Gold Fever

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North America » United States » South Dakota » Lead
July 2nd 2011
Published: March 26th 2012
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Mount Rushmore pancakeMount Rushmore pancakeMount Rushmore pancake

South Dakota's most famous landmark in dough form!
For Americans, the northern Black Hills are identified with gold.

Even though Custer’s expedition first discovered gold in the central hills, the northern hills ultimately produced the most.

The cities most identified with gold mining, Lead and Deadwood, have become mythic.

Today started with breakfast at the campground.

This particular KOA has pancakes every morning.

The cook made a pancake version of Mount Rushmore after I mentioned going there.

After eating, I was on my way.

Spearfish Canyon

The best route to the mythic golden cities of the Black Hills is though Spearfish Canyon, the route of an old railroad.

The canyon is as scenic as anything else the Black Hills has to offer, including the Needles Highway.

The highway exit gives a view of a large hill that resembles a big sleeping bear.

It’s called Bear Butte, and sacred to the Lakota.

After passing through the town of Spearfish, the road enters the canyon.

The lower portion of the canyon runs through high vertical walls, with sculpted stone majesty around every turn of the stream.

Bridal Veil Falls appears about halfway along.
Bear ButteBear ButteBear Butte

Bear Butte, sacred to the Lakota, outside Spearfish

A stream slides directly down the canyon wall into Spearfish Creek.

The water level was very high, so the source of the name was obvious.

My one complaint about this waterfall is that it is seen from roadside, so some trees got in the way.

The rock majesty continues until Savoy, where Little Spearfish Creek joins the main stream.

A restaurant called the Latchstring sits at the junction.

The far corner of the parking lot lies by the stream, which had a lot of water in it.

The stream reaches an obvious ledge and disappears.

Something good has to be down there.

A trail from the other end of the parking lot heads down into the canyon.

It reveals every plant zone in the canyon.

First, it passes through hardwood forest near the roadside.

It breaks into a riparian environment, which is influenced by floods from the creek.

This part is filled with wildflowers.

The bridge across the creek revealed just how high it was; all the rocks were covered by rapids.

On the far side, the trail
Spearfish CanyonSpearfish CanyonSpearfish Canyon

A typical view in Spearfish Canyon. Remember to pull over before shooting!
entered a shady pine grove.

In the pines was the payoff for the entire hike, Spearfish Falls.

Little Spearfish Creek falls from a hanging valley into the main creek.

The creek spread out as a fan at the top and then fell as a wide curtain.

A dense central section was surrounded by smaller filaments.

The waterfall rarely looks like this, and this looked quite good.

A dirt road leads up Little Spearfish Canyon from the junction.

It passes more waterfalls, a group collectively called Roughlock Falls.

Since Spearfish Falls was high, these were high as well.

The uppermost part is a series of small cascades and slides.

They looked good due to the high water.

Below them is the first real falls, a drop into a ravine.

At this water level, it was a pour over.

The impact produced enough spray to create a rainbow at the correct angle.

The final waterfall was a steep slide.

After the junction, the canyon walls started to drop.

Soon enough, the road passed a pond created by a dam.
Bridal Veil FallsBridal Veil FallsBridal Veil Falls

Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon

After this, the canyon turned into a valley like any other in the hills.

It was still pretty, but nothing special.

A few miles of rolling hills later, and I was in Lead.

Lead is the home of the legendary Homestake Mine, the oldest gold mine in the world at the time it closed in 2002.

This mine produced gold for 125 years!

It is also one of the deepest, ranking with the legendary deep mines of South Africa.

Lead grew up around the mine, and was a company town in every sense of the word.

Incidentally, the name is pronounced with a long ‘e’; it refers to the surface geology that leads prospectors to likely gold.

Black Hills Mining Museum

The Black Hills Mining Museum tells the story of the mine and the town.

The actual mine is too dangerous to enter, so they created a simulation in their basement!

Tours are given by knowledgeable guides.

It will be familiar to anyone who has seen a hard rock mining operation before.

The mine was created by drilling and blasting shafts straight down.
Spearfish Creek wildflowersSpearfish Creek wildflowersSpearfish Creek wildflowers

Wildflowers along Spearfish Creek, on the trail to Spearfish Falls.

