True knowledge of the nature of silver mining came fast enough. We went
out "prospecting" with Mr. Ballou. We climbed the mountain sides, and
clambered among sage-brush, rocks and snow till we were ready to drop
with exhaustion, but found no silver--nor yet any gold. Day after day we
did this. Now and then we came upon holes burrowed a few feet into the
declivities and apparently abandoned; and now and then we found one or
two listless men still burrowing. But there was no appearance of silver.
These holes were the beginnings of tunnels, and the purpose was to drive
them hundreds of feet into the mountain, and some day tap the hidden
ledge where the silver was. Some day! It seemed far enough away, and
very hopeless and dreary. Day after day we toiled, and climbed and
searched, and we younger partners grew sicker and still sicker of the
promiseless toil. At last we halted under a beetling rampart of rock
which projected from the earth high upon the mountain. Mr. Ballou broke
off some fragments with a hammer, and examined them long and attentively
with a small eye-glass; threw them away and broke off more; said this
rock was quartz, and quartz was the sort of rock that contained silver.
Contained it! I had thought that at least it would be caked on the
outside of it like a kind of veneering. He still broke off pieces and
critically examined them, now and then wetting the piece with his tongue
and applying the glass. At last he exclaimed:
"We've got it!"
We were full of anxiety in a moment. The rock was clean and white, where
it was broken, and across it ran a ragged thread of blue. He said that
that little thread had silver in it, mixed with base metal, such as lead
and antimony, and other rubbish, and that there was a speck or two of
gold visible. After a great deal of effort we managed to discern some
little fine yellow specks, and judged that a couple of tons of them
massed together might make a gold dollar, possibly. We were not
jubilant, but Mr. Ballou said there were worse ledges in the world than
that. He saved what he called the "richest" piece of the rock, in order
to determine its value by the process called the "fire-assay." Then we
named the mine "Monarch of the Mountains" (modesty of nomenclature is not
a prominent feature in the mines), and Mr. Ballou wrote out and stuck up
the following "notice," preserving a copy to be entered upon the books in
the mining recorder's office in the town.
"We the undersigned claim three claims, of three hundred feet each
(and one for discovery), on this silver-bearing quartz lead or lode,
extending north and south from this notice, with all its dips,
spurs, and angles, variations and sinuosities, together with fifty
feet of ground on either side for working the same."
We put our names to it and tried to feel that our fortunes were made.
But when we talked the matter all over with Mr. Ballou, we felt depressed
and dubious. He said that this surface quartz was not all there was of
our mine; but that the wall or ledge of rock called the "Monarch of the
Mountains," extended down hundreds and hundreds of feet into the earth--
he illustrated by saying it was like a curb-stone, and maintained a
nearly uniform thickness-say twenty feet--away down into the bowels of
the earth, and was perfectly distinct from the casing rock on each side
of it; and that it kept to itself, and maintained its distinctive
character always, no matter how deep it extended into the earth or how
far it stretched itself through and across the hills and valleys. He
said it might be a mile deep and ten miles long, for all we knew; and
that wherever we bored into it above ground or below, we would find gold
and silver in it, but no gold or silver in the meaner rock it was cased
between. And he said that down in the great depths of the ledge was its
richness, and the deeper it went the richer it grew. Therefore, instead
of working here on the surface, we must either bore down into the rock
with a shaft till we came to where it was rich--say a hundred feet or so
--or else we must go down into the valley and bore a long tunnel into the
mountain side and tap the ledge far under the earth. To do either was
plainly the labor of months; for we could blast and bore only a few feet
a day--some five or six. But this was not all. He said that after we
got the ore out it must be hauled in wagons to a distant silver-mill,
ground up, and the silver extracted by a tedious and costly process. Our
fortune seemed a century away!
But we went to work. We decided to sink a shaft. So, for a week we
climbed the mountain, laden with picks, drills, gads, crowbars, shovels,
cans of blasting powder and coils of fuse and strove with might and main.
At first the rock was broken and loose and we dug it up with picks and
threw it out with shovels, and the hole progressed very well. But the
rock became more compact, presently, and gads and crowbars came into
play. But shortly nothing could make an impression but blasting powder.
That was the weariest work! One of us held the iron drill in its place
and another would strike with an eight-pound sledge--it was like driving
nails on a large scale. In the course of an hour or two the drill would
reach a depth of two or three feet, making a hole a couple of inches in
diameter. We would put in a charge of powder, insert half a yard of
fuse, pour in sand and gravel and ram it down, then light the fuse and
run. When the explosion came and the rocks and smoke shot into the air,
we would go back and find about a bushel of that hard, rebellious quartz
jolted out. Nothing more. One week of this satisfied me. I resigned.
Clagget and Oliphant followed. Our shaft was only twelve feet deep. We
decided that a tunnel was the thing we wanted.
So we went down the mountain side and worked a week; at the end of which
time we had blasted a tunnel about deep enough to hide a hogshead in, and
judged that about nine hundred feet more of it would reach the ledge.
I resigned again, and the other boys only held out one day longer.
We decided that a tunnel was not what we wanted. We wanted a ledge that
was already "developed." There were none in the camp.
We dropped the "Monarch" for the time being.
Meantime the camp was filling up with people, and there was a constantly
growing excitement about our Humboldt mines. We fell victims to the
epidemic and strained every nerve to acquire more "feet." We prospected
and took up new claims, put "notices" on them and gave them grandiloquent
names. We traded some of our "feet" for "feet" in other people's claims.
In a little while we owned largely in the "Gray Eagle," the "Columbiana,"
the "Branch Mint," the "Maria Jane," the "Universe," the "Root-Hog-or-
Die," the "Samson and Delilah," the "Treasure Trove," the "Golconda," the
"Sultana," the "Boomerang," the "Great Republic," the "Grand Mogul," and
fifty other "mines" that had never been molested by a shovel or scratched
with a pick. We had not less than thirty thousand "feet" apiece in the
"richest mines on earth" as the frenzied cant phrased it--and were in
debt to the butcher. We were stark mad with excitement--drunk with
happiness--smothered under mountains of prospective wealth--arrogantly
compassionate toward the plodding millions who knew not our marvellous
canyon--but our credit was not good at the grocer's.
It was the strangest phase of life one can imagine. It was a beggars'
revel. There was nothing doing in the district--no mining--no milling--
no productive effort--no income--and not enough money in the entire camp
to buy a corner lot in an eastern village, hardly; and yet a stranger
would have supposed he was walking among bloated millionaires.
Prospecting parties swarmed out of town with the first flush of dawn, and
swarmed in again at nightfall laden with spoil--rocks. Nothing but
rocks. Every man's pockets were full of them; the floor of his cabin was
littered with them; they were disposed in labeled rows on his shelves.