"Live a good life, and in the end, it’s not the years in the life, it’s the life in the years."

The hard work and disappointment of hard rock mining

By on March 23, 2020 in Columnist with 0 Comments
Rod Molzahn

By Rod Molzahn

The search for gold in north central Washington began in the late 1850s when gold was found by U.S. Army troops in the streams on the north side of Blewett Pass. 

By the early 1860s, white placer miners were beginning to pan and sluice for wealth on the gravel bars of the upper Columbia and its tributaries.

They were soon followed by increasing numbers of Chinese after the completion of the first transcontinental railroads. 

By the mid 1860s, thousands of Chinese were working the Columbia from Priest Rapids to the border with Canada. Soon they were exploring the high cliffs along the Columbia for gold deposited by an ancient and much larger Columbia River.

In the Wenatchee Valley, Chinese miners followed signs of gold up Squilchuck Creek. They built a system of wooden ladders and platforms to access gold they found in the cliffs along the north side of the Squilchuck Canyon. 

The miners picked and pried rock loose and dropped it down to other men. Some of those ladders and platforms still hang precariously from nearly vertical rock faces. 

It was not hard rock mining and neither was it panning along the riverbanks. 

A hand-dug tunnel is still visible in “D” Reef, Squilchuck Canyon ca. 1885 Photo by Rod Molzahn

Hard rock mining began in earnest in the Blewett Pass area along Peshastin Creek and its tributaries in the 1870s and spawned the town of Blewett.

In 1871, Hiram “Okanogan” Smith, the first white settler in the Okanogan Valley, discovered gold-bearing quartz at the base of Mount Chopaka along the Similkameen River. News of that find brought other miners and they, along with Smith, developed a number of mines in the Similkameen Valley just south of the Canadian border and west of present day Oroville.

In 1886, after the huge Moses/Columbia Reservation was opened to white settlement, a mining boom began on the east slopes of the mountains separating the Okanogan and Methow Valleys. It was centered near the head of the Sinlahekin Valley, about 15 miles northwest of present Omak. 

Hard rock miners were chipping, picking and blasting tunnels into the flank of the north Cascades in search of gold and silver. The town of Salmon City (later named Conconully) formed to support the growing mining industry.

On Sept. 1 of 1887, Benedict and David Gubser left their home in Canby, Oregon bound for the Salmon River mining district. They arrived there on Sept. 20 and tracked down their brother, George, who had followed stories of gold and silver to the valley a year earlier.

Benedict Gubser came to the Okanogan looking for treasure. Like most of his fellow miners toiling in the tunnels, he didn’t find it but he left us a treasure; a daily diary of his life, the lives of his neighbors and what it took to be a hard rock miner. 

It was a life of constant prospecting — searching for the strike, something that looked promising and worthy of development.

Here are some excerpts from his diary:

Wed. 9/21/87 – George showed us around to a number of prospects today.

Thurs. 9/22/87 – George and John (a friend) discovered a ledge which we prospected until time to return to camp.

Fri. 9/23/87 – We prospected the ledge we found yesterday.

Sat. 9/24/87 – Prospected our ledge again today. Named it the “Last Chance” on account the land around it is all claimed. George set up the center stakes and put up a location notice.

(In late October, building was on the minds of the Gubser brothers and they set about to construct themselves a house. The 16-foot by 20-foot two-floor log cabin was ready to move into, including hand-made furniture, in just over three weeks and the men returned to work in the tunnels of, mostly, other people’s mines for 35 cents/hour on 8 to 10 hour shifts.)

Wed. 1/25/88 – John and I worked in the “ Trade Dollar” tunnel about two and a half hours beginning about half after ten o’clock. Our work came to an abrupt end by a snowslide coming down the hollow while I was out on the dump with a wheelbarrow of dirt.

 It took my barrow and hat and by quick steps I got to one side of the slide. The barrow was left in the drift hear the base of the hill with about six inches of one handle in sight. I lost my hat and John his coat. 

The space from the dump to the tunnel was filled with snow including the tunnel at the mouth. The snow is about 12 feet deep in front of the mouth of the cut.

Wed. 4/18/88 – There is four tunnels being worked day and night at present here. Contracts to tunnel 150 feet has been let on the “Tough Nut” and 100 feet on the “Homestake.”

(Tunneling involved pounding a long, steel, sharpened stake — called a drill — into the rock with a sledge hammer then filling the hole with dynamite, lighting the fuse and exploding the rock. Pick and shovel loosened, then cleared away the debris. The tunnel was a way to locate a vein or ledge of valuable ore, which was, mostly, never found.) 

Sat. 3/24/88 – David and I began work in the “Minnie Ha Ha” tunnel last evening. He had bad luck with drills. He broke several. I one.

(Drilling could be painfully slow.)

Sat. 4/27/89 – It took about 600 strokes to the inch to drill a hole in the upper ledge and then the shot failed to blow the rock out.

Tues. 3/27/88 – We did not make six feet of tunnel in all of last week.

 Wilson sharpened drills and picks half the day.

(Water leaking into tunnels was a constant threat and annoyance.)

Sat. 4/7/88 – Got a terrible wetting in the tunnel… came to leaking water from overhead in the tunnel last night. Hitherto the leaking has been from the sides and face of the tunnel so that we kept dry.

Mon. 6/4/88 – Martin and Saltmarsh struck so much water yesterday morning that they could not work. Wilson and the Martin shift timbered the caving streak today.

(In June of 1888, Benedict built a wooden ore car and track to haul rock out of the “Last Chance” tunnel. A year later the ore car was still working hard in the “Last Chance.”)

Wed. 6/19/89 – Put in four blasts and took out four carloads of dirt from the “Last Chance.”

Thurs. 6/20/89 – Took out 14 carloads of dirt and put in three blasts in the tunnel.

Mon. 6/24/89 – Drilled four holes, shot three of them out and took seven carloads of rock from the “Last Chance” tunnel. So far have made about a foot of tunnel per day.

Hard rock mining was demanding, physical work, with — in almost every case — zero rewards. 

Placer miners working the riverbeds could put a little dust in their bag at the end of a day. Tunnel drillers like Benny Gubser could work for years on a claim for no gain. 

An assay done on rock from the “Last Chance” mine put the mineral value of the ore at $26/ton, not enough to pay for hauling the rock to a concentrating mill.

Historian, actor and teacher Rod Molzahn can be reached at shake.speak@nwi.net. His third history CD, Legends & Legacies Vol. III – Stories of Wenatchee and North Central Washington, is now available at the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center and at other locations throughout the area.

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