Mining Quarterly correspondent
A gold rush in 1868 led to the birth of South Pass City, Wyoming, the site of booms and busts that many years later became a restored ghost town open to visitors.
Tourists also can tour the nearby Carissa Mine and Mill.
They can even go underground beginning Labor Day weekend, when 300 feet of drifting and about 100 feet of cross drifts will be opened to the public at an old exploration tunnel from the gold rush era of the late 1860s.
“The rock is hard, and there is no subsidence,” said Jon Lane, curator for South Pass for the Wyoming State Parks and Historical Sites, speaking about the exploration tunnel opening to the public.
The underground site is near the Carissa structures.
“The first location of the Carissa load was in 1867, when a party of prospectors out of Fort Bridger” found the gold and mined all that summer and fall, Lane said.
They mined the Glory Hole at what became the Carissa Mine in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains.
When those prospectors returned to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, with 500 ounces of gold and began spending their money on supplies, news of the gold strike got out, and the rush began.
Among those coming for the gold rush were people out of Austin, Nevada, Lane said. An Austin newspaper called the South Pass rush “humbug,” he said.
“By 1871, the easy pickings were gone, and people were moving on,” Lane said.
South Pass City had as many as 3,000 people in its heyday.
The next gold rush was in 1897 and 1898, when there was another boom at South Pass City, roughly 30 years after the first one. However, the 1868 rush was when most of the South Pass City buildings were constructed. By the late 1890s, two-thirds or more of the structures were torn down, burned or destroyed by nature, Lane said.
“The second boom used more technology so there wasn’t nearly the manpower needed,” he said.
Gold mining operations from the second boom ended by 1906, and yet another boom started in 1929, and that one lasted until about 1931, when the mine went into receivership.
Most of the buildings at Carissa, including the shaft building, the mill, a bunkhouse and eating hall, went up during that boom, although there were some buildings from 1898, Lane said.
Another boom was born after World War II. The modern ball mill, cyanide tank and conversion of the hoist from steam to electricity happened in 1946. This time the Carissa Mine operated through 1949. There was a reorganization and more mining for a couple of years.
“In 1952 and 1953, they were still making deposits in Denver at the Mint,” Lane said.
Companies always hoped new technology would bring profits to gold mining at the Carissa, but that didn’t happen. Even when a Canadian company dewatered the underground workings in the 1990s to determine if there was potential, the company pulled out without mining.
Lane said the Carissa produced roughly 100,000 ounces of gold in the 150 years of on-and-off mining, although there are no precise figures, and some geologists think it is lower, while other sources think it was 50 percent higher.
While most old gold sites and ghost towns in the West haven’t been restored, and old mills haven’t been refurbished for tourists to see how gold was produced in earlier times, the state of Wyoming saw the potential at South Pass City.
The state acquired the town in the late 1960s from John and Minnie Woodring and started preservation work on South Pass City by the early 1970s, as the nation’s bicentennial neared.
Today, visitors to South Pass City can see restored buildings with furnishings of the time behind glass, following a booklet that identifies each structure and provides a history.
Restoration work on the Carissa Mine came later because the state didn’t acquire the land until 2003. Today, visitors can tour the shaft building, see an old ore car and the trestle that moved ore cars down the hill to the mill building for processing.
Visitors also can go to the mill building and see a jaw crusher, a working ball mill, a shaker table that actually shakes, a bucket elevator that works, and the working arm of the thickener tank. Sand from the shaker table went to the thickener tank, where there was a cyanide solution.
Tour guide Sandy Fortner said the ball mill used four tons of steel balls.
Carissa Mine poured its own gold bars, and the assay area, with its furnace for samples, looks the way it might have in bygone years. The furnace where gold was poured also is on display.
“They poured a bar about every two weeks,” Fortner said.
The mercury and lead were used in processing and were a major liability when the state acquired the 200-acre site, buildings and mineral and water rights for $325,000.
At the shaft house, tour guide Fortner tells visitors the underground Carissa Mine has five levels, although the cage for men and ore only goes to four levels. Mined-out areas weren’t backfilled. One stope is 80 feet high.
She said it is a “very, very stable mine” because of the rock.
The mine is flooded now, but visitors can look at the shaft.
She tells the visitors the miners of the earlier times called themselves quartz miners, rather than gold miners.
In the hoist room, Fortner, who lives in South Pass City during the summer and Arizona the rest of the time, points to the rack of headlamps miners used in the later operations, as well as the hoist to move the miners or ore loads.
On display are an air compressor moved from an old mine in nearby Atlantic City, Wyoming, a forge and jack-leg drills that each weighed more than 100 pounds.
“They had three shifts in the 1950s,” she said.
A sign listing the bell codes for the hoist is on a wall, and Fortner rings the hoist bell. The operator communicated to teams below via the bell.
Visitors have the chance to push the ore car a short way along the rails that lead to the mill building. The car is about half full for display. Fortner said workers hand-pushed the cars as quickly as they could because the 60-ton mill needed to be fed.
Although there was a conveyor belt in the later mining era, the state rebuilt the trestle as it was when the rail cars were used.
“It’s interesting to see,” said Travis Leach, a mine engineer with Harrison Western Construction, who was on the Aug. 3 tour. “To rebuild a mine is rare and pretty impressive.”
Visitors also see the Glory Hole, where the earliest miners went underground to get out the gold, and where the first claims were staked.
“The vein goes past Atlantic City … it’s pretty much a straight line,” Fortner said.
Atlantic City still has remnants of old mining and old buildings, but there also are people living in the town. The whole mining area was called the Sweetwater Mining District.
Once the state acquired the mine site, the state’s Abandoned Mines Land Division spent time at the mine mitigating any hazardous materials and mine dangers, as well as environmental issues, before restoration could begin.
The Abandoned Mines Land Division is back, working at the site now designing stabilization efforts for the old bunkhouse, cookhouse and office building that Lane hopes to have restored and furnished for visitors within the next few years.
Lane said tourism at South Pass City has been steady at roughly 15,000 to 16,000 visitors per year for the past 20 years. The site is open from mid-May to Sept. 30. Friends of South Pass support the historic site with fundraisers and profits from the Smith-Sherlock Co. store.
South Pass City and the Carissa Mine can be reached from Wyoming Highway 28. The turnoff is roughly 23 miles north of U.S. 287. South Pass City is roughly 34.5 miles from Lander, which is on U.S. 287.