Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Them Thar Hills – Erich

What is so important about gold? Yesterday we visited a gold mine, or a mine that still has gold in it but isn't currently being worked. And Carver asked essentially this question. Why gold?

Gold is soft and easy to work, making it great for coins and jewelry. But you can't make tools out of it like iron. True, gold doesn't rust or degrade, but stainless steel is pretty resistant to that too.

So what was it in antiquity that made people willing to die and to kill for gold? Why was it so sought after by everyone from Californians to conquistadors?

I don't know. But I did learn more about getting it out of the ground.

We headed up to Walhalla, here in Victoria. Walhalla is a neat town, sort of held in time from when it was last truly populated. Now 23 people live there, but it lives on for historical tourism.

Walhalla is in a valley between two mountains and you have to climb a twisty road to reach it. In the winter, because of its position between two high ridges, they only get about two hours of direct sunlight a day. We were happy to be there in the spring.

But in its time, Walhalla was a thriving town built around gold mining. There were five separate gold mines in the mountain at its west. We visited the Long Tunnel Extended Gold Mine. We went in with our guide and with one other couple from the United Kingdom.
It's cold inside there
It took the miners ten years to even build the main adit (horizontal shaft at the entry and exit level.) Then they built a boiler room in the back so they could have steam power for drills and eventually for a lift (an elevator). After this they dug straight down and made more horizontal digs running directly under the main adit. Each of these was mined for anywhere from one ounce to a maximum of about fifty ounces of gold per ton of rock. Most of the time it was around 3 or 4 ounces per ton.

The mine was active for fifty years from 1865 to 1915. Inside we saw the main shaft, one smaller shaft, and the big boiler room and lift room at the backs. We learned why timber is used to build the supports and not metal.
This kind of support is called a "pig sty"
When the rock begins to press on wood, the wood creaks and moans. The miners say timber speaks to them. So they know that something is wrong and they have to fix it or get out. With metal, it keeps quiet. It just bears the weight until it can't bear it anymore and then suddenly snaps.

The highest paid man working inside the mine was the lift operator. The lift could only carry two men at a time. And they were all down on various levels, some of them far below ground. They didn't have radios to communicate with the lift operator, so if they needed the lift, they had to pull cords to ring bells.

The lift operator had to carefully listen to Morse Code being rung out by bells to figure out which level needed a lift car. If the miners were blasting with dynamite and the lift operator sent the car to the wrong level, those miners didn't get out in time. One of many ways to die in the mines. We'll get to more on that.

Because the lift operator had to hear so closely, the lift needed to run as silently as possible. So there was another man who had to, once a day, climb a ladder up into a dark sloped tunnel. He had to go to its peak where the big pulley for the lift was. Then he had to grease it to keep it quiet.
The ladder for the pulley greaser
But the pulley greaser was not the second highest paid man in the mine. That was the dunny man. A dunny is an Australian slang word for a toilet. The dunny man had to go from level to level and collect the excrement and then get it up and out of the mine.

Since the mine was built, 52 people have died within it, and perhaps a much larger number died because of ailments they got mining there. There were a lot of ways to die.

Of course there were rockfalls and cave-ins. There were supports that fell away and dropped people into deep shafts. The lower levels were underwater so had to be pumped out. This didn't stop occasional drownings though. At the very lowest level, the water was still ankle to hip deep and bitterly cold. Some of the men who worked here died of foot rot. I'm not entirely sure what that is, but it sounds horrible. I'm resistant to looking it up online because I don't necessarily want to know what it is.

Other miners died of miner's lung. It's similar to black lung in coal mines, but this was the super fine silicates that got into their lungs and shredded their alveoli. Then they would live on with less ability to breathe day after day. And some died of arsenic poisoning, as the matrix that holds the gold also holds arsenic. Of course, no one knew that at the time.

In the end, it wasn't the deaths that stopped the mine from production in 1915. There were two factors. One was the first World War. Many of the miners left Australia to go fight for the mother country. But that was not the main reason.

What was? Wood. To run the boiler required 35 tons of wood to be burned a day. In addition, timber was needed for supports. Plus people who lived in the valley needed wood to build their homes and then to heat their homes during the winter. There was a lot of demand for wood.

By 1915, all of the trees within 20 km of Walhalla had been cut. At that point, getting wood from further away and transporting it to the mines was so expensive that a ton of wood cost as much as the gold found in a ton of rock. It wasn't economically feasible anymore. Besides, none of the miners could afford to keep their families warm in the winter.

Now that entire region is covered in tall trees. But they are all regrowth over the last century.

Understand, the mine didn't stop running because they couldn't find gold. They never ran out of gold. There still is gold in them thar hills. Just no one is mining for it any longer.
The family, a mine cart, and rusty tools! It's got everything.
That's okay with us. I wasn't looking for a new career as a miner. As Carver, who is still three years shy of the 15 year requirement to begin work as a miner, pointed out: What really is so important about gold?

Certainly nothing I want to risk my life over.

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