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The National Mining Museum & Hall of Fame

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Leadville history – April 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

Want to explore an underground mine without going to the trouble of donning steel-toed boots and hard hat–or learning to wield a 130-pound compressed-air drill?

Then head to the National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum in Leadville. The NMHF&M’s replica of an underground hardrock mine is so authentic, you’ll be straining to hear the rumble of an approaching ore car and peering around dark corners for a glimpse of a tommyknocker, the mischievous sprite that plagued frontier miners.

Designed by NMHF&M President and Executive Director Carl Miller, a former mine electrician (and now a state representative), the hardrock mine includes a blacksmith shop, hoist room, mine station and drift, or horizontal mine tunnel. Like its real-life counterpart, the drift is damp, cool, dimly lit, and narrow, with dirt and pebble-strewn floors, strikingly realistic rock walls, and exposed ore veins.

Visitors follow mine-gauge track through the drift, passing drills, ore chutes, ore cars, and powder magazines. A warning to those with especially excitable natures: The illusion of actually being underground is so intense that it’s easy to imagine making a wrong turn and becoming lost amid the subterranean shadows.

“This mine provides a very real look into the world of the underground miner,” Miller explains. “It’s one of the many exhibits here that gives visitors a clear, thorough understanding and appreciation of mining.”

In truth, the entire NMHF&M is a tribute to mining through the ages. Housed in a 70,000-square-foot, renovated Victorian schoolhouse, the core of which dates to 1896, the federally chartered National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum is a treasure trove of exhibits representing virtually every aspect of mining, from coal to gold and from Bronze Age to modern age.

There are spectacular crystals and mineral specimens, many on loan from the Smithsonian Institution and the Harvard Mineralogical Museum, along with antique mining equipment and artifacts, historical photographs and documents, mining-related paintings and sculpture, and informative displays on modern mining, including a new coal exhibit similar in design to the hardrock mine and complete with life-size miners and mules.

Dozens of cases hold precious metals and minerals from throughout the United States and several foreign countries. It’s not unusual to examine a specimen and discover that it’s been donated to the museum by a longtime Leadville resident or a local miner.

Some of the most impressive pieces are housed in the Gold Rush Room. Visitors emerging from the hardrock mine into this forest green chamber are dazzled by gold from 17 American states where significant gold rushes occurred. There’s also gold from Canada and Australia, including an incredible Australian gold nugget that’s nearly as big as my palm–and was found with a metal detector.

The Colorado display contains a gold nugget weighing six troy ounces and given to Leadville attorney A.J. “Jack” Laing in the early 1930s as payment for a legal fee. A Leadville jeweler had acquired the nugget from a miner who had, in turn, “high-graded” it from a local mine.

“High-grading” is the time-honored practice of miners who compensated for dangerous working conditions, low wages, and poor treatment by surreptitiously slipping valuable minerals out of the mines via pockets, lunch pails, or body cavities.

An antique safe holds the Dick Bowman collection, featuring a stunning 23-ounce specimen of native gold unearthed in 1892 from Leadville’s own Little Jonny Mine, and an 1875 Waltham pocket watch of 18K gold encrusted with gold nuggets and attached to a gold nugget-entwined chain.

The museum’s Diorama Room contains 22 detailed, hand-carved dioramas portraying the 1859 Central City gold rush. Another room holds a collection of ceremonial canes and axes presented to German miners from the 12th through the 18th centuries. These intricately carved and decorated objects, some inlaid with ivory and mother of pearl, were not actually used for mining. Instead, they were carried in parades and celebrations as symbols of the honor accorded the mining profession.

Railroad buffs will delight in the new model railroad exhibit created by Scott Anderson of Lakewood, Colorado. It features a Denver & Rio Grande coal-fired train chugging through the mountains to a mining town where businesses like the “Carl Milling Co.” are whimsically named after NMHF&M staff members.

Upstairs, the National Mining Hall of Fame honors 132 individuals who have made lasting contributions to the mining industry. I can (and do) spend hours there, reading the biographies of the famous and infamous, among them Leadville’s flamboyant frontier silver baron, H.A.W. Tabor, and his first wife, the long-suffering Augusta; Western surveyor John Wesley Powell; Meyer Guggenheim, whose huge mineral and smelting empire had its roots in Leadville; and George Hearst, an uneducated placer miner whose gold and silver investments helped establish a publishing dynasty.

America’s 31st president, Herbert Hoover, and his wife, Lou Henry Hoover, are commemorated for collaborating on the first English translation of the mining industry classic, De Re Metallica, a 16th-century work originally written in Latin. Hoover, a mining engineer, and his wife, an accomplished geologist and scholar, spent five years and $20,000 on this effort.

“There’s no place like The National Mining Hall of Fame & Museum to learn about the many well-known individuals who were involved in mining, and to illustrate how important the mining industry is to every aspect of our daily lives,” Carl Miller declares.

After visiting it, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Lynda La Rocca lives and writes in Leadville, and hardly ever goes underground.