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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Mining the Mother Lode

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Mining the Mother Lode

Carlon McBroom, 68, is optimistic about the Orion mine. No matter how toilsome or difficult the labor, he's ready with a laugh and smile. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Carlon McBroom, 68, is optimistic about the Orion mine. No matter how toilsome or difficult the labor, he's ready with a laugh and smile. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Carlon McBroom stands in the silent and infinite dark of the underground, peering through the blackness into centuries long past.

He sees men, their faces smeared with grime.

Men with calloused hands like old leather.

Men so intimate with the absence of natural light that they squint and cringe when they emerge into glaring sunshine.

Men much like McBroom himself.

Fellow tunnelers, forever lured by the prospect of unearthing a vein of absurdly rich ore, by the fickle promise of fortunes waiting to be released from the ground's jealous grasp with one more swing of a sweat-stained pick handle.

Or in McBroom's case, by one more blast of dynamite.

McBroom is a hard-rock miner, one of just a handful in Baker County, a place where, a century and a score ago, many hundreds of men toiled at this fatiguing and sometimes perilous pursuit.

McBroom looks like a hard-rock miner.

He is clad in denim and flannel and leather.

His fingers are thick and crooked and they look as if they could pry open a rusty can lid without breaking a sweat.

He gets around in a spry gait that belies his 68 years, but his back curves into an almost imperceptible hunch that suggests the vertebrae are accustomed to the contortions necessary in confined quarters.

McBroom talks like a miner, too.

He salts his stories with evocative terms like "feller" and "assay" and "waste rock."

The names of a dozen mines slip as easily from his lips as a fistful of gravelly ore from his palm. A few are famous fortune-makers included in every catalogue of the county's mining history; many others are familiar only to inveterate diggers like McBroom.

Cast only a brief glance at the man and you might come away with a false impression — and particularly so were you to meet him amid the thick gloom inside his tunnel.

McBroom's passion for mining can match that of any prospector who ever led a faithful burro into the trackless mountains of Eastern Oregon back when the Oregon Trail was still the West's only highway.

But McBroom has no interest in trading eras with his ancestors.

He prefers to swig soda pop straight from a frosty refrigerator.

"I like all the comforts," he says.

Nor is an electric icebox McBroom's only concession to modern contraptions.

The yellow hardhat perched atop his close-cropped graying hair, for instance, lacks even a smidgen of anachronism.

McBroom figures the miners who gouged out Baker County's earliest tunnels — by way of historical perspective, President Lincoln was still alive then — probably didn't debate the protective properties of headwear.

Certainly they possessed no plastic.

"For them, a felt hat was a hardhat," McBroom says, and though his face is invisible in the tunnel's perpetual night, you can tell from the tone of his voice that he's smiling as he says the words.

Attached to his hardhat by a nylon strap is a spotlight with a lens about the size of a silver dollar. Instead of common incandescent bulbs it generates light from a matrix of LEDs — an acronym for "light-emitting diodes," a term that probably would have gotten you tossed out of any saloon in Sumpter a century ago.

McBroom's forebears didn't have LEDs.

They didn't even have incandescent bulbs.

"They just stuck a candle in the wall," he says.

This time he can't suppress an audible chuckle.

McBroom said he thinks often about those miners, every one of them many decades in the grave, from whom he inherited an addiction for the pursuit of the earth's buried treasure.

He respects them.

But he does not envy them for their simpler ways.

As McBroom stands in the 100-foot-long tunnel he has blasted at the Orion mine about six miles southwest of Unity, there's a good foot of space between the peak of his plastic hat and the tunnel's roof.

It's seven feet high, this hole bored into the ground, and just as wide.

But had McBroom run the Orion in 1894, the year the first miner staked a claim here along Amelia Creek below the flat top of Table Rock, he figures he would have needed dozens of men to hack through the rock.

They would have relied on sweat and muscle and probably on blood, too.

But not on nitroglycerine.

"Hand-steelin' " McBroom calls it.

What he accomplishes with explosives those old miners achieved by plunging picks into the stubborn rock, by hefting shovels and spinning hand drills.

Their tunnel might have been four feet wide, and a man of even modest stature would have had to crouch to walk inside, McBroom said.

"And I don't blame 'em a bit," he says. "If I was hand-steelin' then I would have made it smaller than that.

"I'm afraid I probably wouldn't have been much of a miner."

McBroom says he wouldn't have much liked to "muck out" his mine (remove the raw ore) by hand, dumping ore into carts and shoving them down steel tracks laid along the tunnel floor.

He much prefers his modern mucking machine — a modified four-wheel drive tractor that's powered by a two-cylinder diesel engine and can haul 700 pounds of ore in a single load.

McBroom admits, though, that even an ore-hauling marvel like his rubber-tired tractor falls a few nuggets short of perfection.

"It takes a lot of trips, and your butt gets awful tired of it," he says, and this time he's near enough the circle of light at the tunnel's entrance that you can see the corners of his mouth rise to form a smile.

Despite all the technology McBroom has assembled to extract the Orion's riches, aspects of the operation retain at least a dash of 19th century flavor.

Near his milling machines, for example, someone has plunked a pair of shovels blades-first into a mound of dirt. The tools' weatherbeaten wooden handles certainly look the part of an implement a miner might have wielded in the decade after the Civil War.

But then you glance again at McBroom and the illusion of any historical serendipity dissipates when you notice — not to belabor the matter of headgear — that he's wearing a blue-and-red ball cap bearing the name "Raybestos," a purveyor of automobile brake pads, among other items.

