Plumas County Adventures
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What is an Arrastra?
I frequently investigate gold mines from the 1800's. One style of mining
is known as "Quartz Mining." The gold (usually small amounts)
is contained in quartz veins and the quartz is underground. Because of this,
these mines have tunnels to get to the quartz and some sort of equipment
to break the quartz to a powder so the gold can be removed.
The usual equipment is a stamp mill--I have found four of these in my travels.
Heavy pieces of steel are lifted vertically by a cam and then suddenly dropped.
The stamp "feet" land on the ore and crush it. Any book on mining
or gold rush history will have information on stamp mills. You can see a
stamp mill at a rest stop on California State Route 70 at Belden (between
Oroville and Quincy).
Stamp mills weigh many tons and require a large amount of power to drive
them. They are found at the large mines that are fairly close to main roads.
Take a side trip to some of these mills.
What about the small mines that are located far from main roads? What did
the small fry miner use to break up the quartz? Most used some sort of grinder
that could be assembled at the site and powered by water or even by animals.
On three adventures to quartz mines I found devices that can best be described
as crude grinders. In different ways each of these can be likened to the
mortar part of a mortar and pestle.
Lets look at these "mortars."
The first is about three feet in diameter. It is constructed of concrete
and steel and has a spout that the ground material could exit from. There
was no indication of what the driving power was.
The second one is also about three feet in diameter (as you can see, much
is missing). It is constructed of concrete and stone. It has a center post
so the pestle part must have looked like a doughnut. There was a badly decomposed
6 foot water wheel nearby and there was a ditch about 150 feet above the
site that would have provided water power.
The third is very crude. It is 10-12 feet in diameter and made of posts
buried in the ground in a circular fashion. About half the posts are missing
as seen in the poor photo below. The bottom was rock lined. There was a
ditch in the vicinity that would have provided water. Compare this description
to that of the "Mexican Rastra" found below.
I did some reseach and found a bit of information about these crude gold
grinders. The best information is from Hutchings and Rosenfield.1858. "The
Miner's Own Book." San Franciso and is quoted below:
One of the first used, as well as one of the most useful and
most important, is the Mexican Rastra, which is commonly spelled Arastra.
Though rude in its construction and simple in its working, it is one of
the most effectual methods of saving the gold which has yet been discovered.
The Mexican method of constructing these is to lay a circular track of stone
tolerably level, with a low wall around the outside of the track; and in
the centre a post made of a tree cut off at the required height, and generally
just above a crotch or arm; another small tree is then cut in the shape
required, for making a horizontal shaft; to this is attached one or more
large stones; and these being drawn around by donkey or mule-power, grind
the quartz to powder. Of course, as gold is the heaviest it naturally seeks
the lowest places, and as quicksilver is always put in with the quartz the
gold becomes amalgamated with it.
The Mexican rastra has been improved some little in its construction and
adaptation to our wants; and in many cases mule-power has been superseded
by steam; but the principle remains about the same.
When the rastra is properly prepared, a "batch" of about five
hundred pounds is generally emptied into one about ten feet in diameter;
but the quantity is always regulated by the size of the machine. It is then
ground very fine by means of the drag-stones attached to arms fixed in the
perpendicular shaft, and which are generally given about eight revolutions
per minute. At this rate it will require from three to four hours to grind
the batch sufficiently; but this is somewhat regulated by the grit and weight
of the drag-stones. About three quarters of an hour before the whole is
thoroughly ground, a sufficient quantity of quicksilver is added; but the
amount is regulated by the richness of the quartz in process of grinding.
If, for instance, the five hundred pounds of tailings placed in the rastra
is supposed to contain about three quarters of an ounce of gold, about one
ounce of quicksilver is generally used--or about twenty-five per cent more
of the latter than the former. Some judgment is required in this--too much
quicksilver being a disadvantage, inasmuch as the amalgam should be kept
hard to make it effectual in saving the gold.
Quicksilver should also be kept very free from grease, as it cannot be too
clean, and should invariably be well retorted every time it is used.
About ten minutes before the grinding is finished, about sixteen buckets
of water are poured into the rastra, to the quantity named, and the same
motion continued, the whole appearing like muddy water. This is then bailed
out, or run off quickly. Five hundred pounds more of the quartz are then
added, and the process repeated, adding the same portion of quicksilver
to every batch.
This is kept on for one, two, three, or even four weeks, according to the
richness of the quartz, or the taste and wants of the owner. The larger
the amount contained in the rastra, the more gold is there saved, in proportion,
to the ton.
The amalgam is then taken out of the crevices in the bottom of the rastra,
and carefully panned out, and as carefully retorted. After this, most business
men melt the gold into bars or ingots, before sending it to the mint to
Before commencing to grind again, the crevices between the stones covering
the floor of the rastra, about one and a half inches wide, are tightly packed
and filled with clay, level with the stone.
This mill as used in Chili, and from whence its origin and name are derived,
is nearly as simple in its construction as the rastra, with the walls a
little higher, and more regular; and, instead of the "drag stones,"
a large stone wheel, attached to the horizontal shaft, is used for grinding
the rock. Into this mill a small stream of water is constantly running,
a portion of which is forced out at each revolution of the wheel. The gold
is saved by means of quicksilver on the bottom of the mill, in the same
manner as in the rastra.
To make this principle more subservient to the purposes of quartz mining,
and better adapted the requirements of a faster age and people, the "improved
Chili Mill" was invented. This consists of two heavy cast-iron wheels,
from three to five feet in diameter, and from ten to fifteen inches in thickness:
these revolve on an axle, moving steadily round in a circular iron basin
about 3 foot in depth, into which the tailings from the blanket tables are
conveyed, and ground to powder.
As these improved mills are generally worked by steam, the speed attained,
and the work accomplished, of course very far exceeds the old process.
The methods of saving the gold which passes over the blankets in the tailings,
are almost as numerous as the mills where the quartz is crushed. The principal,
however, is to allow the tailings to run down a series of inclined tables,
or sluices, at the end of each of which is often placed a wood trough, or
iron pan, containing quicksilver, into which they flow, when the gold falls
into the quicksilver on the bottom, and is there retained; while the light
material floats over the edge of the trough or pan into another sluice,
at the end of which is another pan, where the same process is repeated.
Thee sluices, or inclined tables, are generally fitted up with "patent
riffles" across the bottom, filled with quicksilver. After the tailings
have passed through the whole series of sluices they are sometimes: worked
through the improved Chili Mill, or other machine; but are oftener allowed
to run into a large vat, from which the water flows off while the tailings
settle at the bottom. These are then thrown into a heap and allowed to "rust,"
preparatory to other processes at some future time.
Other information comes from Websters Unabridged Dictionary:
arrastra same as arrastre: [Spanish arrastrar, to drag along
the ground; L, ad, to, and radere, to scrape.] in gold mining, a crude machine
formerly used for ore crushing.
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