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Riding the High Wire

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Riding the High Wire is the first comprehensive history of aerial mine tramways in the American West, describing their place in the evolution of mining after 1870. Robert A. Trennert shows how the mid-nineteenth century development of wire rope manufacturing made it possible for American entrepreneurs such as Andrew S. Hallidie and Charles Huson to begin erecting single-rope tramways in the 1870s and 1880s. Their inventions were followed by the more substantial double-rope systems imported from Europe. By the turn of the century, aerial tramways were common throughout western mining regions, hauling everything from gold and silver ore to coal and salt and changing the face of the industry. Aerial mine tramways proved to have a special fascination; people often rode them for a thrill, sometimes with disastrous results. They were also very temperamental, needed constant attention, and were prone to accidents. The years between 1900 and 1920 saw the operation of some of the west's most spectacular tramways, but the decline in high-country mining beginning in the 1920s--coupled with the development of more efficient means of transportation--made this technology all but obsolete by the end of the Second World War. Historians and the general reader will be equally enthralled by Trennert's fascinating story of the rise and fall of aerial mine tramways.

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CHAPTER ONE ANDREW S. HALLIDIE AND THE ENDLESS WIRE ROPEWAY

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ANDREW S. HALLIDIE
AND THE ENDLESS WIRE ROPEWAY

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill by James Marshall in January 1848 changed American mining. It sparked the California gold rush, which in turn led to the development of fabulous mineral properties across the Far West. From the Great Basin and the Rocky Mountains to the Klondike and Alaska, prospectors and miners sought out the vast fortune of mineral wealth locked up by Mother Nature for millions of years. Indeed, from 1850 until the early decades of the twentieth century, mining opened the West. It sparked the growth of such major cities as San Francisco and Denver, encouraged the invention and manufacture of thousands of new technological devices, led to financial investment on an unprecedented scale, and changed the western landscape and the people living on it.

During the first decade after Marshall’s discovery, perhaps three hundred thousand people came to California. Gold fever quickly spread into the interior as prospectors discovered mineral deposits all along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada range. Other entrepreneurs just as quickly went into the business of supplying miners with all their needs. The forty-niners benefited from good luck. They were able to recover large amounts of gold with little effort and almost no knowledge of geology or mining techniques because California’s first gold rested in streambeds, the result of erosion that had washed it down from the mother lode. As a consequence, mining required only a minimal outlay of money. All a man needed was time, a pan to separate the gold from the gravel, and perhaps a rocker, long torn (trough), or sluice, all easily constructed. Of course, the supply of placer gold was quickly depleted and the day of the individual prospector soon faded. He would be replaced by eastern capitalists willing to finance hydraulic and, eventually, quartz or hard-rock mining. Within a decade, mining made the transition from small-scale surface efforts to a large industry, requiring expensive new technology in order to extract even greater wealth from under the ground.1

 

CHAPTER TWO BLEICHERT’S DOUBLE-ROPE SYSTEM

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BLEICHERT’S DOUBLE-ROPE SYSTEM

During the 1903 American Mining Congress meeting at Deadwood, South Dakota, Stephen de Zomdoria addressed his fellow mining engineers on the subject of aerial tramways. Praising all types of tramways, he noted that “every mining man of the West can probably cite examples of mines whose profitable operation without the aid of tramways would not be possible.” Looking back over two dramatic decades of change in tramway technology following the introduction of the double-rope system, he still found some value in the single-rope tramways of Hallidie and Huson, which continued to be used at western mine sites. They were simple machines, easy to maintain, and relatively cheap to erect and operate. Compared to other forms of transportation, such as roads and railroads, they proved highly adaptable, uncomplicated in construction, and could be taken down and erected at new locations with minimal cost and loss of operating time.1

Yet these words offered faint praise. As Zomdoria and others well knew, the single-rope tramway suffered from serious limitations in an era when mine owners demanded more efficiency. One of the most notorious drawbacks involved capacity. Bucket loads had to be limited to less than 200 pounds because anything greater put too much strain on the rope. Indeed, on a device where the moving rope also carried the load, wear on moving parts and constant repairs were inevitable. By necessity, single-rope tramways also ran at a relatively slow speed in order to prevent the rope from jumping out of the sheaves, a problem that continually plagued the Hallidie design. Another inefficiency concerned the fact that buckets were permanently attached to the cable. This “gives rise to the . . . greater objection that the buckets must be both loaded and unloaded while moving, since they cannot be stopped without stopping the whole line.” Finally, the single-rope tramways were limited in the distance they could cover, operating with a practical length of about two miles and a maximum of around four miles.2