If you want to blame someone, McBroom says, blame Kenny Grabner. If not for Grabner, McBroom wouldn't have spared the Orion mine a second glance.

McBroom first looked over the mine about three years ago, when he learned that no one was working the unpatented claim.

He started mining in 1963, the year he returned to Baker County after a 10-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, and after almost four decades of trying to track down the mother lode he could no more ignore a potential prospect than he could pass up a free nugget.

But what he found at the Orion was welded tuff.

If you're looking for gold, McBroom said, you don't want to turn up a mountain of tuff.

Welded tuff is ancient volcanic ash fused into rock by heat and pressure.

The key word is volcanic.

Volcanoes spew a lot of stuff into the atmosphere, but gold rarely is among the most abundant of the detritus.

If you want gold, McBroom knew, you poked around until you found granite, or maybe a nice outcrop of greasy-looking green serpentinite.

There isn't a grain of granite at the Orion.

Serpentinite is not particularly plentiful, either.

"I almost walked away from it except for an old feller named Kenny Grabner," McBroom said.

Grabner told McBroom to shelve the textbook geology and listen up.

Mixed in with the Orion's welded tuff, Grabner said, are layers of calcite.

Gold-bearing calcite, to be specific.

So McBroom studied the Orion's history.

He learned that the mine produced about $1 million in gold between 1894 and 1934, a period during which the precious metal sold for $8 to $16 an ounce.

Maybe, McBroom thought, the Orion truly was, in the parlance of miners, a "producer."

But he wasn't convinced until he experimented with a couple loads of "waste rock" he hauled from one of the mine's existing tunnels during his initial explorations three years ago.

McBroom assumed the stuff was worthless, so he had dumped dozens of cubic yards of it on several soggy sections of the Forest Service road that leads to the Orion.

"I thought it was junk," not ore, he said.

Then he decided, on a whim, to mill some of that "junk."

He was shocked when it tested at "one-one" — 1.1 ounces of gold per ton.

No mother lode, to be sure, but the ore was far too valuable to be shoveled into a muddy wheel rut.

Since then McBroom, who works with a few other miners, including his son, Joe, has mucked out ore from the Orion that tested more than a fair bit better than 1.1.

He declined to say exactly how much better.

"The assays," he says, tipping a crafty wink, "would blow your mind."

Turns out Grabner, who died a couple years ago, knew more about welded tuff than the textbooks.

"He was a hell of a man," McBroom says. "A little feller, but he carried a big stick."

Like most miners, McBroom is not rich. But unlike many miners, he's unfailingly modest when he discusses his prospects of getting rich.

McBroom believes in the mother lode, but he won't boast about having a line on it .

"I've always made money, but never a lot," he says.

So far at the Orion, McBroom has run tests and assays only, milling relatively small amounts of ore.

"Without that you're kind of whistlin' in the dark," he says.

He plans to start processing ore at his mill's full capacity later this summer.

McBroom says his collection of milling machines — about $250,000 worth, he figures — can handle a ton of ore an hour, and capture 96 percent of the gold.

At that rate even the junk rock — spared now from such prosaic purposes as smoothing rough roads — would produce about $400 per hour.

The milling process is pretty simple, McBroom said.

He uses neither mercury nor cyanide nor any of the other potentially lethal substances often used to leach gold from rock.

McBroom's tools are well water and gravity.

He allows freshly mucked ore to dry for a while.

From there the ore travels through a series of several steel hoppers connected by nylon belts that move about 4 feet per minute.

A "classifier" — a 10-foot-high wheel with mesh inserts — separates the finer materials from coarse chunks. Pieces too large to sift through the mesh return to the grinder.

Farther along in the process the ore mixes with water and flows down a pair of "Humphreys spirals" — which look like water slides designed for squirrels.

In the final step, McBroom heats a slurry of water and ore in a furnace to produce "dore bars."

He lacks the equipment needed to further refine the gold; and in any case he'd rather not mess with the nasty chemicals required.

He plans to sell the dore bars through a broker.

The buyer will process the bars to produce "4-9" gold, McBroom said — 99.99 percent pure.

"You can't get much purer than that," he says.

McBroom is anxious to start dumping ore into his mill. He has waited many months, filled out more forms for more regulatory agencies than he would like to count.

Last spring, frustrated by what he believed was the Forest Service's failure to approve his mining plan in a timely fashion, McBroom, with the backing of the Eastern Oregon Mining Association, announced that he intended to mill ore without a permit.

A few dozen people showed up that May day, but McBroom, although he continued to work at the mine, decided not to mill.

He has his permit now, and he says he seems to be getting along more cordially with the Forest Service now.

In any case, McBroom says, delays and disappointments are intimates to any longtime miner.

Gold, he says, never comes easy.

It's stubborn, and maybe that's why it's been among the world's most valuable substances for millennia.

But McBroom has a substantial streak of stubbornness in him, too.

"You have to," he says. "You have to stick with it."

McBroom is excited about the Orion, though, and even if he didn't readily admit that he was, he reveals the truth because he talks just a little faster and the pitch of his voice rises just a little whenever he recites the results of his ore tests.

"It's probably the best mine I've ever been in," he says.

But the truth is that McBroom probably would be here, sweating one hour in the stifling, shadeless July heat, shivering the next in the damp chill of his tunnel, even if the Orion weren't half the producer he thinks it is.

When asked whether he would mine no matter how miniscule the profit margin, McBroom hardly hesitates before answering.

"Probably would," he says. "I just like to mine.

"Every ore load you get into is different. It keeps you thinking all the time.

"It's in the blood."

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