Legends of Lost Silver Mines in Pennsylvania – could they possibly be TRUE?
Stories of lost mines, ledges and glory holes full of precious metals are rather pervasive, most every area has at least one such story. One of the poorest parts of North America for such stories is the Keystone state.
The geology of Pennsylvania is not of the right sort for the discovery of rich veins of gold and silver, great wealth in coal, oil and even such mundane mineral products as limestone have been the rule. Yet the state is not utterly devoid of gold or silver either; in the southeastern part of the state one mine produced almost all of the known gold production for the entire state, mostly as a byproduct of copper mining, and a couple of silver mines produced a little silver. Enough nickel was also mined to be used by the US Mint to make the now obsolete three cent nickels, so if you are lucky enough to own a three cent nickel, chances are it has Pennsylvania nickel in it. Not one of the three cent silver pieces of course.
Even so, despite the wrong sort of geology over most of the state, why then do we find there are indeed several stories of long lost silver mines? Pure hogwash, made up to earn a free beer in a tavern, or entertain the children, or cover up some illicit activity like making moonshine, perhaps? Perhaps, but there is evidence and documentation to support the fact that there are indeed several lost silver mines scattered across the state. Not massive veins like the famous Comstock mind you, but small deposits and these are not against the rules of geology by any means.
The actual records from the colonial period show that these mines were known to the native tribes that lived in and contested over the land. There is even some suggestion that two of the mines were known to the French, whom were secretly mining them and slipping back to Canada to convert the silver into cash.
Silver medallion struck from silver mined out of the Wheatley silver-lead mine in Chester county PA
PA silver medallion from the Wheatley mine
A bit of study in the field of geology would help any treasure hunter or prospector setting out to look for one of these lost silver mines. Silver does not often occur in nature in the pure form, because of the fact that it is much more chemically reactive than gold or platinum, yet it does occur in native (natural) form, often alloyed with a little gold and – or copper. The ores of silver quite often do not look anything like silver, and then too some silver minerals do look silvery and metallic, like galena. Galena is mostly lead, but very often in nature some or almost all of the metallic lead in the matrix has been replaced by silver. Galena is silver colored and cubic in form, and rather heavy. You can find small pieces of it in many streams around the state, and while in many cases the presence of this metallic mineral in such a place where no metallic minerals ought to be can be explained by the actions of glaciers, which broke off the minerals from a distant location (generally to the north) and transported it to the south where it then deposited it when the ice finally melted away, to leave us puzzling as to how this out of place mineral ended up where we find them.
Most ores of silver are black, grey or brown in color; usually tending to be heavy and often sooty, so could be mistaken for a low grade coal vein from a distance. Silver can also occur in a quartz matrix just like gold or copper does, or uncommonly in the form of a heavy, sticky blue or bluish clay. The famous Comstock mine in Nevada was discovered first as the blue clay, which was giving the gold miners headaches by clogging up their sluice boxes. Only when some prospector finally had the blue clay itself tested by fire assay did the secret come out, that it was loaded with silver. The blue clay may be what the ore decomposes into, but I am specularing on this point.
Silver ores are commonly found intruded into limestone rock, showing up by the stains it makes in the surrounding rock; sometimes it will form a stain on the surface of the rock without the actual ore showing on the surface, and the staining is commonly called a “gossan” in prospecting parlance. I will return to the prospecting tips in a moment.
From what the stories tell us, these lost Pennsylvania silver mines are not going to be easy to find. In several instances, the Indians went to some lengths to conceal the very existence of the mines, so well that in one case, even though several colonists had seen it and been to the mine, after it was concealed they could not locate it again. Silver, unlike gold, does not usually form a placer downhill and downstream of the host rock. When rock containing native gold is worn down and decomposed by nature, the tiny bits of gold get transported down hill and then down stream by the actions of nature, allowing the prospector to be able to take his gold pan and take samples along the streams and then hillsides, and thus pinpoint the location of the gold vein. No so with silver! Except in very rare instances (I know of only two such in all of North America) due to the fact that silver will react with other minerals chemically, as the host rock decomposes, the silver forms chemical bonds and is invisible so to speak. It can be there and not be visible in a gold pan. What can a prospector do?
