Panning for Gold in Colorado

"...we could see tiny gold flakes glistening in the black sand, or what we thought was gold."

After a year in Palm Springs, the UWP crew headed for Colorado. Our curiosity about Colorado had in part been aroused by reading a book by the astrologer, Linda Goodman. We were enchanted to read of L. G.'s life in the old mining town of Cripple Creek. We never did make it to Cripple Creek, but we did see the old mining towns of Black Hawk and Central City, near where we panned for gold. Beckoning opportunities slipped through our fingers in Colorado like so much Fool's Gold. Finally, on one snowy January night, we slid and swerved on the icy roads that were to lead us eventually back to California.

A small rusting pan filled with quartz and rocks sits on a side shelf in the Undiscovered Worlds Explorers Club here in Denver. One of the rocks glows with a stream of tiny gold stars. Probably this rock represents no more than a few dollars worth of gold, but it's the real stuff. We found it when we decided to head into the Rockies.

We had heard about the old mining and ghost towns up there in the mountains so we headed out on Highway 6, then took Highway 119 going toward Black Hawk and Central City. Highways 6 and 119 take you around hairpin bends between towering rock formations in true Rockies fashion.

Spotting a good wide turnoff, we stopped to investigate the rushing stream fed by the melting snows high in the Rockies which accompanies the Highway, sometimes switching sides. (We think this stream is called Clear Creek—a bit of history from a brochure says, "May 7, 1859 is a most significant date in Colorado's history. It was then that John Hamilton Gregory found the first gold lode mine on North Clear Creek near Black Hawk.").

We all stared into the waters and finally, one of the crew announced that there did indeed seem to be gold in the sand under the water. In one spot in particular, small ferrels or spokes of glittering gold flecks were radiating out from the riverbank.

When Rachman and Stephanie tried to call Hartley to this spot, he insisted that there was gold everywhere. Well, a lot of the local sand and rocks did gleam with metallic (or silicon?) sparkle. We'd earlier stared hard at gold and iron pyrates (fool's gold) samples in the Denver museum's mineral department. It seemed to us that gold had a deeper, richer yellow glow than the other, but none of us could really be sure of the difference and a little scraping around demonstrated to us that the shiny particles under the water were of a fine dust like nature and very difficult to isolate. We made a half-hearted attempt at panning using the lid from a wok, but none of us knew how. What we needed was someone with the expertise to tell us if the shiny stuff was only fool's gold and if it wasn't, how to pan for gold.

A mile or so outside of Black Hawk we saw a sign on the road—"Gold Panning at The Old Timer." Hart swung the car around and we parked off the road by the side of a pickup truck and a shed constructed of gray weathered wood. A large Gary Cooper character wearing blue jeans and Cowboy hat came striding towards us from the back of the shed and wished us a good day. This turned out to be "Digger" Cummings—the owner of this land and the gold panning operation. Digger led us out to the back of the shed where a number of man made canals branched out over the land bridged by wooden platforms at intervals.

Digger gave each of us a pan and a small glass bottle with a black cap. He had us fill our pans from a bin of sand and gravel and under Digger's directions, we each took up our positions at one of the platforms which bridged the canals.

Digger then showed us how to pan for gold. He filled his pan with water and easing the gravel to one side began to gently rotate the pan back and forth. He then dipped the pan into the water a few times to clean off some of the sand which had risen to the surface.

"Gold panning is a thing you can't rush," he cautioned.

After awhile, Digger told us, we'd find at the bottom of our pans nothing but a residue of black sand. He'd be back then, he said, and show us what to do next and he strode away to attend to his various chores at the claim.

Dipping our pans into the canal, trying to remember to tip the pan so that the residue was at the top of the lip, the Undiscovered Worlds crew began to pan in earnest in the bright May sunshine. Washing, if you could remember the rhythm, then agitating.

Digger returned from time to time to observe how we were getting on.

A bright friendly fellow also came by and greeted us by asking if we were leaving him any gold? Later, we saw him at an intense panning operation which entailed using a much larger pan, apparently he was an experienced gold panner.

"The Hamilton placer," explains the Old Timer's brochure, "was mined in earnest in the thirties. After this mining activity of the early thirties, the Hamilton placer was virtually abandoned until 1961, when Bob, the present owner, a hobbiest, started 'The Old Timer,' inviting passers-by to come in and pan for gold. To the pleasure and enjoyment of thousands of people from all over the world 'The Old Timer' is the place to pan for gold. Most always, you will find some gold in the gold pan and hundreds of happy gold panners have had their efforts rewarded by finding a nugget or two. If you have never panned before, we?ll show you how and start you on the way to some exciting times during your stay in Colorado, for most all the streams in Colorado contain some gold."

Digger offered bits advice from time to time and information about the finding of gold, answering any questions we put to him.

"A few days ago," Digger remarked, as he watched our efforts, "a posse had came through my place after a mountain lion who'd been killing cattle and sheep. Normally," he explained, "a mountain lion will not bother domestic livestock."

He speculated "it must be an old cat whose teeth weren't too good any more."

Also, he said, there was quite a herd of big horn sheep on his property. Digger explained that he owned about 600 acres of the land around us, and that the whole mountain in front of us was laden with gold.

He was right, gold panning was a time consuming process, but little by little, everything but black sand was carried out of our pans. When that finally happened, we could see tiny gold flakes glistening in the black sand—or what we thought was gold. Digger got around to us again and confirmed that it was indeed gold. The black sand, he told us, was iron magnetite. He also pointed out that garnets were worthwhile and were found along with the gold. He showed us one of the rose-purple garnets in our pans. Stephanie found an inch long clump of what looked like a garnet and asked him about it.

"No," he said, "that's rose quartz."

Obviously, he was quite a mineral expert, well educated and a relaxed friendly genuine sort of man—the sort of western character that we hear is disappearing.

Now that we were down to black sand, Digger told us to fill our small bottles right to the brim with water. He then showed us how to "inspect," separate the black sand and pick up the tiny flecks of gold with a dry finger and put them into our small glass bottles.

Digger explained that our gold was probably only worth about 35 cents. But the chance to experience and participate in this bit of history is a rich one, whether one finds a lot of gold or not.

After an hour or so of panning we felt the need to be moving on. But not before we had bought an honest to goodness pan from Digger and received his card diplomas indicating that we were graduates of Digger's gold panning school.

Has this experience given the Undiscovered Worlds crew gold fever? Probably not, we'd always wanted to learn about gold panning and Digger has now fulfilled our wish. Some of you may recall our mention of placer gold in Northern California in a previous issue. For those of you who don't know much about the gold business, it is rich gold lodes that are usually profitable to mine. Placer gold (though still a rare find) is washed down many streams in several Western states and can be found in the form of small flecks (such as we found) with an occasional nugget which can be as small as a peppercorn right up to gravel size (but these are rare).

Digger's advice was that one could find gold by panning, but it was not very likely one could make it big by panning for gold.

Related stories concerning Denver, Colorado

Kansas Highway
While the three partners of the Undiscovered Worlds Press were living in Denver, a day trip to Kansas took us unexpectedly into the path of a tornado.
The Undiscovered Worlds crew catch the eternal questing spirit while living in Denver, Colorado, in the early 1990's.
Letter to Peter Hale
Our letter to Peter Hale, somehow catches the spirit of our time in Denver.

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