The fourth installment of Golden Memories A Time…A Town comes from Chapter Seven, titled Golden Clay Mines. George offers a thorough description of this long-lived Golden industry. While it’s great material, it’s a little long for this format, so I’m breaking it into several parts.
Golden Clay Mines
While we were growing up, Grandad’s clay mines were something special to my brothers and Cousin Bus, as well as myself. The fragrant, cool air flowing from the darkness of the mines on a hot summer day was refreshing as a wintergreen mint. The dynamite smoke, the scent of green pine used for timbering tunnels, the pungency of the carbide residue from the miner’s lamps and the emanation from the damp clay itself, all combined to produce a very pleasant and unusual odor, unlike any other I have ever experienced.
The mines are abandoned now because the clay once used by Cambria, the local brickyard, Coors pottery, (now Coors porcelain), and Denver users, has been depleted. The clay industry, once so important to Golden’s economy, is at a standstill. Only memories remain.
Millions of years ago Mother Nature created a series of low mountain ridges or “hogbacks” extending north and south of what is now Golden, paralleling the front range of the Colorado Rockies. These ridges can be explained by geologists but not by me. Simply put, the hogbacks are long narrow hills composed of layers or veins of rock, coal blossom and clay. At one time the layers were probably laying flat beneath ancient lakes until some kind of violent action within the earth tilted the layers and forced them into the nearly upright position we see today. Parallel to the hogbacks is a wide, almost upright, vein of red sandstone characterized by such outcroppings as can be seen in the “Flat Irons” near Boulder, the Garden of the Gods near Colorado Springs, and the magnificent Red Rocks Park between Golden and Morrison. There is a trace of this red sandstone near the base of Mount Zion, just west of Golden, which has been long been known s Giant Rock.
One hogback begins about a mile north of Golden, beyond the site of old Golden Gate City (Hay City), and extends north to Dry Creek where it steps down to cross the creek, then rises again to continue north Ralston Creek. Here, again, the hogback steps down to let the stream pass and then continues on north.
Grandfather Henry Golightly leased the southernmost section of the first hogback from the owners of the Golden Fire Brick Company, mined the clay, then sold it back to the Company for making fire brick. Grandfather’s first mine was located at the south end of the hogback where the blue clay vein was exposed. When the vein pinched out, he went north about a half mile, and had Dad’s crew drill a tunnel through the rock layers and into the blue clay again. Between the two sites and outside of the rock layers was a deposit of buff colored clay, called number 10 clay, which they mined in open pit fashion. This clay was suitable for making building brink but not fire brick.
Grandad and my father also penetrated the blue clay vein from dry Creek south, but this made the clay wagons travel at least three extra miles round trip. To reach the almost vertical clay vein within the hogback, horizontal crosscut tunnels had to be driven through the upright stone layer on the east side of the hill. When the clay vein was reached, drift tunnels were the driven south both ways at cross angles to the crosscut tunnel. As the drift tunnel progressed, rails were continually advanced to the face of the clay so that heavy mine cars could be more easily loaded with the down clay or muck, as it was called by the miners. As the tunnel moved forward chances increased that a miner could be hit by falling clay chunks and for this reason the tunnels were timbered as soon as possible.
Heavy pine timbers framed the tunnel on both sides and across the top, but one side was higher than the other by a couple of feet. When the tough pine roof was in place over these timbers it had a definite slope to the low side. This arrangement had two purposes. First, the slope helped to withstand the shock of clay falling from the stope and secondly the tilted roof helped to feed down clay through the chutes and into waiting mine cars. The high, vaulted ceiling above the timbered tunnel was called the stope. Here the clay was mined in steps and dropped to the roof of the timbered tunnel. Then, taking advantage of gravity, the clay was guided to the chutes and dropped into the mine cars.
When drilling a tunnel of considerable length, ventilation had to be considered. Grandad’s miners drilled a hole up to the top of the hogback or sank a shaft from the top of the hogback down to the tunnel. Even in clay mines, “black damp” could be encountered though it is more common in coal mines. Black Damp is a carbon dioxide mixture incapable of supporting life or flame and must not be allowed to accumulate where miners work. Methane gas might also be encountered, especially if the clay contained much coal blossom. Methane is flammable and if allowed to accumulate could cause an explosion.
As youngsters, my two brothers, cousin Bus, and myself were allowed near the mines only because Grandfather owned and leased them, and my Dad was his foreman. However, it wasn’t as much a special privilege as it might appear. If we hung around too closely we could be assigned rock-picking chores or other top-lander duties. Never were more than two of us allowed to visit the mines at one time. My Dad knew the propensity of four active boys for making things happen (not always good things) and so his edict was no more than a logical safety precaution. After all, there were live dynamite sticks and live blasting caps in the usually locked mine shack, and there were always heavy moving cars and clay wagons.
On occasion, one of us might be allowed the special privilege of accompanying Dad on one of his inspection tours. If it was my turn, Dad timed it so that he could toss me into an empty returning tram car and then he could help the trammer push the car uphill into the cross cut tunnel and on into the drift tunnel. The tunnels always sloped a little toward the exit, making it easier to push loaded cars out to the loading chute, as well as help the drain the ever present water.
As we approached the clay face, Dad would lift me out of the car and put me in a safe place behind a stout timber. One of Dad’s jobs was to estimate the amount of down clay and decide whether it was time to call in the powder monkey to prepare another blast in the stope or in the face of the tunnel. He also checked constantly for cracks in the stope that would lead to possible cave-ins.
Meanwhile I stood quietly, clinging to the protective timber and watched the miners work. At the face of the tunnel, timbers were not yet installed and loading the cars was done with large shovels. The roof and chutes had yet to be installed.
It was amazing to see the expert way the miners handled their “muck sticks” They placed their hands low on the handle, used their knee to push the shovel under the clay, and then raised a full shovel in a rhythm that soon loaded a car. Their work was all done by a meager light from the carbide lamps that were worn on their caps. Protective helmets were as yet unheard of. The miners kept up a steady stream of conversation and there was never lack of horseplay among the miners, who were usually Cornish or “Cousin-Jacks”.
On very special occasions I might be allowed to accompany Dad up through one of the interior mine’s loading chutes and into the stope for an inspection. The stopes were dangerous because the high vaulted ceilings were not timbered. It was in this area the powder monkey spent a lot of his time drilling holes for blasting the clay down to the tunnel roof. It was indeed a dark and spooky place for a small boy who wondered why he ever thought of coming to the stope in the first place, but didn’t want to let Dad know how scared he was. I wanted to be tough – I would at least have bragging rights for a little while.
Next time…Golden Clay Mines, part II.
–Mark Dodge, Curator