Solid gold history: Carissa mine machinery back in action Sunday

Aug 14, 2013 By Andrea Novotny, Staff Writer

After nearly a decade of reconstruction, the Carissa Gold Mine is coming back to life for all to see, with the grand opening scheduled for Sunday near the South Pass City State Historic Site south of Lander.

The tours are free and run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Though tours of the Carissa have been offered in the past, Sunday marks the public's first chance to see the mine's newly installed, fully functional equipment --50 tons of steel that wasn't there before --in action, operating at an ear-splitting 100 to 130 decibels.

"The period of restoration we're looking at is post-World War II," site curatorJon Lane said. "1946 through 1949 is the era where the mine and mill last ran three eight-hour shifts round the clock."

Around that time, the Carissa was said to be capable of processing 100 tons of ore daily, though it probably milled closer to 60 tons per day --producing around 16 ounces of gold, Lane said. An estimated 50,000 to 180,000 ounces of gold came out of the Carissa before it closed permanently in 1954.

When the Carissa closed, four essential pieces of equipment, the ball mill, spiral classifier, mineral jig and Wilfley table, were sold.

"When you close, you generally liquidate your property to pay your bills, to pay your employees," Lane said.

In 2009, the Wyoming Legislature provided funding to replace the missing pieces.

Equipment was sourced from vendors of outdated or antique equipment throughout the Rocky Mountain West, Lane said. The crew even managed to locate the same Wilfley table that was removed from the mine half a century ago.

But the installation of that machinery represents only the final touch in an ongoing process. Working with the federal Abandoned Mine Lands project and the Wyoming Historic Mine Trail initiative, the South Pass Historic Site began a series of renovations and restorations after the state's purchase of the Carissa in 2003.

The challenge since then has been to balance the goal of maintaining the site's historical integrity with the practical concerns associated with taking the public into an almost 150-year-old excavation containing working heavy machinery.

"The work that began about 10 years ago, right after the purchase, was looking at the mine hazards --open shafts --you know, where there's a giant hole in the ground and you throw the pebble and you never hear it hit the bottom," Lane said.

Open shafts either were fenced off or sealed with removable foam. Structural stabilization followed, along with precautionary measures to ensure that chemical hazards would be contained.

The water and other materials run through the mill will be recirculated and self-contained.

"We're not discharging or releasing anything into the environment," Lane said. "We're keeping everything within that building."

The development of the plumbing and electrical systems required some creativity. Modeled after 1946 systems, these systems needed to comply with modern safety standards.

"We're not dealing with 1946 construction codes or electrical codes," Lane said.

This meant implementing some "hybrid systems," he said, "armored electrical cable, for example, as opposed to the two live wires stapled to the surface of the wood.

"You've got your full functionality and safety of the modern twenty-first century, but it blends in or is camouflaged well within the architecture of the building and the design of the systems themselves," Lane said.

Lights came on in the Carissa last year for the first time since the mine's closure.

Another safety measure was the addition of stair rails, which were not present when the mine was in use.

"We know historically they were open stairways, because the people who we had a chance to interview that worked there said their number-one and number-two issues were electrocution because of bad wiring in 1946, and then falling down stairs because there weren't any railings," Lane said.

Although the interior resembles the mine's 1946 appearance, the exterior and layout resemble that of 1929.

After Sunday's grand opening, the mine will be open for public tours Saturday and Sunday afternoons beginning Aug. 24, lasting into the fall and winter as weather permits. The later tours will cost $2 per person for Wyoming residents and $4 for non-residents. Admission for children under 18 is free. Group size is capped at about 25 people per tour.

Tours are also provided for free to educational groups.

Touring the Carissa requires the navigation moderately narrow staircases.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Wilfley table. The correction was made Aug. 16.

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