Mercury used in western mining: Where did it all go?

Gould_&_Curry mine comstock lode

Advances in US mining in recent decades have helped reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. While there is still room for additional progress, the difference between today and 125 years ago is staggering.

Consider the amount of mercury that was used – and ultimately dumped – into western rivers in the second half of the 19th century in the quest for silver.

Mercury, or as it was better known then, quicksilver, was critical in the removal of silver and gold from ore in the western United States. As the Alta California newspaper noted in 1890, it was pretty easy to determine how much mercury ended up rivers, streams and land: however much was used.

“In the silver mines of a certain region, in order to ascertain the amount of quicksilver dissipated and lost, it is only necessary to know the amount bought, for not an ounce is ever sent out from the mines to be sold,” the publication wrote in January 1890.

The paper estimated that between 1860 and 1889, more than 20.5 million pounds of mercury was used just in the huge silver strikes in the Comstock Lode in western Nevada. While some was likely vaporized, making the surrounding atmosphere toxic, most of the element seeped into the environment, according to the Alta California.

In Nevada, mercury was used to extract silver and gold from ore through the Washoe Process, a concentrating process in which silver was mixed with mercury, either in a drum or on an amalgamation table, where the precious metal bond with mercury. The resulting product was called amalgam.

The silver was then recovered from the mercury by retorting, which involves distilling off the mercury from the amalgam.

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1894 dime brings $2 million at Florida auction


The San Francisco mint coined but two dozen 10-cent pieces in 1894. Today, just nine are known to exist. One was sold earlier this month for an astounding $2 million at a Florida auction.

The 1894-S Barber dime is one of the legends of American coin collecting, along with the 1804 US dollar and a 1913 Liberty nickel, and is among the most sought-after numismatic rarities.

The coin sold on Jan. 7 to an unidentified buyer during the Florida United Numismatists show at the Tampa Convention Center is the finest of the nine known surviving examples, described as a “premium gem” by Heritage Auctions.

The story behind the 1894-S dime is an interesting one.

The San Francisco Mint struck nearly 2.5 million Barber dimes in 1893, and planned another substantial mintage in 1894.

However, the financial downturn of 1893 caused a widespread and long-lasting economic recession, and there was little demand for small change in the shrinking economy. As a result, just 24 10-cent pieces were struck at the San Francisco facility in 1894.

Of that number, two coins were sent to Mint Director Robert Preston in Philadelphia in early June 1894, for assay, per mint policy. These were melted and assayed.

On June 25, 1894, two more examples were assayed as part of the monthly assay at the San Francisco Mint. A fifth specimen was sent to Philadelphia on June 28 to be reserved for the annual Assay Commission, which met early in 1895 to test and review the coinage from the previous year.

That left 19 surviving 1894-S dimes. Some of these, it would appear, were placed in a bag of dimes and released into circulation, while others were obtained by mint personnel at face value.

At that time – June 1894 – no one apparently realized that there would be no further orders for dimes in 1894 at the San Francisco Mint, according to Heritage Auctions, which explains why several examples were released into circulation.

While at least two of the known examples are coins that were found after being in circulation for lengthy periods of time – including one taken over the counter at a Gimbels department store in New York in 1957 – several others could still be out there, unknowingly squirreled away.

Conversely, the remainder may have been, at various times, unwittingly melted down.

If I had the time or inclination, I would calculate the rate of appreciation that the above-mentioned dime has undergone during the past 122 years. But we’ll just call it mucho grande and leave it at that.

Remembering the notorious ‘Uranium Gulag’

Joachimsthal mine

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Soviet Gulag was the brutal slave labor camps located in the mountains of Czechoslovakia following World War II, where prisoners were exploited in order to provide uranium for the Soviets’ nascent atomic warfare program.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – recognizing the advantage the US had with its possession of atomic weaponry – sent the Red Army to capture one of the few areas then known to possess material that could be used in the construction of atomic bombs.

The Ore Mountains, which then marked the border between Czechoslovakia and Germany, first gained fame in the late 15th century as the site of a major silver discovery, with the Bohemian town of Joachimsthal taking on special significance as a source of the metal.

Also discovered around this time was pitchblende, a radioactive, uranium-rich ore, which early miners discarded as a waste byproduct.

Only at the beginning of the 20th century was it learned that pitchblende was a valuable commodity in and of itself. Within pitchblende, a variety of uraninite, Marie Curie discovered the element radium, and until the First World War Joachimsthal pitchblende was the only known source of radium in the world.

Also found within pitchblende is uranium. Like other elements, uranium occurs in slightly differing forms known as isotopes. The most common form of uranium is U-238, which makes up more than 99 percent of natural uranium found in the Earth’s crust.

