Jacob City: A Ghost of Utah’s Past
The Ford Bronco II pitched and rolled up the narrow canyon. It’s oversized rear windows afforded a crystalline view into the emptiness of the gorge to our left. The narrow road consisted mostly of mine tailings; a plentiful substance in Dry Canyon.
We were on our way up a jaw-rattling, gut-straining road that seemed to be aiming for the sky. In reality our terminus was an old ghost town encircled by the crimson and ochre-yellow tailings of the Hidden Treasure mine. The Hidden Treasure operated up until the late sixties, but almost all of the mines in this canyon dried up before 1915. Jacob City’s population, roughly 300 at its peak, dwindled rapidly once ore became scarce.
Ironically, Dry Canyon is a surprisingly lush refuge from the dusty, sagebrush-laden valleys to the east and west. The crisp, pungent scent of spruce laces warm drafts of air that sweep upwards towards the peaks. The canyon is quiet. Not too many people bothered to visit after the last of the mines shut down. Even less came after the Bureau of Land Management gated and backfilled most of the mine entrances in the canyon.
Mark revved the engine and coaxed the Bronco over a particularly large outcropping of bedrock.
“I don’t believe this!” He groaned, in unison with the engine. The narrow track continued climbing zealously upwards: the engine’s temperature followed suit. The red needle on the gauge edged towards 220 degrees, so we brought the vehicle to a halt and allowed it to idle for a few minutes. We flipped the heater on and cranked it to full-blast in a last ditch effort to help cool the engine. Sweat rolled down my face. I tried to avoid the hot air blowing from the vents by sticking my head out the window. Despite our efforts, the engine grumbled and choked to a standstill.
I wasn’t too worried. The fuel system was probably vapor-locked; a setback we had already encountered twice that morning. “At least it’s good timing,” I offered, pointing ahead towards a dark opening in the mountainside.
We left the Bronco cooling in some sparse shade on the incline and headed towards a jumble of timbers and rusting metal piled about the gaping adit. Thick iron bars spanned the entrance, denying us access. This had been the case with all the tunnel entrances we had inspected so far. On this particular gate, however, the lowest bar was jacked upwards, providing a scant few inches of clearance above the dirt and rocks beneath. I didn’t have to look to know that Mark was grinning.
Mining history is a subject for which I’ve only recently acquired a taste. I suppose it’s something like calamari or dark chocolate. It took some exposure before I got interested. Now it’s a fascination bordering on preoccupation. The annals of mining in the mountain west are home to some of our nation’s most colorful locales and characters.
Back in its day, Jacob City could have sprung straight from a scriptwriter’s imagination. Cabins, boarding houses, a butcher’s shop, and a brothel clung improbably to Dry Canyon’s steep walls. Crusty old prospectors and adventuring entrepreneurs alike rubbed shoulders at the local tavern. One of the city’s more prominent personalities was Matt Gisborne, owner of the phenomenally rich Mono Mine. At its peak, his thick vein of silver was delivering over sixty thousand dollars a month in pure profit. That’s not too shabby for the 1890’s. Adjusting for inflation it’s roughly equivalent to a million dollars each month.
The Galaxy, a periodical based in New York City, sent a journalist out to Jacob City to investigate and interview Mr. Gisborne. At that time the Galaxy was considered one of the best literary magazines in the country, though it had a tendency to take liberties with its subject material. The writer’s name was John Codman, a self-styled New York “expert” on Utah and the Western United States.
When Mr. Codman arrived at Gisborne’s residence near the Mono mine, he was surprised to find his wealthy host holding a cheap cigar in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. His feet were kicked up on a table, and a shabby suit draped his frame. The journalist couldn’t comprehend having money and not spending it. Apparently a bit flustered, he asked Gisborne why he wasn’t living in luxury on 5th Avenue. With a deadpan gaze Gisborne responded flatly, “All I need is my cigar and this whiskey.”
The correspondent didn’t get much more than that out of the unforthcoming Gisborne. He gathered up his entourage and went elsewhere. He visited the Chicago and Grey Rock mines further up the canyon, gushing about their gracious superintendents.
Matt Gisborne’s mining operation continued to haul money out of the narrow but rich vein of silver threading its way through the mountain. The operation cruised along until the miners and engineers hit a fissure at the back of their drift. At some point in geologic history, an earthquake had sheared the rock deep within the mountain, slicing the vein and dislocating it from the rest of the ore body. Gisborne tossed the dice and guessed that the vein had shifted upwards. He squandered a fortune trying to find where it had gone, before eventually giving up.
While Mark inspected the thick iron bars spanning the mine’s entrance, I glanced around for any signage declaring the premises off-limits. Nothing. Technically, entering any accessible mine is legal, as long as it’s not on private land and it isn’t clearly signed. Taking a hacksaw to the gate, however, or digging out an entrance is a class A misdemeanor. Doing so could potentially land you with up to $4000 in fines or a year in jail.
