A correspondent of the New York Sun, writing from Virginia City, Nevada, describes the progress of the work there on the Combination shaft of the Comstock lode, the deepest vertical shaft in America, and the second deepest in the world. It is being sunk by the Chollar Potosi, Hale & Norcross, and Savage mining companies; hence its name of the Combination shaft. This shaft has now reached a perpendicular depth of a little over 3,100 feet. There is only one deeper vertical shaft in the world - the Adalbent shaft of the silver-lead mines of Przibram, Bohemia, which at last accounts had reached a depth of 3,280 feet. The attainment of that depth was made the occasion of a festival, which continued three days, and was still further honored by the striking off of commemorative medals of the value of a florin each. There is no record of the beginning of work on this mine at Przibram, although its written history goes back to 1527.
Twenty years ago very few mining shafts in the world had reached a depth of 2,000 feet. The very deepest at that time was in a metalliferous mine in Hanover, which had been carried down 2,900 feet; but this was probably not a single perpendicular shaft. Two vertical shafts near Gilly, in Belgium, are sunk to the depth of 2,847 feet. At this point they are connected by a drift, from which an exploring shaft or winze is sunk to a further depth of 666 feet, and from that again was put down a bore hole 49 feet in depth, making the total depth reached 3,562 feet. As the bore hole did not reach the seam of coal sought for, they returned and resumed operations at the 2,847 level. In Europe it is thought worthy of particular note that there are vertical shafts of the following depths:
|Eimkert's shaft of the Luganer Coal Mining Company, Saxony||2,653|
|Sampson shaft of the Oberhartz silver mine, near St. Andreasberg, Hanover.||2,437|
|The hoisting shaft of the Rosebridge Colliery, near Wigan, Lancashire, England.||2,458|
|Shaft of the coal mines of St. Luke, near St. Chaumont, France.||2,253|
|Amelia shaft, Shemnitz, Hungary.||1,782|
|The No. 1 Camphausen shaft, near Fishbach, in the department of the Saarbruck Collieries, Prussia.||1,650|
Now, taking the mines of the Comstock for a distance of over a mile - from the Utah on the north to the Alto on the south - there is hardly a mine that is not down over 2,500 feet, and most of the shafts are deeper than those mentioned above; while the Union Consolidated shaft has a vertical depth of 2,900 feet, and the Yellow Jacket a depth of 3,030 feet. In his closing argument before the Congressional Committee on Mines and Mining in 1872, Adolph Sutro of the Sutro tunnel said: "The deepest hole dug by man since the world has existed is only 2,700 feet deep, and it remains for the youngest nation on earth to contribute more to science and geology by giving opportunities of studying the formation of mineral veins at a greater depth than has ever been accomplished by any other nation in the world." Mr. Sutro was of the opinion that the completion of his tunnel would enable our leading mining companies to reach a vertical depth of 5,000 feet.
This great depth has never yet been attained except in a bore hole or artesian well. The deepest points to which the crust of the earth has ever been penetrated have been by means of such borings in quest of salt, coal, or water. A bore hole for salt at Probst Jesar, near Lubtheen, for the Government of Mecklenberg-Schwerin, is down 3,315 feet, the size of which bore is twelve inches at the top and three inches at the bottom. A bore hole was put down for the Prussian Government to the depth of 4,183 feet. But in these bore holes the United States leads the world, as there is one near St. Louis, Mo., that is 5,500 feet in depth. Here on the Comstock, in the Union Consolidated mine, a depth of 3,300 feet has been attained, but not by means of a single vertical shaft. The vertical depth of the shaft is 2,900 feet; the remainder of the depth has been attained by means of winzes sunk from drifts. Several long drifts were run at this great depth without difficulty as regards ventilation or heat.
