Among The Gold And Silver Mines Of The Andes

ORURO is one of the chief mining centres of Bolivia. There are rich deposits of silver and tin in the mountains about it, and the work in the mines goes on night and day. There are valuable copper mines not fat from here; the whole country, in fact, seems to be a bed of rich minerals. In the Huanani tin district there is a conical mountain containing a network of tin veins, in some of which the pure ore has been followed down for six hundred feet. In the Avecaya district, nearby, the tin lodes are from one to three feet in thickness, now and then widening out into great masses of solid ore; in other mines there are veins of tin from six to eight feet wide. The word Titicaca means “Tin Stone”; the tin, moreover, is so pure that it is shipped to Europe as it comes from the mines. Quite recently tin mines have been discovered near the shores of Lake Titicaca at an altitude of thirteen or fourteen thousand feet above the sea.

The tin is extracted in the same way as in silver mining: the ore is first blasted down and dug out. It is then broken into pieces, and smelted in blast furnaces, and finally run off into fifty-pound pigs.

Oruro makes me think of the larger villages in the Valley of the Nile, with the green fields and the Nile left out. It lies amidst the bare gray hills of a desert. Its streets are narrow and unpaved. Its houses, with few exceptions, are of one story, made of mud bricks and thatched with straw. They are squalid in the extreme, and everything connected with them is dilapidated and dirty. The town is devoted to mining. It is supported by the silver and tin mines about it, and its people are mostly miners. They are Cholos, for the pure Indians do not like to work in the mines.

One of the largest of the silver mines is just above the city. It is the property of Chileans, though managed by Bolivians. Its capital is $1,000,000, and its stock is said to be 250 per cent above par. The miners are Bolivian Cholos. They labour half-naked in the tunnels, for the mine is as hot as an oven, and its ventillation is poor. In all about 700 hands are employed, the workmen receiving daily wages equal to thirty cents of our money. Only the best of the ore is taken out of the mines, and this is broken into little pieces and sorted over at the surface. The breaking is done by Indian women, who pick out the rich ore and throw the poorer pieces away. There were about 300 women at work at the time of my visit. They were squatting on the ground and pounding the rock to pieces with hammers. Every one of them was chewing coca leaves, and I could see the fat quids swelling their cheeks. I asked as to the wages paid them, and was told that they worked from daylight till dark for about seventeen cents of our money per day.

It is by such methods, and at this low cost, that most of the silver of Bolivia has been given to the world. The country has had the richest silver deposits ever discovered. Bolivia has produced more than four billion dollars’ worth of silver, and should the price of silver again rise she could flood the markets. Her methods of mining have been so wasteful that there are to-day, in the refuse of her abandoned mines, millions of ounces of silver ore which modern machinery could reduce at a profit.

The mineral territory of Bolivia is very large. Deposits of tin and silver are found throughout the mountainous parts of the country for a distance, north and south, of 1,500 miles, and, east and west, of 210 miles. The region is full of abandoned mines, out of which only the richest of the ore has been taken. Some of the mines were opened up by the Spaniards, who forced the Indians to do the work, making them burrow through the earth to get out the ore. Some of the mines have been in operation for centuries; among others the silver mountains of Potosi, out of which have been taken almost three billion dollars’ worth of silver.

The mineral deposits of the Andes are in truth comparatively unknown. Peru has silver mines almost as rich as those of Bolivia. It has indeed two thousand different mines, although, owing to the low price of silver, only a few are now being worked. At Hualgayoc, in northern Peru, there are within the area of forty square leagues four hundred silver mines, some of which are producing as much as three hundred ounces of silver to the ton. This is the region which, according to Alexander Humboldt, produced thirty-three million dollars’ worth of silver in thirty years. The ore is mined by Indians with hammers and drills; they burrow through the mountains like rats, taking out only the richest parts of the ore. They labour almost naked, wearing only breech cloths, and utter weird and melancholy cries as they work.