“Looks like we’re good to go,” Mark stated cheerfully. The opportunity was too inviting to pass up. I squirmed under the iron gate, exhaling in order to shrink my torso for the squeeze. I pulled myself through into the cool, musty smell of the mountain that lay beyond. Blackness yawned in front of me as I affixed a headlamp to my forehead and clicked on the light.
The tunnel wound and forked through ochre rock; tall and narrow in some places, low enough to require hunching over in others. We passed dripping new cave formations like stalactites, flowstone, and cave pearls: graceful conceptions of nature that appear only after decades of quiet solitude. A translucent stream flowed between the railway tracks for a short distance before disappearing into the floor. Copper oxides and other exotic minerals painted the walls turquoise and aquamarine.
Off to our right, a set of rails disappeared down a sixty-degree incline, then forked into blackness. The engineering of these excavations boggles the mind—especially when considering that these wonders were accomplished in the flickering light of carbide lamps. These people didn’t use calculators, hydraulics, or even electricity.
There’s a reason all the mines in this area have been sealed shut. They have fallen victim to a rogue government program called the Abandoned Mine Reclamation program, or AMR. When it comes to mine closures, the AMR does the Burea of Land Management’s bidding, even though the BLM is a federal agency and AMR is a state-sponsored program. What’s more curious is that the BLM and AMR close quite a few mines on privately owned property, sometimes without even acquiring the landowners’ permission.
The AMR spends millions of dollars each year sealing off abandoned mines across the state of Utah. Some of the mines are gated, but the preferred method involves backfilling the entrance with dirt and gravel. All such closures, regardless of the method used, are intended to be permanent.
Originally the Abandoned Mine Reclamation program was created to deal with highly dangerous coalmines. However, as the program ran out of coalmines to close, it expanded its mission to include relatively tame hard rock mines dotting the backcountry. In a few recent cases they’ve even been gunning for the closure of perfectly stable natural caves.
Unfortunately some of these closures indiscriminately disregard federal laws mandating the preservation of both historical features and natural cave systems.
There’s no arguing that exploring abandoned mines is a dangerous pursuit. News stations and other media, however, capitalize off the rare accidents that occur. The emotional exploitation creates a disproportionate amount of fear, which then allows the Abandoned Mine Reclamation program to siphon off more tax dollars. On some levels, the media and AMR seem to have a symbiotic relationship.
Oft-cited hazards include unstable rocks, concealed vertical shafts, hypothermia-inducing water, unused dynamite or blasting caps, and unventilated pockets of carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. All these hypothetical situations represent very real threats. But rock climbing, backpacking, sleeping in bear-inhabited forests, and walking outside during a thunderstorm are dangerous activities too—perhaps even more so than exploring an old mine. Numbers alone rarely tell the whole story, but in the last twenty years only five people have died in abandoned mines. That’s certainly fewer than those who have died while pursuing other outdoor activities. If we need protection from voluntarily engaging in risky behavior, we’d better confine the populace to their homes immediately.
For many people, engaging in mine exploration automatically triggers a cautious disposition. Risky activity of any sort engages a psychological filter that puts you ‘on-guard’ and promotes better judgment in the face of apparent danger. This might explain the low number of accidents that occur in abandoned mines. For a few, this trigger never seems to get tripped. Or perhaps it’s been dulled by intentional subversion in the past. The five unfortunate incidents that occurred in Utah mines all involved situations where the apparent comfort level of the recreationists wasn’t proportional to the hazard.
Luckily I didn’t vaporize myself by trouncing on aged dynamite. The most dangerous thing we ran into was a partially concealed hole in the floor of the tunnel. The shaft appeared to be about forty or fifty feet deep. Dirt covered the wooden beams and planks that spanned most of the hole, making it difficult to discern solid ground from camouflaged wood. I carefully stepped around the rotten flooring, envisioning a painfully sudden stop at the bottom of the shaft.
Pressing onwards, we found rusting canisters of carbide propped next to walls scrawlingly etched with miners’ names. Corroded air pumps, ore chutes, winches, and other strange equipment adorned the rocky hallways beneath the mountain. Near the end of the deepest tunnel, we found a natural pocket of crystals the miners had breached with their dynamite and pickaxes. Glittering minerals dispersed a million reflections of my headlamp across the walls.
Out of all the mines we visited in Dry Canyon, only three had accessible entrances. They were originally known as the Silver Queen, the Black Dragon, and the Mono. We discovered their names about a week following our trip, thanks to some research and a bit of outside help. A chill of excitement ran down my neck when I discovered that last of the three was the same mine that belonged to old Matt Gisborne himself.
There are a few small groups who have tried to answer the challenge of saving the West’s mining history, most notably Gold Rush Expeditions of Salt Lake City. Unfortunately they will most likely fight a losing battle. Whether it’s the elements, vandals, or the BLM, various immutable forces have combined efforts to erase what little remains. Furthermore, abandoned mines aren’t warm and cuddly; they have a hard time gathering political advocates or non-profit dollars. There are plenty of people who would quickly argue that there’s nothing worth saving anyway. A few weeks ago I may have been inclined to agree. But as I brushed the dirt and rocks from my hair in the dimming light of Jacob City, I found myself entertaining quite a different perspective.