Don’t throw out the gold pan, it is possible that you might find tiny specks of native silver in some stream that could conceivably lead you to the vein; at least one of the lost silver mines of Pennsylvania had native silver in it , and silver is quite a dense metal. I am using the term ‘dense’ to refer to the fact that it is quite heavy, about the same as lead, this density is usually termed by prospectors as specific gravity; that is how heavy any particular element or mineral is when compared to an equal volume of water. So gold has a specific gravity of around 19 (it varies due to the other metals commonly alloyed with gold in nature, usually silver and copper) lead is a bit over 11, while native silver usually runs 10.4 to 10.6. This natural heaviness (when compared to water and many other materials) is helpful for panning, for most country rock and sand, while heavier than water, are much lighter in comparison to silver. So you could find a silver vein by testing with the ancient tool known as the gold pan – and don’t let anyone fool you, the gold pan is still used by prospectors, geologists and mining engineers today for it works very well.
As these silver mines were covered up and concealed in the colonial period, there has been plenty of time for nature to help with the concealment; trees would have had over 200 years to grow right over top of them, the natural erosion and deposition of soils would further assist in erasing the traces of the mine. If the mine were originally a shaft sunk into the rock (as one actually was, more in a moment) it is quite possible that nature has entirely filled in the shaft with earth by now and could even have a huge tree growing out of it. A tunnel could have caved in, leaving no trace except for a slight depression on the flank of a mountain, and unfortunately the hills of Pennsylvania have a great many wrinkles to help hide them.
Don’t let this discourage you! A careful search, using the tools of prospecting, geological reports, satellite imagery, research of the colonial records and even family histories, stories told around the campfires or even something seen by a hunter could be the key to lead you to finding a silver mine!
Now suppose you have found a suspicous looking vein or lense of rock, that is dark or grey and heavy; how can you test it for silver without having to break off a sample, crush it to quarter inch size or smaller and send it off for a fire assay? A fire assay is the best bet and highly accurate, but they cost money and you certainly can’t afford to send off every rock you find to have it assayed, for if you are that wealthy you would not be out hunting for a long-lost silver mine in the first place! Fortunately there are some simple ways you can test for silver without having to spend a lot of money.
One trick is to grind up your sample to a powder, then take a piece of copper that you have rubbed until it is shiny clean, and then rub that piece of copper around in the powdered ore sample. A copper wire will do, or a piece of soft copper pipe (don’t use the hard copper pipe as it is alloyed, and may not work as well). Very often, if silver in present in the sample, it will turn the copper white. If this occurs, then take another sample and get a fire assay done.
Another way is to try primitive smelting, if you have a bellows or a charcoal forge, in which case you would again want to grind the sample to a powder and heat it on a shovel or other iron receptable to nearly a white heat; any silver that can be extracted by heat alone will melt out before the shovel will melt because silver has a lower melting point than iron or steel. One more method is to put a hunk of the ore sample on your shovel, heat it very hot and then drop it into a bucket of water; supposedly if silver is present in the rock, it will form a grey scum on top of the water; however personally this method has never worked well for me but it might work for you.
Lastly, make sure you get permission of the landowners before you start looking for the lost mine, for most of Pennsylvania is private land and you don’t need to get arrested for trespassing, or worse a load of rock salt in your breeches! Just kidding but do ask permission before you search and it will save a lot of problems. Don’t be surprised if you get chuckles from a non-treasure hunter if you explain what you are looking for, for most people think that anyone who would go looking for lost mines or buried treasures is a little loopy, but with a little luck, and a lot of diligence, you may well have the last laugh. Besides, the search is an experience that those who live inside of boxes and never step off pavement can never know.
Nice photos of some silver ores http://nevada-outback-gems.com/prospect/gold_specimen/Silver_ores.htm
A free online book on prospecting for gold and silverhttp://books.google.com/books?id=CPZDAAAAYAAJ&dq=prospecting%20for%20silver&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
Historically, the Wheatley mine and the Pequea mine both produced some silver, the Pequea silver mine near Conestoga in Lancaster County was worked from before the Revolutionary War to 1875. A minor amount of mining was done about 1900. The ore is silver-bearing galena in the Cambrian Vintage Dolomite. Production is unknown. The Wheatley mine started operation in 1851. Primarily a lead mine, for economic reasons Wheatley billed the operation as a lead and silver mine. Concentrations of silver in the galena ore were assayed at between 15 and 120 ounces per ton. That would be pretty valuable ore today, so get out there amigo and find some silver!
PS – one other thing about using that gold pan in your search, don’t be surprised if you find some GOLD in there too for those glaciers brought down gold from the north, as well as DIAMONDS! If you see a shiny, greasy looking pebble that will scratch your knife blade there is a good chance it is a glacial diamond, over 50 of them have been found in PA over the years, and a brassy yellow metal needs no further explanation. Good luck and good hunting, I hope you find the treasures that you seek.
Online museum of Pennsylvania minerals, including silver;