THE major US gold rushes which punctuated the 1800s spurred substantial immigration and helped define and shape the country’s wild frontiers.
One such gold rush, in the South Dakota Black Hills, began in 1874 and reached its peak between 1876 and 1877. Despite thousands of people converging on the area in the hope of making their fortunes, only one discovery would stand the test of time.
In April 1876, Fred and Moses Manuel, Hank Harney and Alex Engh discovered a gold outcropping near the Lead prospecting camp. The claim, christened Homestake, was the foundation of a mine that supplied an astounding 10 per cent of the world’s gold market for the next 125 years.
When news of the gold rush reached infamous mining entrepreneur George Hearst in June 1877, he quickly dispatched his agent, Ludwig Kellogg, to seek out opportunities in the Black Hills. Kellogg, an experienced mining surveyor, immediately detected Homestake’s potential and agreed to bond the site for 30 days at $70,000.
During the next month, Harney, Engh and the Manuel brothers mined the claim as much as possible before turning it over to Hearst.
Hearst came to assay his purchase in October 1877. In a subsequent letter to investors, he described the Homestake vein of gold as being “30 feet wide, 1500
feet long and at least 100 feet deep”. He also anticipated that it would take at least 25 years to exhaust the vein: an underestimation in retrospect.
All of Hearst’s mining equipment was painstakingly hauled from the nearest railhead in Nebraska to the site on wagons.
Despite the remote location, an 80 stamp mill (a machine that crushes material by pounding rather than grinding) began operation in 1878. Shares were sold in the newly-formed Homestake Mining Company, which listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 1879. It would go on to become one of the longest-listed stocks in NYSE history.
In March the following year, Hearst returned to the now flourishing Lead township to purchase the claims surrounding Homestake by means fair and foul. He announced to a local newspaper his intention to spend $225,000 on mine development, which would include two 60 stamp mills and hoisting works. Buying up claims was the easiest method of acquiring land, and those unwilling to sell were taken to court. One landowner who refused to sell was murdered
by a Hearst employee, who was, however, acquitted when a local court could not get witnesses to testify.
Hearst subsequently bought a newspaper business in the nearby town of Deadwood with the intention of swaying public opinion in his favour. A competing newspaper’s editor was mysteriously beaten in the street soon after.
The US Census first listed the 1440-citizen community of Lead as a town in 1880. By 1900, the number of residents had grown to 6212. In 1910 it rose to 8392, making it the second largest city in South Dakota. It was also the most prosperous, with the highest wages and constant employment for the town’s skilled mechanics, miners and labourers. At its peak, the Homestake mine employed more than 2000 people.
While the gold ore at Homestake was always very low-grade – less than one ounce per tonne – it was extraordinarily large. In terms of total production, the Lead mining region, in which the Homestake mine was the only producer, was the second-largest gold province in the US following Nevada’s Carlin district. During its 125-year mine life, Homestake produced about 39 million ounces of gold. The initial stake comprised a lease of about 10 acres. When it closed in
2002, the mine had grown to include more than 8000 acres of patented claims and was the oldest continually-operating gold mine in the world.
When the mine was finally shut down it was the largest and deepest mining operation in the western hemisphere, boasting a 370 mile maze of 50 underground levels with depths of more than 2438m.
Due to its ever-increasing depth and size, scientists discovered uses for Homestake that transcended mining. Operating continuously from 1970 until 1994, the Homestake experiment (sometimes referred to as the Davis experiment) was developed by astrophysicists Raymond Davis Jr and John N Bahcall in a laboratory in the depths of the underground mine. Its purpose was to collect and count neutrinos produced by nuclear fusion taking place in the sun. When the mine closed, this small underground lab served as the nucleus for a much larger national underground science undertaking: the Sanford Underground
As an example of the sustainability of mines, the Sanford Underground Research Facility – the country’s first deep underground science lab – was formally
unveiled in the caverns of Homestake in 2012.
Scientists believed the great depth and thousands of feet of rock above the lab were shielding ultra-sensitive physics experiments from background activity.
Work began on the $300 million laboratory in 2008. With more than 18,000t of rock excavated for the project, the former mine gives scientists an immense network of tunnels in which to conduct experiments spanning the disciplines of physics, biology and geoscience.
The facility includes the 1478m-deep Davis campus, in which scientists hope to reveal the mysteries of dark matter and also search for a rare form of radioactive decay.
The Large Underground Xenon
Dark Matter Search experiment (LUX experiment) is considered the world’s most sensitive and largest dark matter detector, and represents the culmination of the work of 70 scientists and 14 institutions during the past four years.
“We are looking for something that is five times more important in the entire universe than everything else we know about so far,” LUX physicist Simon Fiorucci told a local TV station following the opening.
He said it was anticipated that in the first four days of operation, LUX would produce more data than every other previous dark matter experiment combined.
Nearby, in the space where Davis conducted his neutrino search, a full 19,433 square foot laboratory created for the MAJORANA Demonstrator experiment
will search for a rare form of radioactive decay that may help scientists understand how the universe evolved.
The scientists have begun the installation of equipment for the LUX and MAJORANA experiments, which is expected to be finished by the end of 2012.
The lab currently employs 166 people full time, including 70 former Homestake employees, with the Sanford lab now the third largest-employer in Lead.
Photo caption: (Top) Wells Fargo Express carrying gold bullion from the Homestake mine in 1890