A True Story

Harry Odgers holds

Harry Odgers holds grease stick for old gold mine mill. Mrs. Margery [Odgers] DeLaMare P.O. Box 409 Mariposa, California 95338


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Box 409, Mariposa, Cal. 95338.

My father has been a miner most of his life, first in Nevada City, Nevada Co., Ca., where he was born in 1889, and then in Mariposa Co., Ca. where he moved in 1933, when the mines in Nevada County were closing down during the depression of those years. Mariposa has been his home ever since. He is still living here, and still does a little mining, now that the mines around here have taken a new lease on life, because of the increase in the price of gold, and also because of the new law about the sale of gold. He was President of the Western Mining Council in Mariposa for over 25 years. His goal in life has been to keep mining alive as much as he could. This was the main reason why he built the mill, which is situated at the Historical Center in Mariposa. It is a big attraction to tourists and also to school children from all over the country, who come on field trips to see it. He runs the mill, and explains about it whenever he can.

My father's father emigrated from Cornwall, England, where a lot of the miners in the Nevada City, Grass Valley area came from, as they were miners over in England. He had nine brothers and 1 sister, most of whom also came to this country in order to better their way of living, as in England, wages were small and working conditions were not the best. So you see, my father was a born miner.

I have worked for The Mariposa Gazette for 10 years, the oldest newspaper in continuous publication in California, since 1859. We also have the oldest Courthouse in California in continuous operation. You have my father's permission to use all material.

When I am asked to tell of past experiences in the mines, this story has been told at many social gatherings. It is a story about the working mules in the mines. What makes it so interesting is that if the mines were to operate again, there would be no mules in the mines. It would be all mechanized. In fact, the mules have just about disappeared from the farms.

To tell the story, I should first tell you about the vast workings of the mine in which I worked and saw these strong intelligent animals at work.

The mine in which I worked for many years was the North Star -Central in the town of Grass Valley. The mine was first started in the very early days as the North Star. It was sunk on the vein at an incline of about 35 degrees. When they obtained a depth of 4000 feet it became too expensive to work through the incline shaft and they needed a new and larger mill so they went North about three-quarters of a mile and sunk a vertical shaft 1640 feet tapping the North Star shaft at the 4000 foot level or the 40 Station. This was called the Central Shaft. They continued to sink the North Star incline shaft to the 6300 level All the ore was then hoisted through the Central Shaft to a 350 ton-a-day mill. At the 6300 level they encountered a large vein dipping in the reverse direction cutting the North Star vein off completely. A hoist was installed here and they again sunk on the new vein 2300 feet, making a total incline depth of 8600 feet. This was then directly under the Central Shaft. They then sunk the Central Shaft on down to the 8600 level or what was always called the 86 Station. It was 3600 feet vertical to this Station and it became the largest Station in the mine. Here was installed huge pumps that raised the water clear to the surface.

From here they drifted North over one mile and worked another vein right under the town of Grass Valley. Here another hoist was installed and a shaft, called the No. 2 shaft, was sunk on this vein 1400 feet making the mine a total depth of 10,000 feet on the incline.

To furnish the mill with 350 tons per day, a certain amount of waste had to be removed about two to one, so it made about 1,000 tons a day to be handled. To do this mules were used to pull the cars. The mule trains were six cars of two ton capacity. On the 86 Station, there were six mules; three were day shift and three night shift and two electric trains. The electric trains were fifteen cars of two tons. The mule trains had the shorter runs, the electric the long ones.

At one time there were 23 mules in the Central Mine and 34 in the adjoining property, the Empire which is a larger property. The Central Mine had 73 miles of track.

The trip down the Central Shaft was something to be mentioned. There were two cages, one going up and one down. The cages were similar to our elevators, only they had two decks; nine men to the deck or eighteen to the cage. Skip tenders loaded and unloaded the men. The cage doors could not be opened from the inside. You were locked in. As the miners at that time used carbide lights, no lights were allowed on the trip for fear of burning someone in the neck. Only one fat man could be squeezed in on one deck, but there were very few fat men among miners. The trip down was a sensation, till you got used to it. You were lowered and raised on the hoist governor at a speed of 1750 feet a minute; the same speed that they hoisted ore. This is almost at falling speed. You seemed weightless on your feet going down. After you pushed your stomach down out of your throat a couple of times, you were already at the bottom. After the cage stopped bouncing with the stretch of the cable, the cage tender let you out. From the time you were rung off the surface to the time you stepped out was just three minutes 3600 feet down.

