Deserted Shafts
Perilous ways and dark places
What they saw in the night

How The Mines Are Worked
excerpted from
The Big Bonanza

by Dan DeQuille
of the Territorial Enterprise

Dan DeQuille
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Some of the old shafts opened on and about the first or upper line of bonanzas have quite gone to decay. They still stand, but the timbers in many places, far down in the bowels of the earth, are racked and rotten; while the timbers built up in the mine to support the chambers from which ore was extracted, and set up in the galleries, drifts, crosscuts, and chutes, millions on millions of feet in all, have quite gone to decay. It is perilous to undertake the exploration of these old worked-out levels. In many places they are caved-in in every direction, the old floors are rotten, water drips from above, and a hot, musty atmosphere almost stifles the explorer; in places the air is so foul that his candle is almost extinguished.

Down in these deserted and dreary old levels, hundreds of feet beneath the surface, are encountered fungi of monstrous growth and most uncouth and uncanny form. They cover the old posts in great moist, dew-distilling masses, and depend from the timbers overhead in broad slimy curtains, or hang down like long squirming serpents or the twisted horns of the ram. Some of these take most fantastic shapes, almost exactly counterfeiting things seen on the surface. Specimens of these are to be seen in most of the cabinets of curiosities in Virginia City. Some of the fungi that grow up from the bottoms of old disused drifts are wholly mineral and are composed of minute crystals of such salts as are contained in the earth from which they spring.

These old decaying places breed all manner of gases, some of them, as the firedamp (carburetted hydrogen gas), dangerous to human life.

One winter night in 1874 some of the residents of the western part of Virginia City were startled by seeing what seemed a column of flame, 50 or 60 feet in height, shooting up from the mouth of an old shaft near the old upper works of the Ophir Company. It was at first thought that the timbers in the old mine were on fire, and three or four men ran to the spot to see what could be done toward smothering the flames.

On reaching the shaft, however, they found that there was no smell of smoke, and also that the supposed fire was a light unlike anything they had ever before seen in its weird whiteness and the strange coruscations of its component particles. In the light shed about by the flame the faces of the men were of a corpselike pallor. Their clothing and hair also partook in some degree of the same ghastly and unnatural hue. The light came up the full size of the large square shaft and, seen at a distance, as it rose through the falling snow, closely resembled one of the shooting spires of the aurora borealis, and it exibited something of the same waving and inconstant motion.

Although the men felt creeping over them a sort of superstitious awe, they still had sufficient courage to approach the shaft and gaze into it. A strange sight was there seen. The whole interior of the shaft seemed to be at a white heat and glowed like a furnace. The timbers on the sides were particularly brilliant. Each splinter, excrescence, or bit of fungus seemed darting dazzling rays that streamed steadily out in all directions. A warm, strange current of air ascended from the sweltering regions below, and there was observed a musty, sickening smell. All of those who looked into the shaft afterwards felt a severe pain in the temples, and two or three were made sick at the stomach.

This strange appearance lasted over half an hour, and before it ended, a crowd of a dozen or more miners returing from their work had collected about the shaft. The light died out from the top downwards, and protuberances from the sides of the shaft continued to glow for some minutes after the light was no longer visible at its top. This remarkable phenomenon was undoubtedly caused by the belching forth of a highly phosphureted gas of some kind from the deep underground chambers of the old abandoned works. the rush of this gas was probably caused by an extensive cave in a place where the timbers had rotted away. One of the men who witnessed the spectacle was of the opinion that the mingling of the gas from the mine with the atmospheric air had something to do with intensifying the light. He observed in the ascending current of pseudo-flame myriads of small particles of some substance of a flosslike texture, which appeared to flash and glow as they darted upward and which presented in the general column of light much the same appearance as motes moving about in a sunbeam.

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Bridget E. Smith, editor & publisher

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