Mollie Kathleen Gortner lived in Colorado Springs with her husband. Their son Perry surveyed gold mining claims in Cripple Creek. When Mollie visited in the fall of 1891, Perry told her where she could see a large herd of elk at the head of Poverty Gulch. Mollie hiked up the hill and sat on a rock. She noticed gold ore in a nearby rock formation and sneaked down to town to make a claim.
Poverty Gulch (below) where gold was first discovered in the Cripple Creek region. Active surface mining is still going on at the top of the hill. We were told that much more gold still lies underground, so when surface mining is no longer worth the effort, mining companies will go back down.
Mollie’s mine was in operation until 1961 when the local ore mill closed. Almost from the very beginning, the mine offered tours. The current operators have blasted some new tunnels to create a looped path on the level 1,000 feet below the surface. They’ve also added air compressors so the guides can demonstrate equipment.
The Mollie Kathleen Mine from across the road.
We descended into the mine in two skips (think “elevator cages”) Each skip is about the size of a phone booth with a sliding door. I was squeezed into a skip with four other people. I was by far the skinniest. One woman weighed at least 400 pounds, and I can truly say I’ve been closer to her than I have to all but about eight people in the whole world. Because we were in the top skip, we first rode up about 10 feet so the lower skip could load with four adults, a young girl, and the guide. The trip to the bottom level lasted about four minutes. The bottom skip unloaded first, so our sardine experience lasted three or four minutes longer than their ride. I didn’t enjoy the extra time.
Our guide was a miner back in the 1970s. He knew his stuff and made it interesting. He also included several jokes, but he had to tell us he was being funny almost every time because none of them were.
The rest of the people on the tour got more of a kick out of me. We each had hardhats on. I put mine on over my hat, which probably isn’t the intended way to wear it, but otherwise it was very uncomfortable. Not long into the tour, I looked up at the ceiling and my hat fell off and made a resounding crash. The guide said, “Don’t lose your head.” About 10 minutes later, the guide told us to look up a shaft. I did, and my hat fell off again. This time the guide just looked at me with a disgusted look. Someone else said, “You need to tighten that.” I did, but it didn’t help. It slipped off again, but this time I trapped it against the wall and kept it off the floor. The guide thought it was funny by now and chuckled. The fourth (and last) time it fell off, I managed to catch it in midair. This time I was congratulated!
The tour took us through the history of mining, beginning with the days when miners broke rock with spikes and hammers. We saw several types of pneumatic drills in operation, learned about explosives, and took a short ride in tram pushed by a compressed air locomotive. We also saw how the ore was collected and taken out of the mine. And then it was time to pack back into the skips for the uncomfortable ride back up to the surface.