Now to tell you about the mules. As I worked with the track crew building and repairing track, I had a chance to see these animals at work.

For his size, a mule is stronger than a horse and much more intelligent. The reason a mule was used in the mines instead of a horse is that a horse is too high strung and high headed. He will bump his head and keep on bumping it until he has all the skin knocked off his ears. A mule only bumps his head once. From then on he works with his head no higher than his body.

When gold mining was at its best, there were 73 miles of track in the Central Mine. Some drifts were a mile in length. There were 23 mules in the mine at that time. I was told the adjoining property of the Empire, a little larger property, had 34.

Let's start with the purchasing of a mule. A man there that always trained a new mule was always taken along to buy a new mule. They said he picked them for intelligence. I asked him one day how he picked an intelligent mule. He said they should be wide between the eyes and have a high forehead. Did you know that there is a distinct difference in the faces of mules? Look next time you get a chance. There is.

After a mule is purchased, he is taken to the collar of the shaft. A veterinarian is on hand there. He opens the mules mouth with the instrument that they use to examine their teeth and shoves a pill about the size and shape of a large acorn down his throat. In about fifteen minutes the mule drops off to sleep. Some lay down but as you know many animals of this type sleep on their feet; others just stand and then fall over.

He is then rolled into a strong canvas bag that is reinforced with leather and buckled in with his head left out. Then he is hoisted into the cage that resembles an elevator by a small hoist that is used to load timbers. He is hung head up to the ceiling and actually sits on his tail. He is then lowered to the station to which he is to work. The men go down in the other deck. The cages are two decks high. When then reach the station, he is again hoisted out by a little hoist and two ropes are attached to his neck. Then the bag is removed. The men must work fast as the pill only lasts about one-half hour. If it is a large mule, two men will be on the end of each rope in opposite directions. As the stations are a terribly noisy place with pumps running, electric and mule trains and large ore skips going up and down, when the mule wakes up he is a pretty scared animal. His first thought when he jumps to his feet is to run he knows not where. When the men finally get him calmed down, he is led to the stable which is always off in one corner of the station. He is fed and taken care of there for a couple of days until he gets used to the noises. Then he is brought daily for several days and tied in the middle of the station to see what makes all that noise. Then the trainer takes over. He puts a harness on him (they are all broke to harness before buying). Then he leads him through the drifts in which he is to work. After several trips of this, he drives him with a pair of reins and teaches him to 'Gee' and 'Haw', back up, etc. A mule is always given a name and his name is called before every command; as 'Jack, Gee' or 'Jack, Haw.' They learn fast and in a couple of weeks time, he is driven by command only; no reins but only a halter on which the rope fastens back to his harness. A light is always fastened to the bottom of his collar as they cannot see without it. Then he is put to pulling a timber truck or maybe one or two cars. Soon he is pulling a whole train of six 2-ton cars.

He is then turned over to a regular driver called a mule skinner. These men are picked from ranchers or such as that who have handled mules or horses. Most skinners get to love their mules and take excellent care of them. They are never allowed to whip a mule if he does not mind. They slap their ears which a mule hates. Most skinners get their mules to chewing plugs cut tobacco. They get to love it and will do most anything for a chew. The skinners reward them in this way for good work. To show how valuable a mule becomes when trained, I quote this. 'The mine super on a trip through the mine with the forman saw a skinner hit his mule several times with the end of the halter rope. He said to the foreman, 'You fire that man immediately. We can get skinners anytime but mules cost money.'

The skinners very seldom use the command 'Getup' as we do but say 'Jack, let's go' or 'Jack, get going.' On Mexican boy on an upper level trained his mule his way and would holler, 'Pete, Commence!'