The combination shaft is situated much further east (in which direction the lode dips) than any other on the Comstock. It is 3,000 feet east of the point where the great vein crops out on the side of Mount Davidson; 2,200 feet east of the old Chollar-Potosi shaft, 1,800 ft. east of the old Hale & Norcross (or Fair) shaft, and 2,000 ft. east of the Savage shaft. Thus, it will be seen it is far out to the front in the country toward which the vein is going. The shaft is sunk in a very hard rock (andesite), every foot of which requires to be blasted. The opening is about thirty feet in length by ten feet in width. In timbering up this is divided into four different compartments, some for the hoisting and some for the pumping machinery, thus presenting the appearance at the top of four small shafts set in a row. Over the shaft stand several large buildings, all filled with ponderous machinery.
The Sutro drain tunnel (nearly four miles in length) connects with the shaft at a depth of 1,600 ft., up to which point all the water encountered below is pumped. The shaft was sunk to the depth of 2,200 ft. before more water was encountered than could be hoisted out in the "skips" with the dirt. At the 2,200 level two Cornish pumps, each with columns fifteen inches in diameter, were put in. At the 2,400 level the same pumps were used. On this level a drift was run that connected with the old Hale & Norcross and Savage shafts, producing a good circulation of air both in the shaft and in the mines mentioned. At this point, on account of the inflow from the mines consequent upon connecting with them by means of the drift, they had more water than the Cornish pumps could handle, and introduced the hydraulic pumps, which pumps are run by the pressure of water from the surface through a pipe running down from the top of the shaft, whereas the Cornish pumps are run by huge steam engines.
By means of the hydraulic pumps they were enabled to sink the shaft to the 2,600 level, and extended the Cornish pumps to that point, where another set of hydraulic pumps was put in. They then sunk the shaft to the 2,800 level, when they ran another drift westward, and tapped the vein. The prospects at this depth in the Hale & Norcross and Chollar mines were so encouraging that the management decided to sink the shaft to the depth of 3,000 ft. On reaching the 3,000 level, they ran a third drift through to the vein. The distance from the shaft to the east wall of the vein was found to be only 250 ft. At the depth of 3,000 ft. they put in one of the pair of hydraulic pumps that is to be set up there. The second pump is now arriving from San Francisco, and as soon as the several parts are on the ground, it will be at once put in place alongside its fellow on the 3,000 level. This additional pump will increase the capacity from 600,000 to 700,000 gallons in twenty-four hours, or about forty-five miners' inches.
Owing to the excellent showing of ore obtained on the 3,000 level by the Hale & Norcross Company, and to the continuation of the ore below that level (as shown by a winze sunk in the vein), the management determined to sink the shaft to the vertical depth of 3,200 ft. It is now 3,120 ft. deep, and it is safe to say that it will reach the depth of 3,200 ft. early in September, when it will lack but eighty feet of being as deep as the shaft at Przibram was at the time of the great festival. Although the shaft is of great size - about thirty feet by ten feet before the timbers are put in - the workmen lower it at the rate of about three feet a day, in rock as hard as flint.
The hydraulic pump now working at the 3,000 foot level of the shaft is the deepest in the world. In Europe the deepest is in a mine in the Hartz Mountains, Germany, which is working at the depth of 2,700 feet. It is, however, a small pump not half the size of the one in the Combination shaft. Although these pumps were first used in Europe, those in operation here are far superior in size, and in every other respect, to those of the Old World, several valuable improvements having been made in them by the machinists of the Pacific coast.
The capacity of the two Cornish pumps, which lift the water from the 2,900 foot level to the Sutro drain tunnel (at the 1,600 level), is about 1,000,000 gallons in twenty-four hours, and the capacity of the present hydraulic pumps is 3,500,000 gallons in the same time. They are now daily pumping, with both hydraulic and Cornish pumps, about 4,000,000 gallons, but could pump at least 500,000 gallons more in twenty-four hours than they are now doing. The daily capacity with the hydraulic pump now coming, and which will be set up as mate to that now in operation at the 3,000 foot level, will be 5,200,000 gallons.