 

CHAPTER THREE CONSTRUCTION AND OPERATION

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Wherever they were built and whatever the design, aerial mine tramways in the western regions of North America were constructed and operated with a certain degree of uniformity. They were, after all, built for the economical conveyance of mine products over distances ranging from a few hundred feet to many miles. Despite the similarities, each tramway was unique, covering different topography and presenting a variety of operational and construction challenges. This chapter will examine in general how the tramways were designed and built, problems and maintenance, accidents, economic and labor factors, and the dangers of passenger traffic.

The first task of any mine operator involved an evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of a tramway. Decisions were usually based on the distance between reduction facilities or rail transportation and the mine entrance. A rule of thumb used by many mining engineers said that double-rope tramways of less than a thousand feet were impractical because terminal machinery and labor cost as much as that of a longer line, making initial costs prohibitive. Thus where short distances and level terrain were involved, it might be more practical to use mule trains or other forms of surface transportation. Once great distances and rugged terrain entered the picture, however, miners gave serious consideration to erecting an aerial tramway. Although the initial cost might be considerable, in most cases tramways were cheaper than such alternatives as constructing narrow-gauge railways. In 1903, T. A. Rickard, then editor of the Engineering and Mining Journal, pointed out the advantages of choosing a valley mill site “and transporting the product of the mine over an aerial tramway. ... As a rule the valley site is preferable, because of the availability of a water supply, the greater cheapness of fuel for power and heating purposes, the nearness to a base of supplies, the facility which the tramway itself gives for transmitting materials up to the mines, the more kindly conditions of living for workmen, etc.” Substantial tramways also served to convince investors that the mine in question was no fly-by-night affair. While this assumption was not necessarily valid, an aerial tramway on the property, along with other visible signs of prosperity, no doubt helped to sell stock. Reports to shareholders and potential investors frequently touted state-of-the-art machinery. The 1899 general report on the Silver Lake mines near Silverton, Colorado, for example, not only fully described the current tramway system, but also noted that additional mineral resources would be “gradually exploited as the facilities for handling the ore shall be increased, through the building of further Tramways, Mills, etc.”1

 

CHAPTER FOUR GREAT WESTERN TRAMWAYS

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GREAT WESTERN TRAMWAYS

During the three decades between 1890 and 1920, aerial mine tramways reached a peak of popularity. Literally hundreds of these devices were installed, operated, and abandoned during these golden years. So common did they become that observers tended to take less notice, leaving future historians with little documentary information on the active life of many lines. Nonetheless, many of the most notable examples represented heroic feats of engineering or were so spectacular that they could hardly escape notice. Engineering journals, local newspapers, and manufacturers quickly noted anything unusual. While it would neither be possible nor useful to document every western tramway, this chapter will focus on the history of some of the more important operations, with emphasis on the Rocky Mountains, western Canada, and the desert Southwest.

Because of their rich mineral deposits, the Rockies attracted mining on an unprecedented scale. The rugged terrain and primitive conditions that accompanied high-altitude mining frequently necessitated the use of aerial transportation. Many notable systems were erected around the turn of the century, making the Rockies a center of tramway activity. Indeed, one could hardly visit any mining district in the region without seeing a number of tramways diligently moving ores and supplies back and forth. For the purpose of this study, the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming will be featured.

 

CHAPTER FIVE DECLINE, OBSOLESCENCE, AND PRESERVATION

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DECLINE, OBSOLESCENCE, AND PRESERVATION

The 1920s witnessed the beginnings of a decline in the use of aerial tramways at western mine sites, a decline that has continued to a point where they have virtually disappeared from the contemporary landscape. Progress in mining technology as well as events beyond the industry’s control have rendered, with few exceptions, aerial tramways an obsolete remnant of the past. The decline began as mining fell on hard times during the 1920s. This was compounded during the Depression when most of the surviving operations were forced to shut down or cut expenditures. World War II ended the mining of precious metals, cut out small operators, and saw scrap drives scoop up much of the surviving machinery. During the latter half of the twentieth century, mining became more mechanized with open pit mines, huge trucks and shovels, conveyor systems, and more efficient road-building equipment. A few operating aerial tramways still exist, but for the most part the historic survivors are now no more than rusting reminders of America’s mining past.

 

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