A dictionary of Comstock mining terms

As I write my articles each week for the Comstock Chronicle in Virginia City, Nev., I often wonder if tourists to the area and sometimes even local residents know the meaning of some of the terminology we use to describe things related to mining and the Comstock.

With this article, I have compiled a short list of a few words used locally with definitions for those who may be unfamiliar with them.

Amalgamation: The process of using mercury to collect fine particles of gold or silver from pulverized ore. These precious metals dissolve in the silvery liquid, while rock does not. The mixture is later heated and the mercury evaporates off leaving the gold or silver.

Arrastra: A crude drag-stone mill for pulverizing ores containing gold or silver.

Bonanza: The discovery of an exceptionally rich vein of gold or silver.

Borrasca: An unproductive mine or claim; the opposite of bonanza.

Claim: A parcel of land that a person has staked out and legally recorded title for mining purposes.

Claim Jumping: Stealing someone else’s mining property – often after it has been staked out but not yet recorded.

Colors: The particles of gold gleaming in a placer miner’s pan after washing. Sometimes called “values.”

Cornish pumps: Large steam powered pumps used to remove water from the deep Comstock mines.

Crevicing: Removing gold from cracks and fissures of rocks, often in a stream bed, by prying it out with a knife.

Cross-cut: A mine tunnel running across an ore vein, used for ventilation, access and communication between work areas.

Drift: A mine tunnel following the direction or “drift” of a vein; opposite of a cross-cut.

Gallows Frame: A wooden or steel scaffold at the top of a mine shaft carrying the hoisting rope and machinery. Also called “the works.”

Gangue: Worthless minerals mixed in with valuable ore.

Giant Powder: This is what miners called dynamite.

Gumbo: A wet, sticky clay that is a nuisance to mining operations

Hard rock: Ore that could be removed only by blasting, as opposed to being worked with hand tools.

High grading: The theft of the more valuable high-grade nuggets and pieces of ore by mine workers.

Lode: A clearly defined deposit of rich ore. The principal vein in a region is called the “mother lode.”

Muck: The debris left after blasting hard rock. Miners shoveling this ore-bearing material were called muckers.

Placer: A deposit of sand, dirt or clay usually in a stream bed that contains fine particles or nuggets of gold or silver. These particles are washed out of the soil with a pan, sluice or other separating device.

Pyrite: Fool’s gold; a mineral of iron or silicon and oxygen that has color similar to gold.

Quartz: A crystalline mineral often white or semi-transparent in which gold and silver veins are sometimes found.

Salting a mine: The act of planting rich ore samples in an unprofitable mine to attract unwary buyers.

Shaft: A deep vertical or inclined excavation: usually the main entrance of a mine where hoisting works provide access to tunnels below.

Sluice: A wooden trough or box used for washing placer gold. These were sometimes called “long toms.” Ore was shoveled in and a steady stream of water washed away the lighter material while heaver metals settled into cleats known as riffles. Sometimes these were made to rock back and forth to speed up the action and these were known as rockers.

Sourdough: An experienced prospector; usually one who had the foresight to save a wad of fermenting dough to use for making bread.

Square sets: A method of timbering large underground excavations and tunnels to prevent cave-ins. The method used cubical frames of timbers to fill any shape of underground excavation. It was developed by Philip Deidesheimer for the Comstock Mines in the 1860s.

Stamp mill: A steam or water powered device used to pulverize ores into a fine powder by the use of heavy iron stamps rising and falling with the action of a cam. Capacity of mills was determined by the number of stamps they contained.

Toplander: A mine worker who worked above ground.

V-Flume: A device used to transport logs down from the Sierra Nevada forests to be cut into lumber. It consisted of two large planks nailed together in a V shape and supported on trestles or on the ground. A small stream of water floated the logs down the flume to the sawmill below.

Windlass: A horizontal drum with a cable or rope used as a hoist in a mine. Sometimes called a whim.

Widow-maker: A compressed air-drill, used to bore holes for dynamite in hard rock. Prolonged inhalation of the fine dust created by early models caused a deadly lung disease called silicosis.

Winze: A passageway usually connecting two tunnels at different levels.

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