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Home » Gold » Getting Gold » Gold Prospecting - Alluvial & General


Getting Gold:

A practical treatise for prospectors, miners and students

Written by J.C.F. Johnson, F.G.S. (1898)

Table of Contents

Chapter II


It is purposed in this chapter to deal specially with the operation of searching for valuable mineral by individuals or small working parties.

It is well known that much disappointment and loss accrue through lack of knowledge by prospectors, who with all their enterprise and energy are often very ignorant, not only of the probable locality, mode of occurrence, and widely differing appearance of the various valuable minerals, but also of the best means of locating and testing the ores when found. It is for the information of such as these that this chapter is mainly intended, not for scientists or miners of large experience.

All of us who have had much to do with mining know that the majority of the best mineral finds have been made by the purest accident; often by men who had no mining knowledge whatever; and that many valuable discoveries have been delayed, or, when made, abandoned as not payable, from the same cause—ignorance of the rudiments of mineralogy and mining. I have frequently been asked by prospectors, when inspecting new mineral fields, what rudimentary knowledge will be most useful to them and how it can be best obtained.

If a man can spare the time a course of lessons at some accredited school of mines will be, undoubtedly, the best possible training; but if he asks what books he should read in order to obtain some primary technical instruction, I reply: First, an introductory text-book of geology, which will tell him in the simplest and plainest language all he absolutely requires to know on this important subject. Every prospector should understand elementary geology so far as general knowledge of the history of the structure of the earth's crust and of the several actions that have taken place in the past, or are now in operation, modifying its conditions. He may with advantage go a few steps further and learn to classify the various formations into systems, groups, and series: but he can acquire all that he need absolutely know from this useful little 2s. 6d. book. Next, it is advisable to learn something about the occurrence and appearance of the valuable minerals and the formations in which they are found. For all practical purposes I can recommend Cox and Ratte's "Mines and Minerals," one of the Technical Education series of New South Wales, which deals largely with the subject from an Australian standpoint, and is therefore particularly valuable to the Australian miner, but which will be found applicable to most other gold-bearing countries. I must not, however, omit to mention an admirably compiled multum in parvo volume prepared by Mr. G. Goyder, jun., Government Assayer and Assay Instructor at the School of Mines, Adelaide. It is called the "Prospectors' Pocketbook," costs only one shilling, is well bound, and of handy size to carry. In brief, plain language it describes how a man, having learned a little of assaying, may cheaply provide himself with a portable assay plant, and fluxes, and also gives considerable general information on the subject of minerals, their occurrence and treatment.[*]

[*] Another excellent and really practical book is Prof. Cole's "Practical Aids in Geology" (second edition), 10s. 6d.

It may here be stated that some twelve years ago I did a large amount of practical silver assaying on the Barrier (Broken Hill), which was not then so accessible a place as it is now, and got closely correct results from a number of different mines, with an extemporised plant almost amusing in its simplicity. All I took from Adelaide were a small set of scales capable of determining the weight of a button down to 20 ozs. to the ton, a piece of cheese cloth to make a screen or sieve, a tin ring 1 1/2 in. diameter, by 1/2 in. high, a small brass door knob to use as a cupel mould, and some powdered borax, carbonate of soda, and argol for fluxes; while for reducing lead I had recourse to the lining of a tea-chest, which lead contains no silver—John Chinaman takes good care of that. My mortar was a jam tin, without top or bottom, placed on an anvil; the pestle a short steel drill. The blacksmith at Mundi Mundi Station made me a small wrought iron crucible, also a pair of bent tongs from a piece of fencing-wire. The manager gave me a small common red flower pot for a muffle, and with the smith's forge (the fire built round with a few blocks of talcose schist) for a furnace, my plant was complete. I burned and crushed bones to make my bone-dust for cupelling, and thus provided made nearly forty assays, some of which were afterwards checked in Adelaide, in each instance coming as close as check assays generally do. Nowadays one can purchase cheaply a very effective portable plant, or after a few lessons a man may by practice make himself so proficient with the blowpipe as to obtain assay results sufficiently accurate for most practical purposes.

