Saltpeter Mining

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Saltpeter Mining

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jan 13, 2016 8:16 pm

There seems to be a shortage of information on this site about saltpeter mining. I know that some of you know a lot about it. I am in the process of corresponding with some experts directly, but anything you might know would be most interesting.

I have documented a cave in VA that appears to contain artifacts of saltpeter mining. That these are the remnants of a mining operation has been confirmed by persons far more knowledgeable that myself. The cave is very small, with a total passage length (before our dig :big grin: ) of about 200'. The entrance is less than two feet high while the passage itself ranges from five to fifteen feet high. Sediment deposits on both sides of the passage bear obvious tool marks. A crumbled mass of soil contains both the imprint of planks and several embedded planks. This appears to be the cast of a vat. Other notched sections of log are present near the vat.

Questions: Is it unusual for the leaching operation to take place in-cave for such a small-scale work? Is it unusual for the leaching operation to take place in-cave in the absence of an easy water supply (only small drips, no surface stream immediately near the entrance)? A name, dated 1879, is the only legible marking. If this name is contemporaneous with the mining, would it be safe to assume that the operation was intended for personal or local use? Many small holes (1/2" dia) are pushed into the soil banks: Could lights have hung from poles/sticks in the wall, is this common?

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Re: Saltpeter Mining

Postby graveleye » Jan 14, 2016 9:45 am

the absence of a water source is a little puzzling, but if you have a leeching vat full of cave dirt, you have a saltpeter operation. They had to have transported the water from elsewhere. Leeching in the cave is not unusual if there is a water source, so that's kind of weird.

Seems like Bone Cave had a system of wooden pipes to transport the water - either from within the cave or from without. The vats are still in the cave. Tumbling Rock also had vats and a water source in the cave but I am not sure how they moved the water to the vats. Kingston Saltpeter leeched their diggings outside the cave. There is no close running water there either, yet it was one of the largest saltpeter operations in the south. My guess is that lots and lots of water are not required. Only enough to run through the dirt, Obviously if you put too much water through it you wash your dirt away and dilute your nitrates.

It is very possible that someone started the operation and decided it too small to be worth it. Who knows? It's hard work, especially in cramped quarters. Some, like in Kingston, literally dig into every nook and cranny that could be found. The nitrate levels in that cave sediment were very high, making it worth the effort. Maybe your cave just wasn't rich enough to continue. Levels vary from cave to cave.

MO Smith is a good source of information on saltpeter mining. I know a couple of guys here in Georgia that know quite a bit about it too. I'm not an expert but I spend a lot of time in saltpeter caves. Fascinating stuff.
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Re: Saltpeter Mining

Postby CaverScott » Jan 14, 2016 1:54 pm

graveleye wrote:
MO Smith is a good source of information on saltpeter mining.

:exactly: :exactly: :exactly:
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