At the starting of the shift when 3 mule trains were hooked up ready to go on the 86 Station, the skinner would call his mules by name and say, 'Let's go.' His mule would move out and the others paid no attention.

I was particularly interested in a mule named Jack on the 86 Station. At the end of his run near the loading place, was three tracks; one straight ahead, one to the left and one to the right. The swamper or helper on the train ran ahead and threw the switch which way they wanted to go. Jack never made a mistake without any 'Gee' or 'Haw' but went the way the switch was thrown. At the loading chute, they load two cars at a time unless one chute becomes empty. When the train did not spot exactly, the skinner would say, 'Jack, up just a little.' Jack would move up just 8 or 10 inches and stop. When two cars were loaded he would say, 'Jack, up two cars.' Jack moved the train up just that far and stopped. If one chute became empty he would say, 'Jack, up one car.' Jack would just move one car length.

On starting a loaded train, they bunched the cars, that is shoved them together. The mule could not start that heavy train otherwise. Then when he starts, the jerk of one car starts the next and so on, just as you hear the railroad cars bump. With the six certain, there is five bumps. One day at quitting time I saw this happen. Two boy tool nippers attached their truck of steel to the rear end of the train so they would not have to push it out. When Jack started to train, he got six bumps instead of five so he stopped dead in his tracks. No vile language or coaxing could get him to move. The skinner had to release him from the train, walk him up and down the track several times, then bunch his cars and say 'Jack, let's try it again,' after cussing the nippers out. Jack started with his head cocked to one side counting the bumps. The nippers were careful to hold the truck back so it would not make a bump.

One of the most amusing things I saw was one day coming off shift we were all stopped from coming onto the Station where it was all lit up. We were told that a small bay mule by the name of Jiggs had gone crazy. We all crowded up to see and there was Jiggs with his harness still on and his mouth open chasing every man he could see. There were men up on ladders, on top of the ore bin, in the pump house, and behind posts and lumber. We saw him chase the skinner across the ore bin on a 2 x 12 plank. He went around the unloading chutes and pump house and came back to stand in the middle of the station. When the trainer joined us in the drift, (he always worked with the timber men between times) he was told Jiggs had gone crazy. He said, 'Oh no! Jiggs is just playing.' He stepped out and walked right up to Jiggs who just stood there eyeing him said, 'Jiggs, what the Hell's the matter with you? Get in the stable.' and Jiggs walked right off to the stable. It was really comical when he was locked in to see 30 or 40 men coming out of corners and dark places.

The foreman told me one day if I ever got to the 56 Station to stop and see the skinner there hook up his mule Pedro. All mules were trained to walk from the stable and back up to their trains. Pedro did not do this. He stayed a distance away. The skinner would say, 'Pedro, back up.' Pedro would shake his head no. So then he would say with a wave of his hand, 'Pedro you had better back up,' which Pedro would do. This happened at the start of every shift. He also told me of another mule that shook hands with the skinner at the start of every shift for which he was rewarded with a chew of tobacco. But the funny part was that he wanted to shake hands several times during the day.

On one of the upper levels, there was a mule named Reno. Reno would throw a tantrum ever so often. He would buck and kick and lay down and roll and it seemed his main object was to get his harness off as he often did break it up. On one of his first fits, he pulled it at the station so they turned the fire hose on him and into his ears which brought him out of it in a hurry. But being smart he never pulled ' that at a Station any more but waited until they were at the loading chutes away from fire hoses and he had been given the order to start.

In 1915 I worked on the 30 level of the North Star shaft. There was a large while mule there named Babe. Babe was everybody's pet and had the run of the Station. She used to chew on the timbers going partly rotten. She had a bad habit. All us men had a locker to put our lunches in. If one was left out, Bab would take it by the handle and toss it around until it opened and then eat the contents. I have shared my lunch with many a new man who was not told to lock up his lunch.

