Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Mules over mountains - a wild mining story from old Idaho

How did supplies get moved to remote places like mining camps in the old west? They got packed in on the backs of mules, as shown above in an 1871 U. S. Army image.

Last April I saw a newspaper article about a memorial honoring Jesus Urquides, a Mexican-American pioneer. Over at the public library I found Max Delgado’s 2006 book Jesus Urquides: Idaho’s Premier Muleteer, which was based on his master’s thesis in history at Boise State University. There is a wild story in there (on page 54) about how back in 1892 Jesus used his mules to carry a six-ton coil of 7/8” diameter wire rope for a Swem aerial tramway from Challis over three mountains to the Yellowjacket gold mine.

Like most wonderful old stories, this one was written about three decades after it happened in late fall of 1892. Urquides told one version to the Idaho Statesman, and G. L. Sheldon told another different one in the Christmas 1920 issue of the Engineering and Mining Journal. (Look up his article on Mining Experiences in Idaho in the Nineties on Google Books).

The Yellowjacket mine was located on a mountain 1,200 feet higher than the mill. Ore had to be hauled down in horse-drawn wagons or sleighs. So, they decided to put in an aerial tramway that instead would carry it in 125-pound buckets. The problem was that to construct it they needed to move an 8,400 foot length of wire rope as a single coil over mountain trails. Urquides said:

“It was necessary to get this wire to the mine without any break, for a splice would have been too dangerous for tramway work...and I loaded it on 35 mules, spreading it out with the mules in three rows. We had to pack between 60 and 70 miles up and down the steepest mountainsides. Several times, one of my mules would roll down the side of the mountain, taking the rest with them. Then it was necessary to get them all up, repack again, and start out. I never coveted another job like that.”

According to Sheldon the tramway decreased their ore transportation costs per ton from $2.50 to $0.07. You can find more stories in a freely downloadable 175-page book-length bulletin by Merle W. Wells called Gold Camps & Silver Cities (Nineteenth Century Mining in Central and Southern Idaho). 

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