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1 occurrence of roughing it
[Clear Hits]


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1 occurrence of roughing it
[Clear Hits]




I HAD already learned how hard and long and dismal a task
it is to burrow down into the bowels of the earth and get
out the coveted ore; and now I learned that the burrowing
was only half the work; and that to get the silver out of the
ore was the dreary and laborious other half of it. We had to
turn out at six in the morning and keep at it till dark. This
mill was a six-stamp affair, driven by steam. Six tall, upright
rods of iron, as large as a man's ankle, and heavily shod with
a mass of iron and steel at their lower ends, were framed
together like a gate, and these rose and fell, one after the
other, in a ponderous dance, in an iron box called a “battery.”
Each of these rods or stamps weighed six hundred pounds.
One of us stood by the battery all day long, breaking up
masses of silver-bearing rock with a sledge and shoveling it
into the battery. The ceaseless dance of the stamps pulverized
the rock to powder, and a stream of water that trickled
into the battery turned it to a creamy paste. The minutest
particles were driven through a fine wire screen which fitted
close around the battery, and were washed into great tubs
warmed by super-heated steam—amalgamating pans, they are
called. The mass of pulp in the pans was kept constantly
stirred up by revolving “mullers.” A quantity of quicksilver
was kept always in the battery, and this seized some of the
liberated gold and silver particles and held on to them; quicksilver
was shaken in a fine shower into the pans, also, about
every half hour, through a buckskin sack. Quantities of


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[Description: 504EAF. Page 253. In-line image of an industrial mill with bricks and turning mills.]
coarse salt and sulphate of copper were added, from time to
time to assist the amalgamation by destroying base metals
which coated the gold and silver and would not let it unite
with the quicksilver. All these tiresome things we had to
attend to constantly. Streams of dirty water flowed always
from the pans and were carried off in broad wooden troughs
to the ravine. One would not suppose that atoms of gold and
silver would float on top of six inches of water, but they did;
and in order to catch them, coarse blankets were laid in the
troughs, and little obstructing “riffles” charged with quicksilver
were placed here and there across the troughs also.
These riffles had to be cleaned and the blankets washed out
every evening, to get their precious accumulations—and after
all this eternity of trouble one third of the silver and gold in
a ton of rock would find its way to the end of the troughs in
the ravine at last and have to be worked over again some day.
There is nothing so aggravating as silver milling. There
never was any idle time in that mill. There was always
something to do. It is a pity that Adam could not have gone


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[Description: 504EAF. Page 254. In-line image of a factory production. Different jobs are going on to amalgamate.]
straight out of Eden into a quartz mill, in order to understand
the full force of his doom to “earn his bread by the sweat of
his brow.” Every now and then, during the day, we had to
scoop some pulp out of the pans, and tediously “wash” it in a
horn spoon—wash it little by little over the edge till at last
nothing was left but some little dull globules of quicksilver in
the bottom. If they were soft and yielding, the pan needed
some salt or some sulphate of copper or some other chemical
rubbish to assist digestion; if they were crisp to the touch and
would retain a dint, they were freighted with all the silver and
gold they could seize and hold, and consequently the pans
needed a fresh charge of quicksilver. When there was nothing
else to do, one could always “screen tailings.” That is to
say, he could shovel up the dried sand that had washed down
to the ravine through the troughs and dash it against an upright
wire screen to free it from pebbles and prepare it for
working over. The process of amalgamation differed in the
various mills, and this included changes in style of pans and
other machinery, and a great diversity of opinion existed as to
the best in use, but none of the methods employed, involved


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the principle of milling ore without “screening the tailings.”
Of all recreations in the world, screening tailings on a hot
day, with a long-handled shovel, is the most undesirable.

At the end of the week the machinery was stopped and
we “cleaned up.” That is to say, we got the pulp out of the
pans and batteries, and washed the mud patiently away till
nothing was left but the long accumulating mass of quicksilver,
with its imprisoned treasures. This we made into heavy,
compact snow-balls, and piled them up in a bright, luxurious
heap for inspection. Making these snow-balls cost me a fine
gold ring—that and ignorance together; for the quicksilver
invaded the ring with the same facility with which water saturates
a sponge—separated its particles and the ring crumbled
to pieces.

