High-grading: Stealthily stealing silver
December 10, 2010
The mining term “high-grading” sounds noble, but it refers to miners pilfering their bosses’ product. Stealing silver from Aspen’s mines was not as commonplace as gold theft in places like Cripple Creek, but the practice, a habit for some, was commonly known though rarely talked about in public.
One of the best accounts of high-grading came from prison interviews of Harry Orchard by author Stewart Holbrook. Orchard, the infamous Western Association of Miners assassin, was serving a life-sentence for murdering the governor of Idaho. He described his ore theft from the Cripple Creek mines as an almost daily routine. At the time he was working as a driller mining sylvanite, a gold ore that is high in mineral content, but not recognizable as gold. Sylvanite was worth about three dollars a pound, nearly a day’s wages. On one occasion Orchard pushed his luck by carrying out 50 pounds hidden in his lunch box and stuffed in his pants and shoes.
It took two accomplices for high-grading to work. In addition to a thieving miner, a dishonest assayer was required to process the ore and to sell it to the smelter. Willing assayers were plentiful in Cripple Creek, even after seven of their offices were dynamited one night, allegedly by disgruntled mine owners. Assayers charged 50 percent for their dishonest services.
Bartenders accepted gold dust for payment. They never questioned a miner about the source of his gold. Many gold miners stole only enough to pay their bar tabs, considering it a “fringe benefit” of a hazardous occupation. Aspen’s miners who dabbled in high-grading faced an obstacle that gold miners didn’t: silver was not worth as much, so many more pounds of ore had to be stolen, increasing the risk of getting caught. Taking a chunk of ore home in a lunch bucket was the most common method. A two- or three-pound piece of ore did not cause the miner to carry his bucket in an unusual manner. In really good ore veins, that amount might yield, after splitting with the assayer, $2.50. In more common ore veins, the day’s haul might be worth only 25 cents. Even so, a miner smuggling a few pounds a day could supplement his weekly pay with an amount equivalent to a half a day’s wages.
It was however, a slow process. Usually a miner had to accumulate a hundred pounds or more before turning it over to the assayer, hiding it at home before effecting the transaction. My father heard about an Aspen miner who stole ore but didn’t get around to selling it, or didn’t find an assayer to buy it. He died with tons of ore hidden under his house. A more common form of theft in Aspen took place after silver prices dropped. The larger mines contracted miners to blast tunnels. The contractors sometimes discovered new veins or deposits while driving a tunnel. They would cover up their discovery and keep it a secret. After a period of time, often as long as several years, the miner would approach the mine company and take out a contract to mine that area. Under those conditions the mine owner received royalties for the ore extracted, but the miner, who already knew the location of payable ore, pocketed most of the profits.
High-grading was a form of employee theft acceptable in many mining towns, at least as long as it was not blatant or in large quantities. Few were ever charged or convicted. However, mine owners did not turn a blind eye to the practice. They guarded extraordinary discoveries of ore and allowed only the most trusted miners to work the area. Those miners were paid a higher salary to discourage high-grading. Today, employee theft remains a major challenge to businesses, especially retailers. High-grading was considered a cost of doing business.
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Once in a while, Aspen’s mines endured an employee who stole large amounts, usually from stockpiles outside of the mines, then took the ore to Leadville or other towns to sell. The small amounts that most miners brought home probably did not amount to much more than the contemporary employee till-tapping and friend-of-a-friend freebies granted today.