These were lined with wooden timbers in the old days.

Miners would then blast rocks off horizontal shafts, which were allowed to fall to the bottom of the vertical ones.

The ore carts collected them there and brought them to the surface to be milled.

The rocks were pulverized into dust and then mixed with multiple chemicals, including cyanide.

The mix was heated and the slag removed, leaving pure gold.

One ton of rock was required to extract one ounce of gold.

The tour shows the changing technology of mining.

In the beginning, miners wore little more than wool outfits and hats with candles.

They got one candle free per week.

If it ran out, they had to buy another one, which cost almost a day’s pay.

Drilling was done with long spikes that one miner held and another hit with a sledgehammer.

This was much harder than it sounds because finding the end of the spike in the near dark was nearly impossible.

Bruised hands from near misses were very common.

Blasting was done with black powder.

Spearfish FallsSpearfish FallsSpearfish Falls

Spearfish Falls, where Little Spearfish Creek falls directly into Sprearfish Creek.
technology led to huge gains in productivity.

Safety goggles came into use, along with improved clothing.

The most important change was compressed air drills.

These drills were big and heavy, and two miners were required to use them, but they were much faster than the spikes.

Carbide lamps, which could last weeks, replaced the candles.

Finally, TNT replaced the black powder.

TNT was blasted different to black powder.

To use it efficiently, miners created a series of circles of holes that resemble a sunflower.

The central holes were blasted first to weaken the rock, and then the outer holes were blasted to knock it out.

The guide demonstrates the process on the tour (with fake charges, of course).

Later technology improved things even more.

The big heavy air drills were replaced by smaller drills on a slanted post.

One miner can operate these, and they were used until the mine closed.

The mine also paid almost $15,000 for a hollow drill covered in industrial diamonds.

The museum now has it.

The drill was used to extract samples that a geologist analyzed to find likely
Roughlock Falls with rainbowRoughlock Falls with rainbowRoughlock Falls with rainbow

The main drop of Roughlock Falls shot from the top, with a rainbow on the lower right from the spray.
gold veins.

The mine had far less dry shafts after this change.

The biggest safety change was the rescue chamber.

Built periodically underground, these rooms had spare oxygen canisters, first aid kits, and other life saving gear.

One technology did not change at all in the century the mine was in operation, the comfort station.

When miners had to go, getting to the surface would take far too long.

The mine owned what amounts to a porta-potty on wheels, and it was used throughout the time the mine operated.

During the gold rush, the Homestake lode was claimed by multiple groups of people.

They called it “Homestake” because it could be rich enough to build a house and retire for life.

The most important portion was held by two brothers, Fred and Mose Manuel.

They realized that they did not have the expertise to turn their claim into a mine, so they auctioned it off.

A group of investors led by George Hearst, a California State Senator who had learned the business during that state’s gold rush, paid $30,000 for the claim.

That was an unimaginable amount at the time.

They then spent an additional $15,000 buying the other claims in the area.

Five years later, the mine produced more gold per year than what the group had paid for all the claims.

If George Hearst’s name sounds familiar, his mine profits financed the newspaper empire of his son, William Randolph Hearst.

Over the next century, the mine just grew and grew.

Multiple times, the mine managers figured it was nearly tapped out, and every time geologists found deeper veins of gold to exploit.

The museum has a map of the final mine layout, which looks like the map of Wind Cave stood on end.

Back on the surface, the museum tells the story of Lead.

As noted above, Lead was a company town.

Its makeup and life resembled other Victorian mining towns.

Immigrants from around the world moved here to work in the mine.

They formed a long list of organizations to support themselves, provide entertainment, and a reminder of home.

Thanks to the mine, Lead had one of the first telephone
Old mining techniqueOld mining techniqueOld mining technique

The original way of mining for gold: The man on the left holds a sledgehammer and hits the spike held by the man on the right. Light comes from candles.
systems in South Dakota, and was electrified early.

The museum has the original phone switch board, and collections of old electrical equipment.

The Hearst’s were fairly generous to Lead, and paid for a long list of civic buildings, including the library.

