As I drive up I-70, and glance over to the small town of Idaho Springs, a hulking red structure dominates the landscape. Large lettering emblazoned across the very top identifies the building — Argo Mine and Mill. A walk through the Argo Mill gives you a sense of how impossibly huge the mill was with over five levels of wooden stairs and machinery that give you a sense of how much ore they were processing in their hey day.
Why such a massive mill? Because the mill was processing ore from mines from all over the surrounding area courtesy of another massive structure — the Argo Tunnel. The Argo Tunnel, built in 1893, extended over 4 miles into the hillside, accessing mines along the way to Central City — Virginia Canyon, Nevadaville, Russell Gulch. The tunnel allowed miners to easily ship their ore direct to the mill, where it was “assayed” before being processed at the mill.
An assayer melts the ore down, and uses chemicals to determine its worth, and is in effect the person responsible for informing miners whether they had in fact struck it rich. Once the assaying is finished, the giant ore cars tip over and dump their contents to be milled. Milling is a series of processes that eventually pulverize the rock down to a fine powder otherwise known as concentrate, where the valuable gold is separated from the rest of the rock.
As you wander around the Colorado mountains, you see the remains of mill structure all over, and almost all of them are built on the side of a mountain. The Rocky Mountains of Colorado provide the perfect pitch to build mills, allowing gravity to move the giant loads of rock and ore through the mills.
The Argo Mill operated for over 80 years producing gold ore that was shipped down to the smelters in Denver. Over 200 million dollars of ore was milled, this at a time when gold was valued at $35 /ounce or less. Today’s prices of $1200 per ounce would mean billions of dollars of profits for the Argo Mine.
The final part of the tour allows guests to try their own hand at striking it rich through gold panning. After 20 minutes of sifting through sand and sediment, shaking the pan over and over, two gold flecks appear — woo hoo! But spending 20 minutes at this tedious task is enough to make me realize I wouldn’t want to plan my retirement on this very suspect quest.
Despite my resistance though, Colorado’s gold rush brought thousands of miners to the mountains to find their fortune. Though most didn’t, their quest brought riches for those of us who live here today, providing scenic byways through the mountains and a chance to experience the boom and bust of the Colorado Gold Rush.