The dredges of Blue River
While a total of nine dredges scoured bedrock gold in the Blue River area, only five worked at one time, during 1917 and 1918. The powerful Tonopah Placers Company dominated area dredging at that time. The Tonopah dredge on French Creek once ran into a cliff of solid rock above the Wellington Mine that turned out to be ancient river bedrock. The strike yielded a neat $40,000 worth of gold. The Tonopah dredge could proceed no farther on the creek, however, and was forced to turn around there.The dredge floated in its own self-made pond. Buckets on a revolving chain scooped up rock and gravel from the riverbed in front of the boat. After processing to retrieve the gold, these rocks tumbled from a conveyor belt off a chute behind the boat. Excavating in front and filling in behind caused the pond to move along the waterway.On board the dredge a screen separated large rocks from gravel material. Screened gravel went through an advanced sluice box device, which washed the gravel and allowed heavy gold to collect in riffles below, while lighter sand and gravel were carried away.Conveyor belts picked up the gravel tailings and transported them to an elevator assembly which dumped them via the stern chutes to the rear. The dredge, secured to the shore by four cables and to the river bottom by a mammoth spud driven into the riverbed, pivoted on the spud, swinging a slow arc across the pond. That is why the tailings took on a wormlike configuration, especially discernable when viewed from the air. Often, just one swing across the pond took an eight-hour work shift.The Blue River Dredge Company’s No.1 dredge provides a good example of later gold boat function. (Misadventure marked the glorious days of gold dredging, to be sure.) Like all dredges, No.1 leaked water. Pumps operated to rid the boat of this excess baggage. If the pump failed, water would come in one side of the boat and slowly capsize it – which is just what happened to Blue River No.1. Also, boulders smashed through wooden hulls, causing the boat to flood – more hilarity.Old No.1 was a “nine foot boat,” meaning each bucket held nine cubic feet of rock and gravel.The pumps used to drain the dredge boats were fitted with huge hoses. The old Triflex pump had tremendous power, so much that it took a powerful man’s entire strength just to hold onto the hose when the valve was turned on full. “If you let go, it would beat you to death,” said a dredge man. A favorite dredge prank was to sneak up on a man holding the hose and switch the valve to “Full.” The hapless hoseman had to hold on indefinitely, because he dared not let go to turn off the valve.Dredge spuds in later years measured 80 to 85 feet long (that’s how deep some of the advanced dredges were digging), and weighed 80 to 90 tons. Dredge man Johnny Johnson once hoodwinked a greenhorn shoreman by convincing him that the spud was “hanging too tight” and causing the boat to list. Johnson sent the greenhorn to balance with one foot on an electrical cable and one foot on the boat and pound on the 85-foot 90-ton solid steel spud with a 12-pound sledge hammer. The greenhorn slammed away for an hour, then looked up, exhausted, to see if the boat had stopped listing. “Do you think that’s enough?” he asked Johnson. “No, better go a little more,” came the reply. Finally, the dredgemaster heard Johnny’s guffaws, came on deck to share the joke and told the greenhorn, “I think that’s deep enough. You can come down now.”Only three men ran a dredge boat in later years, communicating over the clanging racket with signal bells. But everyone worked a long shift on Friday, clean up day, when dredge gold was retrieved from processing equipment. Molten gold later was poured into molds to form gold bricks. Dredge cleanup averaged an enviable $20,000 weekly …”SUMMIT” is available in local bookstores and at alpenrosepress.com. Mary Ellen Gilliland’s eight local books include a humorous county history titled,”Colorado Rascals, Scoundrels and No Goods,” and “The New Summit Hiker.”
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