It's cold, dark, and there might be gold

The world is full of hidden treasure.

In northern Idaho, head west along the Salmon River Road. Follow the river on your left and stay out of the mountains on your right. (It's hard to do otherwise.) In about twenty minutes, you'll come to a small house with a cluttered front porch and a curious wooden stand to the side.

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There you'll find the home of John Houlihan, former professor of chemistry and software entrepreneur. Current vegetarian and badass. John is in his nineties and spent three weeks last winter hauling water into his house every day when the pipes froze. 

He also owns a gold mine.

It's an old mine.

It's an old mine.

The mine prompted a bit of a gold rush in the late 19th century. Local men and men from as far away as California (including large groups of Chinese immigrants) came to hammer and blast their way through the mountain in hopes of striking it rich.

Unlike with some other gold rushes, the ore here wasn't found in the river -- so there weren't the large nuggets that years of coursing through water will cause. The gold had to be ground out of the mountain.

John showed us the original and replica equipment used back then.

In the early days, they'd get the rock out of the mountain with a hammer and a pick.

We have electricity now. In the mine's early years, they definitely did not.

We have electricity now. In the mine's early years, they definitely did not.

It was a long way down into the mine -- at least half a mile before the first vein of gold appeared. (John said a "vein" just meant a crack in the rock. So I guess my mental images of gold glistening like a creek running through the rocks were wrong.)

Miners worked 12 hour shifts. They were paid $4 a day plus three candles. Can you guess how long three candles lasted? Not twelve hours, that's for sure. So the miners would light the candle just enough to find a place to put their pick, then they'd blow the candle out and hammer away for as long as they could. In the dark.

One of the original candle holders.

One of the original candle holders.

Once all that gold-bearing rock was broken apart, the gold was still threaded through the rocks. So they had to get it out.

First, they used a jaws crusher to break the rocks into grit. 

This is a miniature version of the large (ten-feet high, I think) actual crushers.

This is a miniature version of the large (ten-feet high, I think) actual crushers.

Then they poured the grit into the cylinder mill, which was filled with large lead balls. The balls would grind down the rocks, wearing themselves down in the process.

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Water washed the grit out of the cylinder mill, and the waste rocks would sink to the bottom. Then the workers would add pine oil to the water to get the gold to rise to the top. They'd heat up the results and have an impure bar. The onsite mill processed tons of gold in its lifetime.

Humans are ingenious. We'll think of all sorts of ways to break, bend, and sort the earth (and each other). We'll also go to extreme lengths to live amid beauty or preserve history. We're a fascinating bunch, no?

The view of the river headed back east.

The view of the river headed back east.

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