A Pandora's Box of Minerals - Gold and Silver Mining in the San Juans
by Peter Kenworthy
Nov 14, 2005 | 538 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
According to Mark Twain - according to Duane Smith, professor of history and southwest studies at Fort Lewis College - a gold or silver mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar.

Smith put the lie to some common misconceptions about the bonanza days of the San Juans, and poked holes in romantic notions of what life was like in the mining camps of old on Thursday night, to a capacity crowd in the Robert Weatherford Room at the Telluride Historical Museum. The talk was the second in the three part Telluride Unearthed lecture series presented by the Pinhead Institute and museum.

Characterizing the San Juans as "one of America's great mining districts," Smith also termed the region "a Pandora's box of minerals." And trouble there was for the men and women who dared the remote and rugged terrain of mining towns such as Silverton, Ouray and Telluride and their satellite mining camps. The highest mining area in the United States, in addition to yielding copious gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead, provided no shortage of ways to suffer and die.

"Knock-in-the-box, or silicosis, was rife," said Smith. "And syphilis, that went undetected, was common. Falling down shafts, accidentally hammering into forgotten, unexploded dynamite, fire, avalanches, exposure," the list of maladies and dangers was long. Alcoholism and drug addiction were also common, among both men and women.

Panaceas and cure-alls were hawked vigorously.

"Lydia Pinkham's Compound for Pale Complexions was approved by the Women's Christian Temperance Union," said Smith. "A strong endorsement from the people who brought us Prohibition. Then, in 1910, the contents were analyzed and discovered to be 75 percent alcohol. No wonder it made women feel better."

Another form of cure was the hot springs, especially before 1899, when aspirin was first invented. "Lost manhood, lost womanhood, lumbago, hair fallout...the hot springs fixed everything."

In addition to courage and a hearty constitution, miners needed generous supplies of both money and skill. "It takes a silver mine to run a gold mine," said Smith, quoting a popular saying of the day. "De-watering a mine, timbering it, reading the chemistry of a vein and then following it through hard rock, all of that was costly and required real skill."

With a mining camp's success there quickly came growth and almost immediate urbanization. "Mining brought in lumbering, farming, ranching, specialized businesses and the railroad. As a camp grew into a town there came a different feeling, a different attitude. The houses became bigger. A newspaper started. Townspeople tried to recreate the life they had left behind with churches, schools and fraternal orders of every imaginable kind."

A newspaper was a particular mark of accomplishment and pride for a town.

"The newspaper defended a town's honor," said Smith. "It told how beautiful the town's women were and how plump its children were."

It also told a few whoppers.

"Dave Day of The Solid Muldoon in Ouray might run a story that so-and-so was the proud father of baby twins. Well, this was just grand but it turns out that so-and-so is the town's most confirmed bachelor. Which is all good for a big laugh back then, but 150 years later is a mite confusing for we historians."

The history of the mining days is dotted liberally with other oddities.

"Catnapping was a big business," Smith explained. "Cats didn't survive at first at the high elevation of the mining towns. But mice and rodents were a problem. So, people would go down to towns at lower elevation, like Montrose, and they'd take a saucer of milk into the back alleys and they'd call 'Here kitty, kitty, kitty.' In a day when one dollar bought 13 loaves of bread, cats sold for five to twenty-five dollars apiece."

Smith revealed some other little known facts. The first known environmental lawsuit, for example, occurred in the San Juans in the 1890s, when a mining community sued a mine for polluting its drinking water. Also, Colorado was the first state to award women the right to vote. He suggested, too, that perhaps it would behoove contemporary town councils to re-consider their Victorian forebears' means of bolstering the municipal coffers while keeping taxes down.

"What they did," said Smith, "was outlaw prostitutes, pimps, gambling, distilling and low forms of theater, and then they let all those things flourish and fined the hell out of them."

Of all the boomtowns in the San Juans, and in Colorado and the Old West, generally, Smith assesses Telluride as the greatest.

"You had the real thing here," he said. "Most mines didn't last long but here you had three of the truly great ones. The Tomboy, The Smuggler and The Liberty Bell were all great, rich mines."

