"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Silvery Metal Used to Gather Glittering Gold


by Don Baumgart

Mercury was as important to hard rock gold mining as the yellow stuff itself.

Named after Mercury, the swift messenger of the Roman Gods because of its fast-moving liquid form, it was also known as quicksilver and was used to collect gold flakes from the crushed quartz slurry produced by Gold Rush stamp mills.

As gold prospecting moved from nuggets in streams to underground mining, mercury had to be produced in large quantities. One of the main sources of mercury was the Great Western Quicksilver Mine in Lake County. It became one of the most important and longest producing mercury mines in California between 1875 and 1900.

Its history is recounted by Helen Goss in her book The Life and Death of a Quicksilver Mine. Her father was superintendent of the mine for more than two decades and she grew up at the mine site.

Unfortunately the essential substance was found and mined at some distance from the hard rock mines and had to be transported by wagon across mountains.

"Four six-horse teams arrived in town Monday evening, having been over a week coming from Sulphur Bank Quicksilver Mine, a distance of 45 miles. They report the road is in extremely bad condition," read the report in the Calistogan, January 30, 1878.

From Calistoga the slippery silver metal went by rail to San Francisco, then upriver by boat to the mines.

Back at the source, a Litchfield Fine Ore Furnace was installed at the Great Western Quicksilver mine in September, 1880. Ms Goss describes it as having the greatest ore-burning capacity of any quicksilver furnace in the state, probably in the world. It could reduce 45 to 50 tons of mercury-bearing ore to quicksilver in 24 hours of operation.

Eventually the mine had five such furnaces.

Goss describes mercury running from long tables into a big iron pot sunk in the ground. On bottling day, "using a dipper to lift up the heavy, silvery liquid," her father would pour the metal through a funnel into strong iron flasks. The sturdy flasks weighed 14 pounds empty, 90 pounds when filled.

The filled flasks were stacked on their sides, ready to load on wagons for the torturous trip across the hills to Calistoga and on to places like Grass Valley where the stamp mills that cracked gold-bearing quartz were hungry for the helpful substance.

The Great Western Quicksilver Mine shipped between 6,000 and 7,000 flasks a year at its peak. More than $3 million worth of mercury was mined and sold during Ms. Goss' father's 24 years of supervising the mine. Only about a third of the mercury used to recover gold was reclaimed. The rest was lost, going into the steams and ground near the mines.

Like the gold it was used to recover, mercury was mined underground and tunneling for slippery silver riches was no less dangerous than digging for gold.

"The timber fell several feet and struck him with terrible force," one mercury miner's wife wrote in a letter to relatives, "but fortunately no bones were broken."

Mercury's unique qualities have kept it in use. Since it is a metal, and conducts electricity, mercury is used today in electrical switches and relays, prized for its silent efficiency. Mercury vapor, giving off light when electricity is passed through it, has produced street lights that have helped illuminate the night.

Many dry cell batteries, those tiny work horses of our electronic age, are an amalgam of mercury, zinc, and cadmium.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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