Gold Mountain Mine educates public about Black Hills history, mining history

By Jeff Smith

In the distance — The Gold Mountain frame mill in the background. In front is an interpretive mine talking about miners in the area.

People soon will be able to find Gold Mountain Mine. This is the only standing mining structure in the Black Hills that is on U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land.

Skip Tillisch with the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust has received permission from the Forest Service to put up directional signs to the mine and designated parking will also be clearly marked. The mine is located on about 20 acres of Forest Service land.

On the way to the mine there are interpretive signs that tell the history of mining and the Gold Mountain mine. There are also “glory holes,” remnants of people looking for glory and never finding anything.

Tillisch said it was all done with picks and axes as well as dynamite. The holes that were deeper than 100 ft. required the use of  a device called a headframe to get materials out.

The mill itself looks ancient, although it isn’t all that old in comparison to a lot of similar structures. At one time the entire structure was completely enclosed. Tillisch said there was some wood removed that shouldn’t have been.

A tall wooden structure known as the mill frame protrudes and slants down the hill. It is like a rustic waterslide for rocks.

In 2007 the Forest Service had plans to destroy the mill frame and everything up the hill.

“It was to be cleaned up and returned to Mother Nature,” Tillisch said.

Larry McCaskell, past owner of High Country Guest Ranch, was leading horse trips to the area back then. Some equipment was already in place and ready to tear down the mill.The Forest Service was worried about the danger associated with the mill if it fell down.

McCaskell held some meetings with the Forest Service to come and talk to people about saving the Gold Mountain Mine. It was assumed that McCaskell would be president of an official organization that would be set up. But when he moved away from the area Tillisch stepped up to run it. In 2009 it became the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust.

Tillisch said they talked about fencing an area around the mill. That was the initial plan. Tillisch introduced the idea of preserving the mill and doing something similar to what was done to the Aladdin Coal Tipple in Wyoming.

“I took some of the Forest Service people up there and showed them,” Tillisch said.

So the plan after that was to tear everything down and rebuild it. Then it evolved into cutting the frame’s beams. It was done thanks to the assistance of Bodensteiner Beamworks in Rapid City. Pylon tubes of concrete were formed to hold everything in place. Some of the boards were replaced and stained.

A restoration project at the mine took place from 2008-2012. This will allow generations to learn about the important role mining played in the history of the Black Hills.

The project was completed with the help of the USFS, dedicated volunteers and people who simply care about history. Volunteers came from around the country through a Passport in Time Project. This volunteer service through the USFS served as an excellent resource for three summers. The volunteers in Passport in Time have a booklet that they can get stamped as they work on various projects.

At the time the project was being completed, scaffolding went up the whole side of the mill frame.

The lifespan of the mill frame increased from five years to 100 years at the time the project was completed.

“It was a huge project. Most people still can’t believe we did it,” Tillisch said.

A large pumper cement truck and crane was brought up the hill by the mill frame which is pretty unbelievable. Tillisch said with the Forest Service labor, volunteer labor, transportation costs, the materials and what was donated, the estimate of the project is $450,000.

Tillisch said a lot of effort went into restoring the Gold Mountain Mine. To him the value is just to get people to know about the history of the Black Hills.

“All of the posts were once in the ground but they were all rotting,” Tillisch pointed out.

Tillisch is grateful that there hasn’t been too much vandalism at Gold Mountain Mine.

“The big concern is vandalism when it is out in the middle of nowhere,” Tillisch said.

The Forest Service allowed the workers with Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust and other people to work on the project and supervise the work. According to Tillisch, back in 2008-2009 there were a fair number of people in the Forest Service’s Heritage Program department. He remembers one day where 37 people from three different Forest Service districts came to work on the mine.

The mine was built in a time when a lot of families were going through a hard time. It was around the time of the Dust Bowl in 1928.

Miners found gold in quartz veins also known as the leads.

There is a grate over the original mine shaft because there are bats there now.

When they started the mining there was a vertical shaft dug. There was a head frame used to lift items out of the ground. Five steam engines and two boilers were once near the mining structure. One of the boilers remain there today.  Three tin buildings were also near the mill at one time. Carts would be dumped into the mill frame and then rocks would slide down into the center where the orbital crusher was. Steel drums were at the bottom of the mill. Once the rocks were inside the drums there would be steel balls inside that would crush the rocks.

The miners would keep rotating the rocks until they turned to powder.

The gold was then in a fine powder. Tillisch said that when the plant started they sent the gold to be processed in Colorado. That proved to be too much so then they switched to using arsenic and mercury. When people mined in streams, gold was in clumps. But when the gold was in a fine powder and mixed with rocks, the mercury and arsenic were attracted to the gold. The final product was melted down to sell. The gold amount might have been really small, minute even, but the long process might have been worth it for some. 

In 1941, the federal government passed a law that closed all gold mining in the United States because of the war effort.

“They took out the tracks and steel to make tanks and planes,” Tillisch said.

The earliest pictures from the mine were taken in 1953. Very little remains from the area during the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876-1877.  Some people might think mining in those days was done with a bucket and pan in a creek. Most gold mining didn’t occur in the area until the 1900’s.

A lot of work went into that kind of mining but there is not much evidence of what they found. Hard rock mining was done at the Gold Mountain Mine.

Tillisch is not sure whether there were any significant claims found there.

He said there were some miners concerned about claim jumping.

“It was evidently a fairly common thing,” Tillisch said.

That was one of the reasons people don’t really know what was found at a lot of mine sites. Another reason was because the government at that time didn’t take a fair share of the profit.

A lot of miners didn’t have bank accounts and were pretty good at hiding what they had.

“Many people didn’t make very much. This was true in the Hills, but also in California and Alaska,” Tillisch said.

There are four industries that used to make up the Black Hills. They consisted of mining, ranching, timber/ logging and tourism.

Around 11 years ago Jon Crane found out the Forest Service was going to bulldoze Meeker Ranch in Custer. Crane had already raised funds to rehabilitate the ranch and save it from being demolished.

There has been much done on that property too. Crews have repaired a roof and cabins there.

Sadly, there has been much vandalism take place at that property. The Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust would like to get to the point of renting out the buildings during the summer. Tillisch also thinks it would also eliminate the vandalism that happens there.

At Meeker Ranch in Custer the goal is to try to tell the story of ranching in the Black Hills.

Tillisch himself has brought up a couple of hundred people at Gold Mountain Mine. He might receive calls from people wanting to see it and will drive down to show them the way. High Country Guest Ranch still does trail rides there.

The main problem is that people can’t see it from down below.

“It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been,” Tillisch said.

He has also been to a lot of places in the United States and across the globe.

A gate was put on the entrance to the mine about five years ago. There are also fencepost crossings there next to the gate so people won’t drive their ATVs back there.

“As long as you make it difficult to get to, vandalism doesn’t happen as much,” Tillisch said.

The road to the mine is closed Dec. 15 to May 15.