Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gold Mining in the Wichitas

Long before dear ole Uncle Sam decided to make searching for gold illegal in the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma miners of the shiny metal were digging holes just about everywhere they thought gold would be.

These old mines dot the landscape of the Wichita Mountains and can be as small as just a few feet in size to 10-15 feet across and go to unknown depths. The deeper ones are full of water so there’s no good way to tell how deep they are unless you carry a long string and weight with you everywhere you go. These mines for the most part are all hand dug with the occasional help of a stick of dynamite or two and they are dug right into solid granite. That’s a tough way to make a living!

The Spanish were in the Wichitas looking for gold and silver centuries before anyone else and then came the white man trying hard to find the next big strike or even uncover one of the old Spanish mines or treasures they left behind. As you hike around the parts of the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge that are open to the public you can see Spanish markers is certain places and even come across one or more of the old mines. Most of the mines you find were made in the early 1900s by men looking to strike it rich. These mines are fairly easy to identify because of the tailings. You can also come across the occasional lead mine in the mountains, also easily distinguishable by their dark colored tailings.

If you are looking for the old Spanish mines you also might try looking for the arrastres they left behind. These aren’t as plentiful as the old mines but there are a few out there. I ran across one many moons ago when I was looking for clues to something else, I mean hiking in the mountains, and I know there are other people that have found them in the Wichitas too. As a historical note, the inventor of the “arrastre ore grinder” is said to be Bartolemeo De Medina of Pachuca, Mexico. Yes, Mexico and not Spain. This style of ore grinding was thought to be developed around 1557. The arrastre is not a purely Spanish or Mexican device. In the 1850’s gold rush of California the white man made use of this design to crush ore also. Because of that, the arrastre was widely used by several different types of people for centuries.

Searching for old gold mines can be fun and even rewarding if you have a little luck on your side. Even if there isn’t any gold left you could find one of the old mine claim markers that were set up by the miners in the late 1800’s and early 1900s. These claim markers are usually in a triangle around the mine, marking the claim area. The claim markers are generally a stack of rocks and one of the three markers usually had an old can or jar in it with a piece of paper in the can/jar telling whose claim you were on. Although most of these won’t be worth much I think it would be very interesting to find one still in tact and be able to read the information about who had the claim and when. Finding your own piece of history is always better than reading about it in a book. Searching the tailings of the old mines can occasionally give you a surprise like a piece of quartz with some shiny stuff in it. You can also uncover a snake or to if you’re not careful!

This is where I should put in a disclaimer and warning. According to the Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge’s own brochure; ”The natural attractions of the refuge are many and varied. In addition to viewing and photographing wildlife in their natural setting, visitors find the lakes, streams, canyons, mountains and grasslands ideal for hiking, fishing and other activities”. It’s those “other activities” that can get you into trouble.

Although it is legal to hike in certain areas of the Refuge Mountains, looking for or removing “anything of value or antiquity” is highly forbidden. So are firearms and metal detectors. Again, according to the brochure, “all plants, animals, and minerals (rocks) are protected and should not be disturbed or collected”. If you are wondering, the “(rocks)” inserted in there is from the federal government and not me. Uncle Sam doesn’t want you making off with any dirt from public lands, that just wouldn’t be right!

Besides the old mines, the area of the Wichita Mountains is loaded with stories about hidden treasure (also illegal to look for or remove on the refuge) from the Spanish and outlaws, including Jesse and Frank James. There are some of their clues still out there to be found but without a map most of the outlaw clues won’t mean much.

I routinely “hike” in the mountains and enjoy it immensely. If you ever get the chance you should definitely take a trip to the wildlife refuge and do some “hiking”. Stop in and say hello to Okie while you’re there. He can point out a few spots that are interesting to look in, er, I mean hike in.

Be careful of the elk, longhorn and buffalo, they don’t care too much for up close visitors. We don’t want to be reading about you in the Darwin awards!

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