by W Southern Jr. - 2003
I have mentioned hunting for nuggets in tailing piles many times in various articles, but this time I will go into a bit more detail. There are several types of left over piles after mining operations ended in the various placer and hard rock mining districts across the southwest. Some from dry operations and some from wet methods and still others from the removal of ore from deep under ground. Most hold potential for the electronic prospector and should be investigated.
The drywasher is used in areas where there is little or no water and uses air to separate gold form placer gravels as it is passed over a series of riffles. Before the gravel is processed it is screened through a grizzly with usually 1/4 to 1/2 inch openings in it. Now these fellows were (and still are) working under very tough conditions and with no water to wash the gold many nuggets to big to pass through the screen were lost in the header pile. These fellows were also known to work at night to keep out of the summer heat and nuggets to big to pass through the screen simply rolled off into the waste pile.
Nuggets were also lost in the fine pile at the front due to user mistakes or the material being to wet to process correctly and many other reasons. Often in the newer drywasher piles the fine pile is quite obvious, but often the older areas only show the coarser header pile and often it is hard to see due to brush, natural erosion, and other occurrences. Below is a pile grown over with brush that I got a nice 3.5 penny weight nugget from recently. Note that the pile was completely covered until I removed some to detect the pile.
The nugget is on the coil next to a dime and is easier to see in the next photo. It was 8 inches deep and any gold detector would have heard it with no trouble. It was still there because no one took the time to move the brush.
By looking around dry washes in the desert you can find these piles and some areas hill sides as well as flats were worked with drywashers. Now these methods were only profitable when the richest gravels were worked so work the sides of the washes, benches, hill sides, and is some cases even hill tops for nuggets in areas where drywashers have been at work.
Raking the header piles is a good method used by many hunters to get to the bottom of the pile if the pile is large and deep. A rake also comes in handy for removing brush etc. from the pile so that it can be thoroughly by the nugget hunter. Work these areas slowly and completely and you will have a good chance for a nugget. Remember that drywashers both old and new loose nuggets in their tailing piles due to varying reasons so stop and check them out!
Winnowing was a method of dry separation accomplished by putting material on a blanket and 2 or 4 men would throw the material up and down letting the wind blow off the lighter material. They would then pick out the larger rocks etc. to recover the gold. The only evidence left of these operations are out of place piles of rocks of all sizes where they "just shouldn't be" this method is now called the poor man's drywasher and is very seldom if at all used these days. If such an area is encountered it could really pay to detect for missed nuggets.
Dredge tailings can be found along waterways and washes anywhere there was enough natural flowing water or wherever the miners could dam a stream or wash to gain an ample water supply. It is truly amazing some of the places that huge dredges are found with no visible water supply anywhere to run it.
These operations left long lines of tailing piles along the water course the dredge was working as the material was processed. Again material is classified down to a given size before being fed into the separators where the gold is removed. The material that is discarded ends up in these tailing piles and again nuggets, some of incredible size are also discarded unknowingly. Often a man was hired to watch the conveyer to make sure no big ones got away, but they still did being covered with dirt or a dozen other reasons.
Dredging Lynx Creek in the 30's
Often these piles are huge and very hard to work with a metal detector, but some very nice finds have been made in dredge tailings and there is undoubtedly more just waiting for a lucky nugget hunter to dig the signal. Now raking these piles is possible in some cases I suppose, but due to the size of the materials and height of some of these piles heavy equipment is the best way to go and this method is being used with much success in places like Alaska where many multi ounce nuggets have been found at places like Gains Creek.
Above is an old dredge left high and dry in Buckhorn Wash in central Arizona. Often times wild schemes to dredge remote areas of the desert resulted in failure due to the unpredictable nature of the washes during torrential rain. Months or even years of work are destroyed in an instant along with dreams. The miners simply would give up and walk away leaving everything behind.
To sum things up what I am trying to get across here is that a crafty nugget shooter should never walk away from an area with old time tailing piles without spending time looking for missed nuggets that they may hold. I have found a large percentage of my gold by working these areas and still get excited when I discover new piles with ne evidence of raking etc. by other detectorists.
Mine dumps have always been one of my favorite places to hunt because I just love finding "specimen gold". Specimen gold or gold still in the host rock comes in many forms and I have found some very impressive crystalline gold on quartz over the years in the old throw away piles or dumps. In the old days ore was sorted by hand and if you couldn't see gold you threw it away, but often there was gold within the rock that was not visible. It is truly amazing how much gold they threw away! In many cases only the richest ore was processed due to lack of water or numerous other reasons related to the hardships faced by these early miners.
Working these piles is hard work as you must rake a few inches at a time detect and then start the process over again. The best method is for two persons to work together alternately raking and detecting and switching when gold is found.
Working a mine dump in central Arizona
Often also the drainages and hill sides around hardrock mines are well worth the time it takes to detect them and again I have made some very nice finds that way. Many times there will be evidence of the old timers having worked local drainages near the mine for placer values. There is unfortunately a lot of trash around old mines and you must be very patient and dig all targets.
Remember though that many old mines are on patented private property and you need to gain permission to hunt there and where ever you hunt be aware of who owns what and pay attention to claim markers! Old mines are VERY DANGEROUS and the best defense is to simply stay out!
Good Luck and Good Hunting!