Silver used in solar a ray of light for Colorado miners
The Denver Post
Tom Treadwell works to clear mud, rock and broken timber from a shaft in the Poor Man silver mine, which sits high above Idaho Springs. You conquer Mother Earth a little bit at a time and see what treasures she has for you, said Treadwell. (Nathan W. Armes, Special to The Denver Post)
IDAHO SPRINGS – Lately, a hard-rock miner has been little more than a landlord waiting for prices to change.
Tom Treadwell and Al Mosch have waited long enough. Silver prices are setting records these days, and so every shovelful of muck Treadwell scoops from a blocked shaft of his Poor Man Mine brings him 3 inches closer to glory.
Silver futures went up 27 percent in May, the largest monthly gain since 1983, hitting $15.60 an ounce. Economic uncertainty and the cheapened U.S. dollar have pushed both silver and gold to tantalizing highs, enticing multinationals and grizzled mountain men alike to assay old claims and dream big.
While Mosch stands a few safe feet behind a rusty ore cart and tells stories about the Poor Man’s heyday, Treadwell pecks away at 30 tons of mud, rock and broken timbers that blocked the main shaft years ago.
The everyday job for Mosch and Treadwell is offering gold-mine tours at the Phoenix Mine, 2,000 feet below.
Their escapist delight is bouncing up to the Poor Man, past the amateurs panning for gnat-size flakes of gold in Trail Creek, to 10,050 feet, for chilly hours of therapeutic silver fever.
“Mother Earth is lovely and peaceful underground,” said Treadwell, slowly and steadily wearing out one of the handful of Carhartt work jackets he goes through in a year. “I get to play with dynamite and find gold and silver. It’s the best of both worlds. You conquer Mother Earth a little bit at a time and see what treasures she has for you.”
Mosch calls his family the longest continuous-mining clan in the state.
His son, David, a former Colorado School of Mines professor, prospected a multimillion-dollar gold claim that put him in People magazine in 1975 at age 14. Al Mosch has a story about every abandoned shaft, every lightning-struck tree, every mining dream derailed, from Idaho Springs up to the lofty Poor Man.
“I did some serious work in here in the 1980s when silver was at $12,” Mosch said. “It crashed to $4 and stayed that way for many years. I just shut it down then.”
Mosch is betting on a revival of one of the oldest industries in the world through one of the newest: He’s learned that solar panels take silver to produce, and a boom in the former may reverse a bust in the latter. The United States is the eighth-largest silver producer in the world, down the list from leaders such as Peru and Mexico. Most silver produced is used for industrial applications such as battery-making, or photography, or jewelry crafting, with alternative-energy uses on the rise.
A few other claim holders, from bootstrap pickers to mines backed by world giants, have filed applications with Colorado to explore or reactivate silver mines.
Treadwell, along with another part-timer who sometimes sleeps in an old green school bus above the shaft entrance, scrapes away at the cave-in with hope of reaching other shafts hundreds of feet back under Wall Street Mountain. Potentially rich silver veins linger deep in the hill, and a clear shaft would let a mining engineer see whether production is possible.
“Exploration means looking. Development means figuring how to get the rock out,” Mosch said. “Mining is actually bringing out rock.”
For now, it’s bringing out muck riddled with gravel and splinters from buckled timbers. Treadwell walks an ore cart 120 feet out the shaft and tips it over a gully as storm clouds gather overhead.
David Mosch is working on technology that might eliminate much of a mountain spilling its guts into the valleys in order to give up metal. His technology would blast rich ore from mineral veins without taking the surrounding rock.
“If he’s successful,” Al Mosch said, “we could reopen a lot of these old claims.”
Treadwell turns away from the light and back to the dank, 44-degree tunnel, where he resumes shovel swings that are both deliberate and spare. Miners keep one eye on the job and another on the ceiling. Treadwell shows split fingers, but so far, an intact skull.
“Tom’s trained for all the mine-rescue teams around here,” Mosch said. “So if he gets trapped back here, he can rescue himself.”
Michael Booth: 303-954-1686 or email@example.com
Snow usually comes and goes in this part of the state. A forecasted storm is expected to stick around for a while. Forecasters are calling for snow to persist throughout the weekend in the high country, with a prospect of a couple of feet of powder by the time the storm starts to diminish on Monday.