How To Salt A Gold Mine

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A classic western aphorism commonly attributed to Mark Twain defines a gold or silver mine as a hole in the ground with a liar on top. Generally, the misrepresentations were a standard form of mining-camp bragging—but not always. Luxurious rewards awaited the bunco artist who could make gold seem to appear in a hole where no gold actually existed, or the con man who could produce, for suspicious examining engineers, specimens of silver that assayed higher (as the gulled buyer discovered too late) than the ore body from which they supposedly came.

Small investments could produce grand returns. By dishonestly increasing the apparent per-ton worth by a mere twenty-five cents, a seller could unload a hundred-thousand-ton mine for $25,000 above its value. Microscopic amounts of metal were enough to create such inflation. Dusting a ton of ore with one eightieth of an ounce of gold, at its price of $20.67 per ounce, would add twenty-five cents to the value per ton—as would less than one quarter of an ounce of silver.

Nor was it necessary to sprinkle the salt, as the fraudulent additive was called, throughout the exposed ore—that would have been too expensive—but only in those samples, taken here and there, from which the valuation of the mine was calculated. Since many a mine has been sold on the basis of samples totalling only a few tons, less than a hundred dollars might be enough to turn a handsome trick.

Newcomers, panting with desire for quick money, were so convinced that riches could be plucked carrotlike from the ground that they often believed any encouraging signs they saw. And, of course, there were obliging souls ready to provide attractive sights.

No one was handier at furnishing these tantalizing glimpses at high-value ore than William Lovell, champion fraud of Leadville, Colorado, during that famed silver camp’s first frantic boom. From the outset, Lovell used more than a pick and shovel to bring him fortune. When he joined the headlong rush across blizzard-swept South Park and over the snow-heaped Mosquito Range in the winter of 1877–78, he took along a wagonload of chickens to sell at premium prices. A howling storm snowed him in near an abandoned log cabin. Freighters who broke through the road several days later found him hale and fat, surrounded by feathers and frozen chicken remains. Ever afterward he was called Chicken Bill.

Bill was one of the first to prospect on Fryer Hill, immediately north of the new camp at Leadville, but he was not as lucky as two Germans, August Rische and George Hook, who followed close behind him. In April of 1878, Rische and Hook obtained a grubstake, including a jug of whisky, from Leadville’s store-keeper-mayor, H. A. W. Tabor. The long, back-packing trudge up Fryer Hill winded them. They sat down in the shade of an evergreen, refreshed themselves with a nip from the jug, and looked up the slope ahead. Why climb higher? They started to dig where they were. Twice they ran out of food and had to go back and beg Tabor for more. All told, they used up fifty-four dollars’ worth of supplies.

In May, when their shaft was thirty feet deep, they ran into a fabulous vein later known as the Little Pittsburgh. By sheer chance they had hit its apex, the only point where the vein could have been reached with pick and shovel. The first wagonload of ore netted them two hundred dollars. Word spread instantaneously, and Leadville’s boom soared. Although Rische and Hook sold their one-third interests in the mine for relatively modest sums (Hook got $98,000 and Rische, selling a little later, $273,000), Tabor held on to his grubstake third for a year. He netted $500,000 in dividends and then sold out for a million. Visitors were understandably impressed.

Immediately after the discovery of the Little Pittsburgh, Tabor quite naturally began buying claims all over the slope. One night, Chicken Bill Lovell stole a few hundred pounds of ore from the Little Pittsburgh and dumped the haul into the barren bottom of his own shaft. He then invited Tabor to look at his mine. A glance at ore showing those characteristics was enough for Leadville’s overnight tycoon. Grandly, he gave Bill about $900 for the property.

Wages then ran roughly $2.50 a day, and Bill probably equated the sale with a year’s work—not bad. But Tabor may not have been gullible so much as canny. He named his purchase the Chrysolite and had his men sink a shaft through the salted ore and into the rock beneath. They soon hit another vein. Tabor took an estimated $150,000 from it before selling out.

Chicken Bill’s next victims were more typical—two English tourists he met one day on the porch of a Leadville hotel. Learning that Lovell was a miner (he did have a few holes scattered here and there, just in case), they plied him with so many questions that he decided to rig a show. The next day, as he was again yarning with the pair on the porch, a pack train shuffled by, the mules loaded with bulging ore sacks.

“From my mine,” said Chicken Bill, with an off-hand wave. “Would you like a souvenir?”

The Englishmen said they would. Bill halted the mule drover and opened two sacks, apparently at random. He gave each man a chunk of shiny ore and then ambled off to keep an appointment, so he said.

The tourists rushed to an assayer and had the ore appraised. Eureka! Hoping to outfox Bill, they learned the location of his mine and wandered out to see it —mere tourist curiosity, of course. The hole didn’t look like much, but at its mouth was a small pile of that fancy ore, which Bill was busily sacking.