They carry the ore out of the mines in rawhide sacks upon their backs. An Indian will climb up a ladder or notched stick bearing 150 pounds of ore and go off on a dog trot with it. At the surface the ore is broken up with hammers into small pieces. It is next ground by rolling circular stones over it and then mixed with quicksilver after the patio process by driving mules around through it. Much of the ore is now reduced to a sulphide and taken in this shape on mules to the coast, where it is shipped to Europe for farther treatment.

The same sort of work goes on at the famous Cerro de Pasco mines, in the Andes back of Lima, and in nearly all the silver regions of Bolivia and Peru. The Cerro de Pasco mines, now in active operation, number more than 300, and about 60 miles away, at Yauri, on the Oroya railroad, 225 silver mines are being worked. Cerro de Pasco has always been thought to be the crater of an extinct volcano. It is situated about 14,000 feet above the sea in one of the bleakest parts of the Andes. The town, which has now 5,000 people, lies in a basin surrounded by barren rocks. The deposits consist of a great body of low-grade silver ore more than a mile and a-half long by three-quarters of a mile wide. This has been worked down to a depth of over 250 feet, at which level numerous tunnels have been driven in to drain the mines. The great trouble is the water, and farther mining can be done only by lower tunnels or heavy pumps. Henry Meiggs, the American engineer who constructed so many great works in Peru, began a tunnel 150 feet below the present level. The work was stopped, however, when 900 feet in from the surface, and at present nothing is being done. The tunnel will need to be extended from 900 to 1,800 feet farther before the ore is struck, and at the present low price of silver there is little prospect of this being at-tempted.

Within a short time there has been something of a revival of the silver industry at Cerro de Pasco, owing to rich deposits of copper which lie under the low-grade silver ores, and the camp today is more one of copper than of silver. In the past the Cerro de Pasco mines have produced enormous quantities. Between the years 1630 and 1824, 27,200 tons of pure silver were taken out of them, and the dumps of the mines, if scientifically worked, would still yield a fortune. Twenty years ago Cerro de Pasco was turning out more than a million ounces of silver a year, and sixty million dollars’ worth of silver have already been taken from under the ground where this mining camp now stands. The mines were discovered in the seventeenth century by an Indian who camped out one night near the spot. Before going to sleep he built a fire upon two stones and awoke to find that his stones had melted and that a lump of silver slag had taken their place.

There are but few smelting works in the Andes. One of the largest has been built by three Americans, Messrs. Backus and Johnston, capitalists of Lima, and Captain H. Geyer, an American mining engineer. This smelter is situated on the Oroya railroad, about 95 miles back from the coast, at an altitude of two and one-half miles above the sea. The station is called Casapalca. The smelter is similar to the great smelting works of Denver. The ore is brought from the mines near by and a great deal is carried from Cerro de Pasco, about seventy miles away, on the backs of llamas. It is not an uncommon thing for 1,200 llamas to be unloaded in one day at Casapalca, and during my visit to the smelter I found the yard filled with these curious beasts of burden.

Within the past few years a number of Americans have been prospecting for gold in Peru and Bolivia. They find colour every-where, but so far have discovered no quartz mines of great value. Prfessor A. A. Hard, a Denver mining engineer with whom I travelled, says that there are rich veins and deposits of gold in the Sorata mountains; he predicts that they will some day furnish a gold excitement equal to that of the Klondike.

Several days north from La Paz is the Tipuani river, one of the most famous of the gold streams of the eastern Andes. Its placer mines were worked in the days of the Incas, and from it the Spaniards have extracted large amounts of gold. The Tipuani rolls down the eastern slope of the Andes into the Maperi, thence into the Beni, through which its waters find their way into the Madeira and the Amazon. It is about 300 feet wide, and so deep in most places that the Indians have not been able to reach the bed rock in the centre of the river. So far they have washed only along the banks during the dry season. Their mode of working is to stand in water up to their waists and scrape the gravel together with their feet. When they have made a little pile they dive down and gather it up in pans, often washing fifty cents worth of gold out of one pan of gravel.