Great and rich, too, is the history of Telluride's mining times. This week, Telluride Unearthed brings John Straub, Chemistry Professor at Boston College, to town. Straub's lecture is titled "The Chemistry of Mining," and will be on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the museum. Admission is $15. By Peter Kenworthy

According to Mark Twain - according to Duane Smith, professor of history and southwest studies at Fort Lewis College - a gold or silver mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar.

Smith put the lie to some common misconceptions about the bonanza days of the San Juans, and poked holes in romantic notions of what life was like in the mining camps of old on Thursday night, to a capacity crowd in the Robert Weatherford Room at the Telluride Historical Museum. The talk was the second in the three part Telluride Unearthed lecture series presented by the Pinhead Institute and museum.

Characterizing the San Juans as "one of America's great mining districts," Smith also termed the region "a Pandora's box of minerals." And trouble there was for the men and women who dared the remote and rugged terrain of mining towns such as Silverton, Ouray and Telluride and their satellite mining camps. The highest mining area in the United States, in addition to yielding copious gold, silver, copper, zinc and lead, provided no shortage of ways to suffer and die.

"Knock-in-the-box, or silicosis, was rife," said Smith. "And syphilis, that went undetected, was common. Falling down shafts, accidentally hammering into forgotten, unexploded dynamite, fire, avalanches, exposure," the list of maladies and dangers was long. Alcoholism and drug addiction were also common, among both men and women.

Panaceas and cure-alls were hawked vigorously.

"Lydia Pinkham's Compound for Pale Complexions was approved by the Women's Christian Temperance Union," said Smith. "A strong endorsement from the people who brought us Prohibition. Then, in 1910, the contents were analyzed and discovered to be 75 percent alcohol. No wonder it made women feel better."

Another form of cure was the hot springs, especially before 1899, when aspirin was first invented. "Lost manhood, lost womanhood, lumbago, hair fallout...the hot springs fixed everything."

In addition to courage and a hearty constitution, miners needed generous supplies of both money and skill. "It takes a silver mine to run a gold mine," said Smith, quoting a popular saying of the day. "De-watering a mine, timbering it, reading the chemistry of a vein and then following it through hard rock, all of that was costly and required real skill."

With a mining camp's success there quickly came growth and almost immediate urbanization. "Mining brought in lumbering, farming, ranching, specialized businesses and the railroad. As a camp grew into a town there came a different feeling, a different attitude. The houses became bigger. A newspaper started. Townspeople tried to recreate the life they had left behind with churches, schools and fraternal orders of every imaginable kind."

A newspaper was a particular mark of accomplishment and pride for a town.

"The newspaper defended a town's honor," said Smith. "It told how beautiful the town's women were and how plump its children were."

It also told a few whoppers.

"Dave Day of The Solid Muldoon in Ouray might run a story that so-and-so was the proud father of baby twins. Well, this was just grand but it turns out that so-and-so is the town's most confirmed bachelor. Which is all good for a big laugh back then, but 150 years later is a mite confusing for we historians."

The history of the mining days is dotted liberally with other oddities.

"Catnapping was a big business," Smith explained. "Cats didn't survive at first at the high elevation of the mining towns. But mice and rodents were a problem. So, people would go down to towns at lower elevation, like Montrose, and they'd take a saucer of milk into the back alleys and they'd call 'Here kitty, kitty, kitty.' In a day when one dollar bought 13 loaves of bread, cats sold for five to twenty-five dollars apiece."

Smith revealed some other little known facts. The first known environmental lawsuit, for example, occurred in the San Juans in the 1890s, when a mining community sued a mine for polluting its drinking water. Also, Colorado was the first state to award women the right to vote. He suggested, too, that perhaps it would behoove contemporary town councils to re-consider their Victorian forebears' means of bolstering the municipal coffers while keeping taxes down.

"What they did," said Smith, "was outlaw prostitutes, pimps, gambling, distilling and low forms of theater, and then they let all those things flourish and fined the hell out of them."

Of all the boomtowns in the San Juans, and in Colorado and the Old West, generally, Smith assesses Telluride as the greatest.

"You had the real thing here," he said. "Most mines didn't last long but here you had three of the truly great ones. The Tomboy, The Smuggler and The Liberty Bell were all great, rich mines."

Great and rich, too, is the history of Telluride's mining times. This week, Telluride Unearthed brings John Straub, Chemistry Professor at Boston College, to town. Straub's lecture is titled "The Chemistry of Mining," and will be on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the museum. Admission is $15.
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