Sends chills up my spine, for truer words have never been said. The dark history surrounding this tunnel near Denver is a devastating and sorrowful truth that is part of our Colorado gold mining heritage. The
Argo Gold Mine and Mill was once the largest of its kind in the world and would process over $100 million of gold ore, but it would also go down in history as a widow maker with a fateful flood that will live on in infamy.
When the first Colorado gold was discovered in January of 1859 at the confluence of Chicago and Clear Creeks, the rush officially began when an estimated 50,000 eager dreamers descended upon Clear Creek Canyon almost overnight.
Once the panning for gold at the streams began to run dry, miners trailed the precious metal to its source in the mountain and "Hard Rock" lode mining began. Pockets became more full, hearts became more greedy, and shafts grew to be deeper and deeper. Eventually miners were raising ore from a depth of over 1,000 feet, using mules to help carry the half-ton buckets of ore up and out of the shafts.
Down and down into the mountain they drilled, but what they found was that the deeper the shaft, the more water the earth spit out, and it became harder and harder to toil through the muck and the mire. It was thus decided that they would dig a tunnel to drain the flooded mines and transport the gold-rich ore. In 1879, plans for the tunnel that would be bored from Idaho Springs to Central City were set in motion. Samuel Newhouse arrived in Leadville with dreams of striking it rich, and he formed alliances and raised funds for what would become the largest mining project and longest tunnel in the world.
In 1893, the backbreaking work of digging began with the use of hand drills, hammers, and black powder for blasting. Two miners worked together to accomplish what was called double-jacking. One man held the drill, while the other wielded an 8-lb. hammer and struck the drill up to 50 times a minute. The process would continue using longer and longer drills and became somewhat of a matter of pride for miners. Drilling contests were actually held throughout the continent, and miners could earn additional money by exploiting their drilling prowess.
By the 1900s, pneumatic drills were developed, which used pressurized air to bore into the earth's crust, but this new technology had a dark and unforeseen side effect. The drill blasted razor sharp silica dust into the air and subsequently the miners' lungs, which led to a hard cough and ultimately death. The pneumatic drills were labeled "Widow Makers" as miners began dying horrendous deaths by the dozens and coughing up pieces of their own lungs with their last breath.
But onward and upward is the American way, right? The Argo Tunnel must be completed and digging and blasting continued at a rate of roughly .5 miles per year, which was a current record for drilling speed. In 1910 (after 17 years of hard labor), the infamous tunnel project had come to fruition, at a total distance of over 4 miles and a diameter ranging from 6'-12', with double tracks for the newly introduced electric locomotives and a drainage ditch to remove water.
Thus "the Mighty Argo" was born.
But if the success of the tunnel was to be long-term, Samuel Newhouse knew that it would require a "state of the art" mill at its portal to increase productivity and reduce transporation costs.
The 300-ton Argo Gold Mine and Mill was built and hailed as one of the largest and most modern in the U.S., using cutting edge technology to extract precious metals from the high-quality ore.
Miners toiled day and night delving, digging, and blasting deeper and deeper into the earth's crust.
Deeper and deeper...
Miners worked 12 hour shifts (or more) underground and used "toilets" like the one seen here on the right to maintain efficient levels of productivity. Good ole capitalism.
On January 19, 1943, a day like any other at the Argo Mine and Mill, four workers went into the mine to set off the last dynamite charge of the day. However, conditions were miserable due to the fact that the shaft had quit pumping and areas of the mine were flooded up to 1,200' deep, causing them to leak into the tunnel.
But the four miners (doing as they were told) continued to drill holes for the dynamite charges, despite the water that was shooting out under extremely high pressure. (It would later be estimated that the water was erupting at 500 pounds per square inch.) And you can probably guess what happened next...
A miner named Bill Bennett was hauling out loaded ore cars about 100 yards from the portal when the electricity went off, and he heard the ominous rumble of a loud roar. As he sprinted to narrowly escape through the portal, he was waist deep in water, which would continue to blast from the tunnel for several hours. The earth will live in no way but its own.
The bodies of the four unfortunate miners who met their demise in the flood were later recovered and buried, and the Argo Tunnel, Mine and Mill ceased operations for good. The water sometimes continues to seep out of the notorious and fateful "Mighty Argo," as a grim reminder of the miners' sacrifices made in the effort to strike it rich.
The Argo Gold Mine and Mill remained dormant until it was purchased in 1976, renovated, and reopened to the public as a museum offering educational tours.