Coming then to the actual work of prospecting. What the prospector requires to know is, first, the usual locality of occurrence of the more valuable minerals; secondly, their appearance; thirdly, a simple mode of testing. With respect to occurrence, the older sandy and clay slates, chlorite slates, micaceous, and hornblendic schists, particularly at or near their junction with the intrusive granite and diorite, generally form the most likely geological country for the finding of mineral lodes, particularly gold, silver and tin. But those who have been engaged in practical mining for long, finding by experience that no two mineral fields are exactly alike in all their characteristics, have come to the conclusion that it is unwise to form theories as to why metals should or should not be found in certain enclosing rocks or matrices. Some of the best reef gold got in Victoria has been obtained in dead white, milky-looking quartz almost destitute of base metal. In South Australia reef gold is almost invariably associated with iron, either as oxide, as "gossan;" or ferruginous calcite, "limonite;" or granular silica, conglomerated by iron, the "ironstone" which forms the capping or outcrop of many of our reefs, and which is often rich in gold.

But to show that it is unsafe to decide off-hand in what class of matrix metals will or will not be found, I may say that in my own experience I have seen payable gold in the following materials:—

Quartz, dense and milky, also in quartz of nearly every colour and appearance, saccharoidal, crystalline, nay, even in clear glass-like six-sided prismatic crystals, and associated with silver, copper, lead, arsenic, iron as sulphide, oxide, carbonate, and tungstate, antimony, bismuth, nickel, zinc, lead, and other metals in one form or another; in slate, quartzite, mica schist, granite, diorite, porphyry, felsite, calcite, dolomite, common carbonate of iron, siliceous sinter from a hot spring, as at Mount Morgan; as alluvial gold in drifts formed of almost all these materials; and once, perhaps the most curious matrix of all, a small piece of apparently alluvial gold, naturally imbedded in a shaly piece of coal. This specimen, I think, is in the Sydney Museum. One thing, however, the prospector may make sure of: he will always find gold more or less intimately associated with silica (Quartz) in one or other of its many forms, just as he will always find cassiterite (oxide of tin) in the neighbourhood of granite containing muscovite (white mica), which so many people will persist in terming talc. It is stated to be a fact that tin has never been found more than about two miles from such granite.

From what has been said of its widely divergent occurrences it will be admitted that the Cornish miners' saying with regard to metals generally applies with great force to gold: "Where it is, there it is": and "Cousin Jack" adds, with pathetic emphasis, "and where it is generally, there I ain't."

I have already spoken of the geological "country rock" in which red gold is most likely to be discovered—i.e., the junction of the slates and schists with the igneous or metamorphic (altered) rocks, or in this vicinity. Old river beds formed of gravelly drifts in the same neighbourhood may probably contain alluvial gold, or shallow deposits of "wash" on hillsides and in valleys will often carry good surface gold. This is sometimes due to the denudation, or wearing away, of the hills containing quartz-veins—that is, where the alluvial gold really was derived from such veins, which, popular opinion to the contrary, is not always the case.

Much disappointment and loss of time and money may sometimes be prevented if prospectors will realise that all alluvial gold does not come from the quartz veins or reefs; and that following up an alluvial lead, no matter how rich, will not inevitably develop a payable gold lode. Sometimes gold, evidently of reef origin, is found in the alluvial; but in that case it is generally fine as regards the size of the particles, more or less sharp-edged, or crystalline in form if recently shed; while such gold is often of poorer quality than the true alluvial which occurs in mammillary (breast-like) nuggets, and is of a higher degree of purity as gold.

The ordinary non-scientific digger will do well to give credence to this view of the case, and will often thereby save himself much useless trouble. Sometimes also the alluvial gold, coarser in size than true reef-born alluvial, is derived almost in situ from small quartz "leaders," or veins, which the grinding down of the face of the slates has exposed; these leaders in time being also broken and worn, set free the gold they have contained, which does not, as a rule, travel far, but sometimes becomes water-worn by the rubbing over it of the disintegrated fragments of rock.

But the heavy, true alluvial gold, in great pure masses, mammillary, or botryoidal (like a bunch of grapes) in shape, have assuredly been formed by accretion on some metallic base, from gold salts in solution, probably chloride, but possibly sulphide.

Nuggets, properly so-called, are never found in quartz lodes; but, as will be shown later, a true nugget having all the characteristics of so-called water-worn alluvial may be artificially formed on a small piece of galena, or pyrites, by simply suspending the base metal by a thread in a vessel containing a weak solution of chloride of gold in which a few hard-wood chips are thrown.

Prospecting for alluvial gold at shallow depths is a comparatively easy process, requiring no great amount of technical knowledge. Usually the first gold is got at or near the surface and then traced to deep leads, if such exist.

At Mount Brown Goldfield, N.S.W., in 1881, I saw claimholders turning out to work equipped only with a small broom made of twigs and a tin dish. With the broom they carefully swept out the crevices of the decomposed slate as it was exposed on the surface, and putting the resulting dust and fragments into the tin dish proceeded to dry blow it.

