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      Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode
Ore Cars and Mining Equipment

Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode and the Sierras:

Long after the California gold rush was over there were still prospectors out in the hills trying to find the "big strike" that would make them rich. Most of the surface gold and placer deposits were worked out, so the only way to find gold was to dig down into hard rock following veins of quartz. Hard rock mining was very expensive and much labor was needed to dig the shafts, so most successful mining operations were conducted by large companies that could raise capital and hire many workers.

Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - typical wildcat mineYoung, adventurous miners knew that you couldn’t get rich working in the big mines, so they struck out on their own.  Working on a “shoestring”, these industrious but cash strapped men cobbled together simple, homemade and often discarded tools to work the mines.  They formed small partnerships and worked as a team, hoping to share the profit when they “struck it rich.”  They had no “articles of incorporation” and often didn’t even own the land they were working.  Many worked claims abandoned Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - Plymouth mineby bigger companies, or old mines that had played out. Webster’s dictionary defines the term “wildcat” as “any business or procedure or the like considered outside the bounds of legitimate practice”.    Thus they became known as “Wildcat Miners” and their diggings as “Wildcat Mines”.

A Typical Wildcat Mine

Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - head frameAll over the Mother lode and the Sierra mountains, along roads or “back in the brush” one can find abandoned shafts and holes.  They don’t seem to go into the earth very far, and there are no signs of buildings, head frames or industrial equipment in the area.  These holes are all that is left of a wildcat mine.  The typical wildcat operation was worked by two to six men. (more than that and the fighting broke out!)  If two men workedWildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - wildcat miners the mine, one man worked inside the mine and the other ran the winch or worked outside. Old miners used the term “two-man-mine” as a somewhat derogatory description of a very small, unprofitable venture.  The shafts—either vertical or horizontal—followed a vein of quartz found at the surface.  Cribbing or supports in the shaft were minimal and often consisted of chunks of trees and old used timbers from other mines.  Needless to say, with only a few men working at the site, they didn’t want to waste valuable time and effort shoring up the shaft when they could be digging for the big strike!  Because the shafts were not shored up very well, most of them have now caved Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - Pride of the West mine 1900in.  The miners often lived in tents and homemade shacks around the mine.  They had very few possessions, and lived off of beans and hunted meat.

Most of the time, the quartz played out after a few hundred feet, or the miners never found enough gold to pay the bills, or they got sick or injured.  Whatever the reason, the disillusioned wildcatters eventually gave up and moved on, leaving pileWildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - miners and babys of tin cans, a few old bottles and a lot of broken down equipment behind.  All this old junk has now become the “historical collectibles” that people residing in the Mother lode reverently display in their backyards and even living-rooms.

Equipment Used By Wildcat Miners

We see many pictures of old mines with giant steel head frames, monster size cable drum hoists, many buildings containing rows of big stamp mills and other ore processing equipment. These were deep, rich and successful mines run by corporations that sold stock and hired hundreds of workers.  But that is another story.

Wildcat Mines of the Mother Load - mortar and pestleSince the wildcat miners worked on a “shoestring,” their equipment was simple and inexpensive.  Also, they had very little heavy industrial equipment, because there was great cost and effort in transporting and setting up these pieces at the mine. Much of the equipment was homemade, often made out of wood and timber found around the mine.  The wildcat miners usually had only one used and often repaired ore car, a small homemade winch, and, if they weWildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - miners candlestickre lucky, a few sections of narrow gauge iron track.  If they couldn’t afford the iron track, they made it out of wood!  If the mine was a vertical shaft, they built a small head frame with a cable wheel and the winch ran an ore bucket down into the mine.  If the mine was successful enough to go fairly deep, then they added a water pump and an air compressor.  Most often the tools used for digging were simply picks, shovels, rock drill shafts and sledgehammers.  Air operated rock drills were expensive!

Wildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - Hercules blasting capsThe most effective tool used by wildcat miners was dynamite!  Many a small mining operation ended suddenly, however, when blasting caved in the shaft and the miner setting the charge never came out.  Most of the rock dug out of the mine was tailings or “muck”.  It was loaded into the ore car and dumped out near the mine. One can usually gauge the depth of the hole by looking at the tailings pile next to the adit or entrance.

When gold ore was brought out, it had to be crushed and worked.  SomeWildcat Mines of the Mother Lode - muller: hand operated ore crusher miners could afford small portable crushers or stamp mills made commercially, but most used small grinders called mullers and washed the slurry in cradles or even pans.  In the final analysis then, most of the equipment used by wildcat miners had to be small and light enough to be transported on a wagon or mule, since the mines gave out quickly and the equipment had to be moved to a new prospect often.  In most operations, the biggest and most bulky item used was the ore car or ore bucket.  Luckily for the collectors of today, when the mines gave out, these were often left behind by tired and broke miners that finally gave up their dream.



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