We put our pile of quicksilver balls into an iron retort
that had a pipe leading from it to a pail of water, and then
applied a roasting heat. The quicksilver turned to vapor,
escaped through the pipe into the pail, and the water turned
it into good wholesome quicksilver again. Quicksilver is very
costly, and they never waste it. On opening the retort, there
was our week's work—a lump of pure white, frosty looking
silver, twice as large as a man's head. Perhaps a fifth of the
mass was gold, but the color of it did not show—would not
have shown if two thirds of it had been gold. We melted it
up and made a solid brick of it by pouring it into an iron

By such a tedious and laborious process were silver bricks
obtained. This mill was but one of many others in operation
at the time. The first one in Nevada was built at Egan Canyon
and was a small insignificant affair and compared most
unfavorably with some of the immense establishments afterwards
located at Virginia City and elsewhere.

From our bricks a little corner was chipped off for the
“fire-assay”—a method used to determine the proportions of
gold, silver and base metals in the mass. This is an interesting
process. The chip is hammered out as thin as paper and
weighed on scales so fine and sensitive that if you weigh a


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[Description: 504EAF. Page 256. In-line image of a valley. There are mountains to the sides and a camp at the bottom of the valley.]
two-inch scrap of paper on them and then write your name on
the paper with a coarse, soft pencil and weigh it again, the
scales will take marked notice of the addition. Then a little
lead (also weighed) is rolled up with the flake of silver and
the two are melted at a great heat in a small vessel called a
cupel, made by compressing bone ashes into a cup-shape in a
steel mold. The base metals oxydize and are absorbed with
the lead into the pores of the cupel. A button or globule of
perfectly pure gold and silver is left behind, and by weighing
it and noting the loss, the assayer knows the proportion of base
metal the brick contains. He has to separate the gold from
the silver now. The button is hammered out flat and thin,
put in the furnace and kept some time at a red heat; after
cooling it off it is rolled up like a quill and heated in a glass
vessel containing nitric acid; the acid dissolves the silver and
leaves the gold pure and ready to be weighed on its own merits.


Page 257
Then salt water is poured into the vessel containing the dissolved
silver and the silver returns to palpable form again and
sinks to the bottom. Nothing now remains but to weigh it;
then the proportions of the several metals contained in the
brick are known, and the assayer stamps the value of the brick
upon its surface.

The sagacious reader will know now, without being told,
that the speculative miner, in getting a “fire-assay” made of a
piece of rock from his mine (to help him sell the same), was
not in the habit of picking out the least valuable fragment of
rock on his dump-pile, but quite the contrary. I have seen
men hunt over a pile of nearly worthless quartz for an hour,
and at last find a little piece as large as a filbert, which was
rich in gold and silver—and this was reserved for a fire-assay!
Of course the fire-assay would demonstrate that a ton of such
rock would yield hundreds
of dollars—and on such assays
many an utterly worthless
mine was sold.

Assaying was a good
business, and so some men
engaged in it, occasionally,
who were not strictly scientific
and capable. One
assayer got such rich results
out of all specimens brought
to him that in time he
acquired almost a monopoly
of the business. But like
all men who achieve success,
he became an object of envy
and suspicion. The other
assayers entered into a
conspiracy against him, and let some prominent citizens into
the secret in order to show that they meant fairly. Then they
broke a little fragment off a carpenter's grindstone and got a
stranger to take it to the popular scientist and get it assayed.


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In the course of an hour the result came—whereby it appeared
that a ton of that rock would yield $1,284.40 in silver
and $366.36 in gold!

Due publication of the whole matter was made in the
paper, and the popular assayer left town “between two days.”

I will remark, in passing, that I only remained in the
milling business one week. I told my employer I could not
stay longer without an advance in my wages; that I liked
quartz milling, indeed was infatuated with it; that I had
never before grown so tenderly attached to an occupation in
so short a time; that nothing, it seemed to me, gave such
scope to intellectual activity as feeding a battery and screening
tailings, and nothing so stimulated the moral attributes as
retorting bullion and washing blankets—still, I felt constrained
to ask an increase of salary.

He said he was paying me ten dollars a week, and thought
it a good round sum. How much did I want?

I said about four hundred thousand dollars a month, and
board, was about all I could reasonably ask, considering the
hard times.

I was ordered off the premises! And yet, when I look
back to those days and call to mind the exceeding hardness of
the labor I performed in that mill, I only regret that I did not
ask him seven hundred thousand.

Shortly after this I began to grow crazy, along with the
rest of the population, about the mysterious and wonderful
“cement mine,” and to make preparations to take advantage
of any opportunity that might offer to go and help hunt for it.