Mining could have 21st century resurgence
On a picturesque mountainside in Alleghany, the entrance to the Original Sixteen to One Mine nestles at the base of a steep slope of pines, a modest portal into the 25 miles of tunnels below. Since 1896, miners have descended into its depths, lured by the promise of gold.
During a recent tour of the mine organized by Stucki Jewelers in Grass Valley, guide and former Sixteen to One miner Ernie Locatelli reminded the group of the hit-or-miss nature of gold ore mining.
"You can be five feet away from a pocket of gold and never see it," Locatelli said.
Today, with the Sixteen to One poised for new exploration and the Idaho-Maryland Mining Corp. awaiting the acceptance of its application to the City of Grass Valley for a permit to re-open the Idaho-Maryland Mine, what the region once considered its quaint history, memorialized by the rusting ore carts and mill presses on the street corners of its old mining towns, could once again become a viable economic force.
While no one can predict gold prices, engineers at both the Sixteen to One and the Idaho-Maryland Mining Corp. are certain that millions of ounces of gold remain untapped within their mines. If gold prices remain high, it's possible that other mines might consider re-opening. Call it the California Gold Rush 2.1: a high-tech, highly regulated, 21st century version of the 1849 madness.
Visitors at the Sixteen to One a week ago got a rare look at a working gold mine and a chance to envision what a regular work day was like a mile beneath the surface.
They were greeted with a cool blast of 55-degree air that gusted toward the mouth of the tunnel. The mine's natural air conditioning was a welcome change from the 100-degree heat outside.
After a round of jokes about claustrophobia, the group trekked through a slippery tunnel over ore cart tracks to a station half a mile underground. Water dripped down the tunnel walls. Low ceilings occasionally resulted in a definative thwack! as safety helmets struck rock.
A collective gasp of astonishment ran through the crowd of about 25 when Locatelli directed his flashlight at a quartz vein flecked with gold that ran along the side of the tunnel.
"That's the quartz," Locatelli said. "That's what we mined to look for the gold."
Visitors to the old mine learned that the mine aspirates naturally as far as 800 feet below the surface, pulling cool air down on hot days and reversing the flow when the temperature inside is warmer than the air outside. Below 800 feet, fans and air hoses circulate fresh air. The mine temperature remains a constant 50 to 55 degrees year round.
Miners follow the quartz veins, which in the Sixteen to One have yielded incredibly rich pockets of gold doré, raw gold composed of 84 percent gold and 15 percent silver. The biggest strikes in recent history were the "million dollar day" in 1993 when miners pulled out 2,500 ounces of gold and a string of four shifts in 1995 when one tunnel yielded 5,000 ounces.
Although the Sixteen to One Corp. closed down its operations in 1965 after producing more than a million ounces of gold since it was located in 1896, the company continued leasing the mine to others to operate. In the 1980s, the corporation started buying back the outstanding leases. It took full control of the property in 1991 and continues to mine gold and high-grade gold quartz today, making it the longest continuously-working mine west of the Mississippi, according to director Michael Miller. The last significant pocket of gold, 1,500 ounces, was mined in July 2004, said Miller.
Every morning, workers dressed and descended to their working levels in pairs on the "man skip" or gondola that was lowered down the 3,000-foot main shaft. Once they got to their work areas, they cleared out the remaining rock from the day before, drilled holes as deep as 6 feet deep into the rock, loaded them up with dynamite and blasted through the ore. A typical day of blasting moved the miners 6 feet deeper into the excavation area or stope, as miners call it.
However, new developments in technology have made mining gold ore less labor-intensive, less dangerous - both to workers and the environment - and more of a science than it was in the 1960s, when most area mines shut down. At the Idaho-Maryland Mining Corp., engineers plan to build a decline into the tunnels that's 18 feet wide and 16 feet high, large enough to fit a truck and a conveyer belt, according to literature on the company's Web site.
The company is also proposing to turn the mine tailings and rock into ceramics at an on-site plant. In an interview last week, Vice President of Operations Dave Watkinson said that the ceramics plant could potentially earn more money than the gold mine, which geologists say contains over 1.4 million ounces of gold.
If the Idaho-Maryland Mining Corp. succeeds in re-opening the Grass Valley mine, it would create 200 to 400 new jobs, add as many as 3,000 indirect jobs from service industries, and contribute an estimated $750 million per year in direct and indirect revenue for local businesses.
Jill Bauerle, email@example.com