However, another uranium isotope, U-235, while it is makes up less than 1 percent of the Earth’s uranium, is important because under certain conditions it can readily be split, yielding a tremendous amount of energy.

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in August 1945 derived its explosive power from the nuclear fission of uranium-235.

In late 1945 Stalin pressured the Czechoslovak government to sign a confidential treaty that would give Moscow the rights to material from mine, according to Tom Zoellner’s outstanding 2009 work “Uranium.”

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When counterfeit dimes were worth the effort

1861 counterfeit dime

The practice of counterfeiting money is as old as money itself.

Archaeologists have discovered counterfeit examples of coins produced in Lydia, a Roman province said to be the locale of the first metallic coinage, dating back to the 7th century BC.

Today, we tend to think of counterfeiters as individuals who mass produce paper money, usually in large denominations – $20 or higher.

But until relatively recently, nearly all counterfeit money came in coin form. This was because until relatively recently nearly all money came in coin form, and was known as “hard money” because it contained a commodity such as gold or silver which gave it intrinsic value.

A short 1884 article in the New York Times highlighted just how valuable even small coins – albeit those made of silver – were 130 years ago.

MARLBOROUGH, N.Y. – Counterfeit silver dollars, quarters and ten-cent pieces are being circulated in a number of the Hudson River counties. The quarter dollars and dimes are said to be very good imitations of genuine money. It is said that ticket agents on the line of the Hudson River Railroad have been told to scrutinize carefully all silver offered in payment for tickets. It is believed that the counterfeits were first put in circulation about three weeks ago.

Today it seems difficult to imagine someone going to the difficulty of attempting to counterfeit a dime, never mind working hard enough at it to do it well.

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How ‘In God We Trust’ ended up on money

It’s standard now, but for nearly 90 years the motto “In God We Trust” was nowhere to be found on US money.

It was only at the height the War Between the States, when the issue between North and South was far from settled, that Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase went before Congress to request a law placing the motto on the newly authorized two-cent piece.

The law passed on April 22, 1864, and about 20 million of the now all-but-forgotten copper pieces were struck that year.

It’s not entirely clear why the two-cent piece – which was only minted through 1873 – even came into existence.

It’s likely that part of the reason had to do with the fact that as the war continued, production of gold and silver coinage by the US mint had virtually ceased, severely restricting circulating coinage.

In addition, hoarding had taken not only the gold and silver coins out of circulation, but copper coins, as well, according to numismatist Paul Green.

It’s possible the two-cent piece was seen as a way to help alleviate this problem.

However, the idea of a two-cent piece dates back several decades before the Civil War, according to David Bowers, former president of the American Numismatic Association.

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Melt a penny, risk time in the slammer

Recently I stumbled across the news that’s it’s illegal to melt down nickels and pennies. In fact, it’s been a crime for half a decade now.

Had this law been in place back when I spent my summers working at the family steel business, I’d have been counted among the nation’s scofflaws.

More than the occasional lunch break was whiled away taking a cutting torch to various metal objects, including many a penny, watching as the heat turned coins first red, then yellow, then white. 

Soon they would bubble and boil, ball up and, if I did it long enough, disappear completely. All that would be left was usually a smudge of yellow where the penny had been.

However, when the US Mint implemented regulations in December 2006 prohibiting the melting of pennies and nickels, it wasn’t to keep bored youth from cheap entertainment. Instead, it was purportedly to prevent individuals from melting the coins en masse in order to realize their copper value.

In addition, the Mint’s rules also prohibited the unlicensed exportation of the coins, with the exception that travelers can take up to $5 in pennies and nickels out of the country.

To show that the Mint meant business, penalties of up to a fine of $10,000, five years’ imprisonment, or both, were mandated.

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Museum to look at S.C. silver in Civil War

The S.C. State Museum will hold a silver symposium Sunday, May 1, with an afternoon program titled “South Carolina Silver in the Civil War: Did Sherman Take it All?”

In addition to Curator of History Fritz Hamer’s reading of two February 1865 accounts of the theft of silver and jewelry in the Palmetto State by Union troops, members of the South Carolina Silver Society will speak on hidden silver in Cheraw, Charleston and Trinity.

They will also discuss how the Hampton silver escaped the fire at Millwood Plantation as Sherman’s troops laid waste to the Midlands in the waning months of the War Between the States.

It was barely five years ago that a cache of Wade Hampton silver returned to South Carolina for the first time in two generations. The collection had left the state and then the country two generations earlier with an adventuring Hampton heir.

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