The question for Lead is what happens now that the mine, the town’s only large employer, has closed.

The current plan is a particle physics lab run by Stanford.

Certain particle physics experiments are so sensitive that the neutrino particles from the sun will destroy them.

The old mine is deep enough that the earth absorbs virtually all of the neutrinos.

The deepest part is being turned into the lab.

The town has basically staked its future on the project.

Before leaving, I went and saw the famous open cut.

The owners of the Homestake mine realized early on that mining gold near the surface through tunnels would be inefficient.

They created an enormous open pit.

The pit grew so big that parts of the town became unstable; the mine owners bought out the people involved and moved them higher up the hills.
Current mining techniqueCurrent mining techniqueCurrent mining technique

Post air drills used at the time the Homestake mine closed.

The pit is still there, a narrow and very deep man made ravine in the hills.

Three of the hills surrounding the pit look like ziggurats rather than normal hills; these are piles of mine tailings.

The fourth hill has clearly been cut in half, with dark veins in the rock clearly visible.

While the open cut is certainly impressive to see, it’s important to remember the site is also one of the Black Hills bigger environmental disasters, on par with the mountaintop removal coal mines of Kentucky (see The Cumberland).


The road out of Lead drops through a steep mountain valley.

The sides of the valley have clear signs of former buildings and dams.

These are the remainders of the first power plant for the mine.

The valley quickly ends at a town that is as different from Lead as possible, Deadwood.

Deadwood is one of the most mythic towns in the west.

The very act of creating it was illegal (see Tourists in a Sacred Land); and it gained a reputation for men with gold dust in their pockets, liquor in their bellies, and guns on their
Homestake Open CutHomestake Open CutHomestake Open Cut

A portion of the open cut. Notice how the hill has been cut in half

Most of the stories of the Wild West are at best exaggerated, but they come closest to the truth here.

Deadwood and Lead may be only four miles apart, but never suggest they are twins, or even distant cousins.

Lead was a working hard rock mining town; Deadwood made its cash first from placer mining in creeks, and then from supplying miners in the surrounding hills.

After the gold ran out, Deadwood slowly faded away.

The town ultimately survived on supplying nearby Lead, and tourists.

One of the bigger blows happened in 1980, when a surprise FBI raid shut down the town’s four brothels.

In 1995, town leaders made the bold proposal of legalizing gambling.

Unbelievably for many, South Dakota voters passed it.

Much of Deadwood is now filled with slot machines.

The place is no Las Vegas, though.

Bet limits are very low by state law, and Deadwood attracts low rollers to match.

Like any gambling town, visiting with wallet intact requires advance research.

Several hotels, for example, pitch a free “coupon book” whose stated value is larger than the room
Downtown DeadwoodDowntown DeadwoodDowntown Deadwood

The slot filled Victorian masterpiece that is Deadwood

Only internet research reveals that most of the “coupons” are actually two for one deals on merchandise and meals, so a visitor will end up spending more than the room rate just to use them.

At least Deadwood now looks great.

This city holds the unusual distinction of being a national historic site in its entirety.

A share of all gambling profits goes to the local historic commission, which has used it to restore many buildings.

Downtown is a neon lit brick Victorian masterpiece (with lots of blinking lights behind the facades, of course).

One of the best places to explore old Deadwood is at Saloon Number 10.

It’s most famous as the place where Wild Bill Hickock (more on him later) was shot playing poker.

What they don’t mention is that the building burned down on 1879, and the owners moved before reopening.

The saloon looks like it did back then, but in the wrong location!

The interior is a riot of western memorabilia, pictures of old Deadwood, pictures of old cowboys and miners, and hunting trophies.

It’s still a working bar.

The back holds six gaming tables.

I played low stakes blackjack for a bit instead of poker.

I ended up losing ten bucks, but it was worth it for the experience of gambling in the Wild West.

I spent the night at the Bullock Hotel.

This hotel is the oldest in Deadwood that is still operating.

It was built by, and is named for, Deadwood’s first official sheriff.

The first floor is mostly slot machines at this point, pushing the registration desk to a back corner.

The guest rooms are fully restored Victorian masterpieces.

Staying here felt like a time warp.


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