|After his adventures prospecting in the Humboldt area, Twain
journeyed southward through the Nevada desert to the Esmerelda area near the town of
Aurora to try his hand there. Aurora was a productive gold and silver mining district at
the time. First he wanted to check up on some silver mining shares that he was paying
assessments on. Unimpressed by the operations of the small companies, he tried his hand at
prospecting for himself, but he was not particularly successful. Eventually, when he was
running very low on money, he went to work in a local silver mill. In those days, gold and
silver milling was not very efficient, as processes using cyanide had not been invented.
Esmeralda was in many respects another Humboldt, but in a little more forward state. The
claims we had been paying assessments on were entirely worthless, and we threw them away.
The principal one cropped out of the top of a knoll that was fourteen feet high, and the
inspired Board of Directors were running a tunnel under that knoll to strike the ledge.
The tunnel would have to be seventy feet long, and would then strike the ledge at the same
depth that a shaft twelve feet deep would have reached! The Board were living on the
"assessments." [N. B. - This hint comes too late for the enlightenment of New
York silver-miners; they have already learned all about this neat trick by experience.]
The Board had no desire to strike the ledge, knowing that it was as barren of silver as a
curbstone. This reminiscence calls to mind Jim Townsend's tunnel. He had paid assessments
on a mine called the "Daley" till he was well-nigh penniless. Finally an
assessment was levied to run a tunnel two hundred and fifty feet on the Daley, and
Townsend went up on the hill to look into matters. He found the Daley cropping out of the
apex of an exceedingly sharp-pointed peak, and a couple of men up there "facing"
the proposed tunnel. Townsend made a calculation. Then he said to the men:
"So you have taken a contract to run a tunnel into this hill two hundred and fifty
feet to strike this ledge?"
"Well, do you know that you have got one of the most expensive and arduous
undertakings before you that was ever conceived by man?"
"Why no - how is that?"
"Because this hill is only twenty-five feet through from side to side; and so you
have got to build two hundred and twenty-five feet of your tunnel on trestle-work!"
The ways of silver-mining Boards are exceedingly dark and sinuous.
We took up various claims, and commenced shafts and tunnels on them, but never finished
any of them. We had to do a certain amount of work on each to "hold" it, else
other parties could seize our property after the expiration of ten days. We were always
hunting up new claims and doing a little work on them and then waiting for a buyer - who
never came. We never found any ore that would yield more than fifty dollars a ton; and as
the mills charged fifty dollars a ton for working ore and extracting the silver, our
pocket-money melted steadily away and none returned to take its place. We lived in a
little cabin and cooked for ourselves; and altogether it was a hard life, though a hopeful
one - for we never ceased to expect fortune and a customer to burst upon us some day.
At last, when flour reached a dollar a pound, and money could not be borrowed on the best
security at less than eight per cent. a month (I being without the security, too), I
abandoned mining and went to milling. That is to say, I went to work as a common laborer
in a quartz-mill, at ten dollars a week and board.
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 superheated 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 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 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 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 snowballs, and piled them up in a bright,
luxurious heap for inspection. Making these snowballs 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 brick-mold.
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 Canon
and was a small insignificant affair and compared most unfavorably with some of the
immense establishments afterward 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 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. 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. 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 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.
Twain never did have any great compunction for hard work, and he freely admitted it. Still
this tale tells well the hardship and difficulties of milling gold and silver ore in the
1860s. As Twain notes, despite their diligent efforts, a significant percentage of the
precious metals would remain with the rock. When the cyanide process was developed in the
1890s, the efficiency of the extraction process was much improved. Many old mill tailings
such those from the one Twain worked at were treated by cyanide and more gold and silver
Mark Twains stories about his experiences prospecting in
the west, including many more humorous tales of his adventures can be found in his book: ROUGHING IT