The water which feeds the pressure pipe of the three sets of hydraulic pumps is brought from near Lake Tahoe, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The distance is about thirty miles, and the greater part of the way the water flows through iron pipes, which at one point cross a depression 1,720 feet in depth. The pressure pipe takes this water from a tank situated on the eastern slope of Mount Davidson, 3,500 feet west of the shaft. At the tank this pipe is twelve inches in diameter, but is only eight inches where it enters the top of the shaft. The tank whence the water is taken is 426 feet higher than the top of the shaft, therefore the vertical pressure upon the hydraulic pump at the 3,000 foot level is 3,426 feet. The pressure pipe is of ordinary galvanized iron where it receives the water at the tank, but gradually grows thicker and stronger, and at the 3,000 level it is constructed of cast iron, and is 2½ inches in thickness. The pressure at this point is 1,500 pounds to the square inch.
In the early days of hydraulic mining in California the miners thought that with a vertical pressure of 300 feet they could almost tear the world to pieces, and not a man among them could have been made to believe that any pipe could be constructed that would withstand a vertical pressure of 1,000 feet; but we now see that a thickness of two and a half inches of cast iron will sustain a vertical pressure of over 3,400 feet.
There is only one pressure pipe for all the hydraulic pumps. This extends from the tank on the side of the mountain to the 3,000 foot level. It is tapped at the points where are situated the several sets of hydraulic pumps. The water from the pressure pipe enters one part of the pump, where it moves a piston-back and forth, just as the piston of a steam engine is moved by steam. This water engine moves a pump which not only raises to the surface the water which has been used as driving power, but also a vast quantity of water from the shaft, all of which is forced up to the Sutro drain tunnel through what is called a return pipe. Each set of hydraulic pumps has its return pipe; therefore there are three return pipes - one from the 2,400, one from the 2,600, and another from the 3,000 level.
Some idea may be formed of the great size of these hydraulic engines when it is known that the stations excavated for them at the several levels where they are placed are 85 feet long, 28 feet wide, and 12 feet high. All this space is so filled with machinery that only sufficient room is left to allow of the workmen moving about it. One of these stations would, on the surface, form a hall large enough for a ball room, and to those who are unacquainted with the skill of our miners it must seem wonderful that such great openings can be made and securely supported far down in the bowels of the earth; yet it is very effectually done. These great subterranean halls are supported by timbers 14×16 inches square set along the walls three feet apart, from center to center, and the caps or joists passing overhead are timbers of the same size. The timber used is mountain spruce. Not one of these huge stations has thus far cost one dollar for repairs. The station at the 2,400 level has been in use five years, that at the 2,600 three years, and the one at the 3,000 level eight months. Room for ventilation is left behind the timbers, and all are still sound. Timbers of the same kind are used in the shaft, and all are sound. The shaft has cost nothing for repairs.
Being in hard andesite rock from top to bottom, the ground does not swell and crowd upon the timbers.
If it shall be thought advisable to go to a greater depth than 3,200 feet, a station of large size will be made on the east side of the present shaft, and in this station will be sunk a shaft of smaller size. The reason why the work will be continued in this way is that in a single hoist of 3,200 feet the weight of a steel wire cable of that length is very great - so great that the loaded cage it brings up is a mere trifle in comparison. In this secondary shaft the hoisting apparatus and pumps will be run by means of compressed air. As it is very expensive to make compressed air by steam power, the pressure pipe will be tapped at the level of the Sutro tunnel, and a stream of water taken out that will be used in running a turbine wheel of sufficient capacity to drive three air compressors. As there will be a vertical pressure upon the turbine at this depth of over 2,000 feet, a large stream of water will not be required. The water used in driving the wheel will flow out through the Sutro tunnel, and give no trouble in the shaft.
By means of this great shaft and its powerful hydraulic and Cornish pumps the crust of the earth will probably yet be penetrated to far greater depth than in any other place in the world. It has been only a little over ten years since the work of sinking it was begun, whereas in the mines of the Old World they have been delving since "time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary." The work on the Combination shaft has been by no means continuous. There have been long stoppages aside from those required at such times as they were engaged in running long drifts to the westward to tap the vein, and at times for many months, when the several companies interested in the shaft were engaged in prospecting the various levels it had opened up.