Some years ago a Spaniard made a fortune by working one hole in the bed of the Tipuani. He formed a brigade of Indians whom he equipped with rude cows-skin buckets. He then partially drained the river by means of a dam and by passing the buckets of gravel and water rapidly from one Indian to another was able, after three years, to reach the bed rock. Within four years thereafter he took out, it is said, $140,000 worth of gold dust and nuggets. According to another story, he mined 900 pounds of gold in a single year. In this region some Colorado miners are now working with steel dredges. The dredges were made in Denver and were sent in pieces to Mollendo, Peru, thence up the railroad to Puno, and by boat across Lake Titicaca to Chililaya. From here they were brought over the mountains to the river on the backs of mules. The miners expect to dredge out the Tipuani, and to have the bed rock swept and scraped by men in diving suits.

Most of the gold mining of Bolivia is carried on with native labour on a very rude plan. Take for instance the placer diggings of the Chuguiaguillo river, not far from La Paz. The river has cut a gully several hundred feet deep through the basin in which La Paz is situated. This gully is walled with gravel which contains more or less gold. When I visited the mines a score of Indians were digging down the dirt, loading it into wheel barrows and dumping it into wooden sluice boxes, through which the water from the river was conducted. On the bottom of the boxes were iron frames so laid that they caught the heavier parts of the gravel and the gold, while the water carried the dirt off into the river. There was no quicksilver used, the miners depending entirely upon the weight of the gold to throw it to the bottom as it went through.

Shortly after I arrived the water was partly turned off and the gravel left in the boxes panned out for the gold. The panning was done by three Indians, who sat on the sides of the sluices with their bare legs in the water and dipped up the gravel into bowls like those we use for making bread or chopping hash. Such bowls are common everywhere in Bolivia for gold-panning. The Indians carefully washed the dirt out of the gravel. They picked it up by the handful and threw it away, looking for bits of yellow metal among the dark stones. After a while the gravel was all thrown out and in each bowl was a little pile of gold pebbles. There was no gold dust, the deposits ranging from bits of pure gold as big as the head of a pin to nuggets as large as one’s little finger nail. One of the larger nuggets weighed about half an ounce, and I was told it was worth ten dollars. The gold was all coarse gold, and if there was any dust it was lost.

The gold of this part of Bolivia does not lie in pockets, but is distributed with regularity through beds of gravel. Now and then large nuggets are found. One for instance was picked up out of the mines I have just described two hundred years ago and sold for more than $11,000. It was sent to Spain and kept for a time in the Museum at Madrid. One day it was discovered that it had been stolen and a gilded imitation left in its place. The director of the museum was arrested, but nothing could be proved against him. The nugget was never recovered. While we were at the mine the skeleton of an Indian was dug up. He had probably been searching for gold and the earth had caved in and buried him.

There are gold fields in Peru which have recently been sold to an American syndicate for $285,000. There are also regions in Bolivia which could be profitably worked, but it is safe to say that there is no mining country here to which an American who has not capital can come with a reasonable expectation of making a fortune. The Indians have been mining in Bolivia for centuries. In the days of the Incas they worked the gold-bearing grounds over and over. They were forced to do the same under their Spanish taskmasters, so that to-day the only gold possibilities are those which require the expenditure of large capital and considerable modern machinery.

Prospecting in the Andes is exceedingly difficult. The miner must take his provisions with him, for there is no game to speak f, and it is almost impossible to live off the country. He must carry his own tents, for there are no houses whatever in the out-f-the-way districts. There is no fuel, and the winds of these high altitudes are damp, cold, and bone-piercing.

In the rainy season the grass on the plateau forms a soft mat which so holds the water that going over it is like walking on wet sponges, and no boots can keep one’s feet dry. The best of leather is little protection, and rubber cracks and peels when exposed to it. In the dry season the winds and sun of the high-lands tan you, and at times the cold is so intense that the natives wear masks of knitted wool to protect their faces. The masks have holes for the nose, eyes, and mouth, and they make their wearers look like Mephistopheles. I used a mask during my travels in the Andes, and found it such a protection that I would not now travel in a cold country without it.