide demonstrated the loader, which, like everything else in the mine, was very noisy. It clanked, banged, and roared its way back and forth from the rock pile to the ore car.
We are learning that there are people who have truly very hard and dangerous jobs.
At the end of the tour, we all got back into the mine car and headed back out into the fresh air. Paul is waiting his turn to climb out of the mine car in the photo below. By the way, for Paul's former co-workers - he told the people in the office they had the wrong kind of hard hats. They needed to get MSA V-Gards because they're THE best. :)
After we got our raincoats and hard hats hung back up, we tried our hand at panning for gold. Margery has a fair amount of "color" in her pan.
Paul got into the act, too.
The light-colored specks at the top of the pan are some of the results of our efforts.
The troughs are supposedly "salted" with gold and silver. At the price of those metals today, we doubt there is much gold in the troughs; and if there is any silver in the specks of metal we found, the percentage is probably pretty low. But it was fun learning how to use the pan and to actually find something.
We took our time driving back to Durango, stopping for photos every now and then. The one below is looking down the road from the Old Hundred Mine.
And down at the end of the mine road, we couldn't pass up a golden opportunity to get the photo below of a beautiful scene of wildflowers beside a stream.
Between Old Hundred Mine and Silverton, we stopped for this photo of Mayflower Mill, which was built in 1929 to process ore from the Mayflower Mine and other mines in the area. The mill operated until 1991. Our tour guide at Old Hundred used to work in the Mayflower Mine before it closed.
In this closer shot of Mayflower Mill, you can see one of the overhead tram buckets that were used to haul ore from the mine on the hill opposite the mill. The mine was uphill from the mill, so gravity did most of the work moving the ore. At the start of each shift, miners would stand in the empty buckets to ride up to the mine. That was obviously before OSHA.
As we approached Silverton, we caught a glimmer of sun on the mountain. You can see just a little of Silverton at the base of the mountain.
We wound our way back down from the mountains; and just a little north of the campground, we stopped to see a hot spring along the side of the road. A family by the name of Pinkerton settled in this area in 1875 and started a dairy farm. The Pinkertons built a bath house so family and guests could enjoy the hot springs. The springs were known as Pinkerton Hot Springs. In the 1920s, Pinkerton-in-the-Pines Resort offered a pool for swimming, plus music and dancing. The photo below shows the travertine mound the spring has built up over the years.
We had the next day to relax before we hit the road for our next stop in Taos, NM. The campground has a large field completely enclosed by a fence for a dog run, so we took Molly over to see what she would do. Molly has never been very trustworthy off-leash because she usually has a tendency to take off. But she seems to have mellowed in her old age, and she didn't venture very far from us. While Paul was busy taking photos of the interesting sky and the clouds over the mountains (shown in the photo below), Margery walked around the perimeter of the field and got Molly to follow her.
Margery and Molly are returning from the far side of the field in the photo below. Molly followed on the way out, but seemed eager to lead the way back to the gate.
Back at the motor home, Molly rested from her long walk, and we finished up some chores in preparation for our departure the next morning.