The Ute Ulay Needs You!

If you’re in Lake City, CO. then please come along to a public Meeting on April the 3rd, 2012. At the Moseley Arts Center on SIlver Street from 6-8pm. The Ute Ulay needs your support to secure its future as a beneficial site for the economy of Lake City, and for those who might want to enjoy this historical site in the future. Come along to this informal session, and listen, share ideas, and consider options for the future.

I even heard a rumour that there might be a little something to eat…

 

Going Underground

A couple of days ago I went underground. Literally.

It all started with a drive to Ouray, which is 19.4 miles away from Lake City as the crow flies. But because (at least in the winter) you have to drive around lots of mountains, Ouray was actually 136.5 miles away.

Once there we got to a road which reminded me of the Alpine Loop. The sign on the locked gate was a little ominous.

But our business was further up that road – so we continued on. Past evidence that the sign was accurate…

…until we reached a mine that is being readied for working again after a long period of inactivity. The price of precious metals is currently very high (March 2012). In times of uncertain economies, gold and silver tend to do very well on the markets. I suppose they seem somehow timeless, secure investments. So, it is currently worth re-investing in mines which had previously been un-economic to run.

The history of mining is a constant iteration of boom and bust cycles. I imagine all this activity means that we’re currently in a boom. It was possible to see old mining buildings, still on the site from one of the previous mining booms.

Once up there, we donned the requisite safety equipment and headed down (actually up – though it felt like down) into the mine. It was a little bit muddy, but not unpleasant. The hissing of water and air pipes accompanied us. Many mines rely on air being pumped into them, but this one has natural ventilation, which will be helped along by fans in certain places, as the mine develops.

The miners who were giving me the tour (I will call them Luckies No. 2 & 3) showed me where some fellow miners were drilling into the wall of the mine to make a drill station. From the drill station they will sample the rock to find out the location and size of the vein that they will be mining.

To extract metals, the miners drill into the rock face, and then load it with dynamite to blast out the rock so that they can take the ore to be milled. There is an art to everything; the number of holes you drill, the direction they point in, and the timing of your explosives can all make an important difference.

I was at the mouth of the mine when this particular round went off (far away, and around a corner mum, don’t worry). I felt my lungs compress as the series of explosions took place. The corrugated tin building shook, and I screamed, ducked, and tried to cover my head and my ears at the same time. I am very tough. Luckies No. 2 & 3 thought so.

What all of this mining is about, is extracting metals for stockbrokers to trade, for us to wear, and to use in medical, digital, and transport applications (amongst many, many others). We all use this stuff. It’s in the computer you’re using now. And the amazing part is that it was created through the interaction of water and heat and rock – a process called mineralisation. These minerals form in a crack or void that was already present in the rock, and that shows up as a vein.

Some are very skinny, others are wider, and some are fractured. This one is a real corker, each colour represents a different substance, some of which we value very highly. The white is quartz, the yellows are various stages in oxidisation of minerals.

When wandering around the Ute Ulay I often see pretty coloured rocks on the ground and I want to pick them up. I wonder if the very first miners were inspired by pretty rocks too.

Mother Lode

A mining claim is the right to explore for and extract minerals from a portion of land. Under the General Mining Act of 1872 (still in place today), ‘all citizens of the United States of America 18 years or older have the right… to locate a lode (hard rock) or placer (gravel) mining claim on federal lands open to mineral entry. These claims may be located once a discovery of a locatable mineral is made. Locatable minerals include but are not limited to platinum, gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc, uranium and tungsten’. 1

So in theory, any American can prospect and mine on any of the public land in Hinsdale County, excepting wilderness areas which are exempt from this law. In reality, setting up a mine is an expensive, and risky business. The histories of almost all the mines in the vicinity of Lake City are tales of boom and bust, and this is a pattern that repeats itself across the world.

Before 1872, although legal under state and territorial law, mining in the west was illegal under federal legislation. In 1865, it was proposed that an army be sent to the West (Arizona, Colorado and California) to expel all the miners and to protect the Government’s mineral rights, and that the government itself should work the mines.

However, representatives of the West counter-argued that miners were doing useful work by settling new lands and helping commerce. And so a series of laws were passed that protected the miners’ claims.

Today many people have mining claims. The plans of these claims show rectangular strips overlaid onto dense contours, but the interaction of plan and 3D geometries has some interesting consequences.

The surface area of the claim is much greater than it appears from a plan (top-down) perspective, since the rectangular claim is draped over some very steep terrain. See this animation from Spike Productions of mining claims along the alpine loop (including the Ute Ulay).

At first sight the mountains and claims make for a very odd combination. However, when you consider that the actual mineral extraction is happening underground, it ceases to matter what the surface topography is. As a miner you can continue drilling and blasting and hoping in your rectangular cuboid space (with an irregular lid) under the mountains.