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Saturday, February 15 2014

Among the many improvements made to mining technology during the Industrial Revolution, perhaps the most important involved drilling and blasting. In the early days, black powder, a relatively low-power explosive was the only blasting agent available. To use it, holes had to be pounded into rock by hand. Working in teams of two, one miner would hold a pointed steel chisel while the other hit it with a sledge hammer. Each hole had to be hand drilled to six or eight inches in depth. Needless to say, this was slow, tedious, and tiring work. During a 10-hour shift, a team could typically drill, load, and fire black powder charges in only eight or 10 holes. Depending on the size of the mine tunnel, that single blast could bring down three quarters to two and a half tons of rock.

Dynamite, an explosive five times more powerful than black powder, was invented in 1866 by Swedish chemist, Alfred Bernhard Nobel (the Nobel Prizes awarded today were named after him). Nobel held 350 different patents; dynamite is his most famous claim to fame. By the mid 1870s, dynamite had largely replaced black powder in the mines.

widow maker drillAround the same time period, pneumatic machine drills were first developed. Compressed air to power the drills was piped underground from large steam-powered compressors located at the surface. Machine drills could accommodate five to six foot drill steels that were capable of drilling three to four foot holes into sold rock in a matter of minutes. This new drill increased the tonnage of rock that could be blasted by two-man teams of miners to between four and 10 tons per shift. But, the new technology was not without hazards— namely the disease of silicosis. Machine drilling created clouds of razor sharp microscopic silica dust that miners breathed into their lungs. It took only a few years of operating this drill for a miner to develop this incurable disease. 

Unfortunately, thousands of hard rock miners died before J. George Leyner of Denver, Colorado invented a better machine drill that all but eliminated deadly silicosis. The improved drill forced water into the drill hole and created a harmless mud out of the drill shavings. The mud acted as a very efficient wet grinding compound while also cooling the drill bit, and the flow of water flushed out the drill hole. Leyner patented his mechanism in 1897. This type of drill hasn’t changed much over the years, and is still used in modern-day hard rock mines.

Posted by: Denise AT 07:24 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Sunday, February 02 2014

According to a recent article posted on, a mining supply company located in Auburn, California reported that business has been up by 10 percent. The boon in business is because in Placer County, rivers have dropped to historically low levels, opening new possibilities for prospectors.

"Stuff that's normally submerged in water is now available," said James Hutchings, Sacramento chapter president of the Gold Prospectors Association of America. "The exposed cracks and crevices can hold chunks of gold that have washed down from the mountains."

If you are heading to Auburn hoping to spot something shiny, also take some time to enjoy Old Town and learn the area's rich gold mining history. California State Highway 49, also known as the Gold Rush Highway, winds its way through a nine-county area that in the mid 1800s was home to more than 2,500 gold mining camps. Most of those camps disappeared after the gold ran out, but a few communities survived and even thrived. Auburn is one such city.

Claude ChanaAuburn was put on the map in 1849 by Claude Chana, who is credited with making the first gold discovery in this area. The Frenchman originally worked as a cooper for John Sutter when James Marshall discovered gold on January 24, 1848 in nearby Coloma, the birthplace of the California Gold Rush. Like many other men bitten by the gold bug, the Frenchman quit his job at Sutter Mill to search for the shiny stuff. But unlike many men, his gamble paid off and he quickly recovered $25,000 worth of gold in Auburn Ravine. Chana is memoralized by a monument you’ll see upon entering Old Town from Interstate 80. The sculptor, Dr. Kenneth Fox, was a local dentist in Auburn and is famous for his large concrete statues.

By 1860, Auburn was a substantial city with a population of about 1,300. Many gold miners using sluices and rockers made $1,200 to $1,500 a day here. Today, the population is about 13,000 and most residents are not prospectors, they are store owners or attorneys, or work at the county courthouse. Although fires swept through Auburn’s wooden buildings in 1855 and 1857, many businessmen rebuilt using brick and those are the buildings you see today. Nearly all of these historic structures are still used, many functioning in new ways and housing contemporary businesses.

There are over 60 restaurants, taverns, antique shops, art galleries, and unique specialty stores in Old Town. Check out the irregular shaped post office on Lincoln Way. It dates to1857 and was built directly over a branch of the Auburn Ravine (a stream still flows directly below). This post office is the oldest one in California housed in its original building, and is also the oldest continually operated post office west of the Mississippi.

If Old Town seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because it was featured in the 1996 film Phenomenon starring John Travolta, Kyra Sedgwick, Forest Whitaker and Robert Duvall. The crew filmed for a month in the fall of 1995 on Sacramento Street, as well as at places such as a bar, apple orchard, county courthouse, a park, and a lawyer's office.

Roughly 125 million ounces of gold were taken from the hills in California’s famed “Gold Country” during the Gold Rush. Auburn was lucky in that it survived the boom and bust cycles typical of early towns. Conveniently located at the junction of Interstate 80 and Highway 49, it’s easy to stop in and experience a bit of its golden history.

Placer County Courthouse  

Before becoming one of Auburn’s most famous attractions (corner of Lincoln Way and Commercial Street), this 1891 red and white firehouse was home to the Auburn Volunteer Fire Dept., one of the oldest volunteer groups west of the Mississippi. Organized in 1852, this group is still fighting Auburn fires.

The Placer County Courthouse at 101 Maple Street was completed in 1898 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It also houses a FREE museum that presents an overview of Placer County history and a nice collection of Native American artifacts. One of the best exhibits is 194 ounces of raw gold mined from Placer County soil.

auburn california

Known as the Joss House, this structure at 200 Sacramento Street in Auburn, California was built after the fire of 1855. It served as a temple and house of worship for the area’s Chinese population. In the 1880s, this block of Sacramento Street was known as “Chinatown Hill.” The Chinese concentrated here and operated laundry shops, opium dens and card rooms. Brewery Lane, just north of the Joss House, was the entrance to Auburn’s “red light district.” During the district’s illustrious history, a pious man seeking to burn out the ladies also unfortunately burned out some of the Chinese settlement.

Posted by: Denise AT 03:02 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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