The modus operandi is as follows: The operator takes the dish about half full of dirt, and standing with his back or side to the wind, if there be any, begins throwing the stuff up and catching it, or sometimes slowly pouring it from one dish to another, the wind in either case carrying away the finer particles. He then proceeds to reduce the quantity by carefully extracting the larger fragments of rock, till eventually he has only a handful or so of moderately fine "dirt" which contains any gold there may be. If in good sized nuggets it is picked out, if in smaller pieces or fine grains the digger slowly blows the sand and dust aside with his breath, leaving the gold exposed. This process is both tedious and unhealthy, and of course can only be carried out with very dry surface dirt. The stuff in which the gold occurred at Mount Brown was composed of broken slate with a few angular fragments of quartz. Yet, strange to say, the gold was invariably waterworn in appearance.

Dry blowing is now much in vogue on the West Australian fields owing to the scarcity of water; but the great objection is first, the large amount of dust the unfortunate dry blower has to carry about his person, and secondly, that the peck of dirt which is supposed to last most men a life time has to be made a continuous meal of every day.

For wet alluvial prospecting the appliances, besides pick and shovel, are puddling tub, tin dish, and cradle; the latter, a man handy with tools can easily make for himself.

In sinking, the digger should be careful to avoid making his shaft inconveniently small, and not to waste his energy by sinking a large "new chum" hole, which usually starts by being about three times too large for the requirements at the surface, but narrows in like a funnel at 10 feet or less. A shaft, say 4 feet by 2 feet 6 inches and sunk plumb, the ends being half rounded, is large enough for all requirements to a considerable depth, though I have seen smart men, when they were in a hurry to reach the drift, get down in a shaft even less in size.

The novice who is trying to follow or to find a deep lead must fully understand that the present bed of the surface river may not, in fact seldom does, indicate the ancient watercourses long since buried either by volcanic or diluvial action, which contain the rich auriferous deposits for which he is seeking; and much judgment and considerable underground exploration are often required to decide on the true course of leads. Only by a careful consideration of all the geological surroundings can an approximate idea be obtained from surface inspection alone; and the whole probable conditions which led to the present contour of the country must be carefully taken into account.

How am I to know the true bottom when I see it? asks the inexperienced digger. Well, nothing but long experience and intelligent observation will prevent mistakes at times, particularly in deep ground; but as a general rule, though it may sound paradoxical, you may know the bottom by the top.

That is, we will assume you are sinking in, say, 10 to 12 feet ground in a gully on the bank of which the country rock is exposed, and is, say, for instance, a clay slate or sandy slate set at a certain angle; then, in all probability, unless there be a distinct fault or change in the country rock between the slate outcrop and your shaft, the bottom will be a similar slate, standing at the same angle; and this will very probably be overlaid by a deposit of pipeclay, formed by the decomposition of the slates.

From the crevices of these slates, sometimes penetrating to a considerable distance, you may get gold, but it is useless attempting to sink through them. If the outcropping strata be a soft calcareous (limy) sandstone or soft felspathic rock, and that be also the true bottom, great care should be exercised or one is apt to sink through the bottom, which may be very loose and decomposed. I have known mistakes made in this way when many feet have been sunk, and driven through what was actually bed rock, though so soft as to deceive even men of experience. The formation, however, must be the guide, and except in some specially difficult cases, a man can soon tell when he is really on bed rock or "bottom."

On an alluvial lead the object of every one is to "get on the gutter," that is, to reach the lowest part of the old underground watercourse, through which for centuries the gold may have been accretionising from the percolation of the mineral-impregnated water; or, when derived from reefs or broken down leaders, the flow of water has acted as a natural sluice wherein the gold is therefore most thickly collected. Sometimes the lead runs for miles and is of considerable width, at others it is irregular, and the gold-bearing "gutter" small and hard to find. In many instances, for reasons not readily apparent, the best gold is not found exactly at the lowest portion of these narrow gutters, but a little way up the sides. This fact should be taken into consideration in prospecting new ground, for many times a claim has been deserted after cleaning up the "bottom," and another man has got far better gold considerably higher up on the sides of the gutter. For shallow alluvial deposits, where a man quickly works out his 30 by 30 feet claim, it may be cheaper at times to "paddock" the whole ground—that is, take all away from surface to bottom, but if he is in wet ground and he has to drive, great care should be taken to properly secure the roof by means of timber. How this may best be done the local circumstances only can decide.

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