- Historic Sites
How To Salt A Gold Mine
In the mining country of the Old West some men struck it rich without touching a shovel. All it took was a little legerdemain—and a sucker bitten by the gold bug
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
He was grumpy when interrupted. No, he was not interested in selling the mine. Could they look inside? Well, yes, if they were careful not to hurt themselves. He remained outside (proof of his indifference), and when the pair reached the breast of the tunnel they hurriedly knocked off some specimens and hid them in their pockets. Being greenhorns, they took the pieces that broke off most readily—too readily, in fact, for Bill had just placed them there.
Assays of those pieces also revealed a high silver content. After earnest entreaties, the gulls managed to persuade Bill to part with the property. And this claim did not backfire, as the Chrysolite had: it stayed barren, while Bill settled down contentedly to another year of paid-up existence. Since he had never offered to sell them the mine, the English dupes did not risk ridicule by taking the case to court.
Chicken Bill became so famous as a salter that he even received credit, possibly undeserved, for creating a stampede to the western shoulder of Pikes Peak in 1884. What happened, apparently, was that trade was languishing in the nearby railroad town of Cañon City. Hoping to revive it, certain merchants paid two Leadville ne’er-do-wells, S. J. Bradley and D. G. Miller, two hundred dollars to dig a hole eighteen feet deep on a slope forty-five miles from Canon City, and to produce, supposedly from that hole, ore that assayed at $2,000 a ton. The scheme worked. Five thousand people poured into Canon City, swarming through the hotels, hardware stores, groceries, and livery stables, buying supplies for prospecting trips. When trained miners showed their suspicions, the salters vanished. Because local gossip had it that Bradley had once worked for William Lovell in Leadville, Chicken Bill was thought to have had a hand in the business, and he still appears in some history books as the perpetrator of the great Mount Pisgah hoax. If so, he must have had even wrier memories about it than about the Chrysolite, for a few years later gold was found at Mount Pisgah. The field developed into Cripple Creek, maker of at least twenty-eight millionaires.
Methods like Chicken Bill’s of introducing outside ore into a mine he proposed to sell were essentially crude—success depended on the greed of the buyer. When there was greed, almost any device worked. Consider, for instance, the incredible brashness of one salter during the early frenzies on Nevada’s Comstock Lode. He simply scattered a few handfuls of cut-up silver half dollars throughout the broken rock in the bottom of his shaft. A prospective buyer chemically treated, milled, and amalgamated several tons of the “ore.” Dazzled by the returns, the buyer all but sprained his wrist reaching for his checkbook and did not learn the truth until, on starting his own operation, he discovered a battered coin lodged in a crevice.
Undeveloped prospect holes such as these seldom sold for high prices. A Chicken Bill might be content with a return of a thousand dollars or so, but big-money frauds preferred to work with mines whose various shafts and drifts had penetrated enough veins to suggest ore bodies of truly majestic scale. A type of property especially favored for salting was one that had started as a bonanza operation but whose vein was threatening to turn barren as the depth increased. If this drop in value could be hidden from potential buyers, then a sale at a highly satisfying figure—satisfying to the seller, at least—might be achieved.
Investors risking $100,000 or more seldom bought such a property without first seeking the advice of trained engineers. Mine sampling, as the engineers’ investigations are called, developed into a complex skill whose rudiments were taught in engineering schools. Although accurate evaluation of the mine rather than detection of fraud was the sampler’s main purpose, gigantic swindles became so common that textbooks on mining still outline the basic tricks.
The principles of sampling were routine enough. The engineer, generally assisted by a reliable crew, cut a widely spaced series of shallow grooves, an inch or two deep and four or five inches wide, across as much of the vein as had been exposed. The chips from each groove were individually sacked in stout canvas bags. The sacks were wired shut, sealed with a lead seal bearing the examiner’s “brand,” and numbered according to location. Each sackful was then assayed and the mine’s potential value calcuated.
Chipping samples out of rock with a hammer and moil, or even with a pneumatic drill, is devilishly hard work, especially when a man has to stand on a rickety scaffold and swing over his head at the roof of a stope, as excavations in the vein are called. Nevertheless, precautions are taken to assure accurate samples. Clean canvas is spread to prevent adulteration from rock scattered on the ground.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that values are seldom evenly distributed throughout a vein. Most ores are friable and full of cracks. Fine dust carrying above-average concentrations of metal is likely to collect in these cracks. Because cracked ore breaks loose fairly readily, a lazy or careless engineer, intending no fraud whatsoever, may wind up with a sampling far richer than the mine will bear out. Results can be disastrous.