I used to rub Babe's ears and she would rub her head on my shoulder. As the mine was getting worked out, we were moved to the 34 level and then to the 37. Babe was moved on down with us. After being away from the mine for 13 years, I returned to work there in 1928. One day I was assigned to the timber gang. We took a load of timber down to the 63 Station. After loading them on a timber truck, the head timber man said, 'We will go on in. You get a mule out of the stable and bring in the timber.' I went to the stable and there was Babe. I rubbed her ears and she rubbed her head on my shoulder. I like to think she remembered me. I placed her harness, fixed her light and said, 'Well, Babe. Let's go.' She walked out and backed up to the truck. I dropped the pin and took off. I had to step pretty lively so she would not step on my heels. Babe was then 31 years old. She had been in the mine from the age of six. At the end of our haul, I turned her around and told her that was all. She would go back to the Station and stand until someone came and put her in the stable. She was pensioned off; that was all she had to do just pull a light timber truck in twice a day, just exercise. They told me she lived over a year after that and went to sleep one day in the middle of the Station next to the truck which she had probably pulled a short time ago. Note; The mine management did not take that mule out and destroy her but kept her in good care to her last day.

In 1916 the Humane Society got a law passed through the Legislature that the mules must be brought to the surface for two months every two years. They said it was not humane to make a mule spend all its life underground.

Now no horse or mule on the surface ever got the care these mules did and besides they were not subject to the weather changes but lived where the temperature was 65 degrees to 70 degrees - winter or summer - day and night. To comply with the law, the Company brought three to the surface in the day time. One tried to jump back down the shaft when he came to and was injured so bad he had to be destroyed. The other two went stone blind. No doctoring or nothing helped and they also had to be destroyed.

The Humane Society did not give up. They said bring them up at night and place them in a barn and let light in a little at a time. The Company built such a stable and brought up four mules. They let a little more light in every day until they could stand the sunlight. Then they were turned out in a large meadow where clover was up to their knees. They immediately began to lose weight. Before two months were up, they were skin and bones. They had to be taken back underground and fed the oat, hay and grain they had been used to. It was two months more before they could pull a train. The Humane Society realized their mistake and did not press it further.

In the early 1930's, a fire started in the Pump House on 86 Stations. It spread to the timber pile and then the hay barn. It burned for several days before being con trolled. Some of the mules along the Stations that they were able to turn loose made their way into the long drifts but some that they could not get to right away perished. Among them was Reno, the bad one. Several valuable mules were lost.

If the mines were ever to start up again, you would never see mules in the mines as I have said as everything is going to mechanized units like electric and diesel engines, mucking machines, etc.

Mules are a thing of the past so are now History and just a good story.

STORY by Harry H. Odgers

Learning to be a miner, I started in the hard way as I made a mistake the first day I ever worked underground.

At the age of 20, I got a job as 'Tool Nipper' on the 1000 foot level of the Champion Mine at Nevada City. That was the main level of the mine at that time.

A Nipper was an errand boy. He carried the sharp tools to the miners and gathered the dull ones and sent them up to the Blacksmith shop. He ran any errands that the Miners wanted.

The Miner's lunch pails at that time were cylinder shaped with three compartments. The lower one was for tea (pronounced ta or tae). The middle one for sandwiches, etc., and the top tray for pie. On top was a place for a tin cup.

These pails were hung on nails driven into a beam on one side of the station. Under the pails was a shelf on which the miners themselves placed a short piece of candle about one and a half inches long in a holder. I was instructed by the Boss that about one hour before lunch time to light these candles to warm the miners 'tae'.

When it was time to do this, I found that there was three or four that had no candles under them. Thinking that they just forgot to fix them, I cut candles (called snoffs) from my own candle supply and lit them all.

Think how I felt when the miners opened their pails to see that these few miners had stopped at the Brewery on coming through Town and had a nickels worth of beer placed in their pail instead of tae. This was done often by some.

Standing there trying to think of words to apologize, I must have looked pretty silly. Finally one of these miners came to my rescue and said ' is a new nipper on today, and didn't know, us will have to excuse im'. And one of the others spoke up and said' 'es s thoughtful little chap, aint 'e?'

As the Cousin Jack Miners always appreciated a joke, it was passed off as a good joke. But it was broadcast through the whole mine by quiting time.

In the change room at quiting time, we began to hear such remarks as 'Ow does these like your beer, 'ot or cold? I was subject to much teasing for several days.