- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

VIRGINIA CITY, Nev. - The Gold Rush ended more than 150 years ago, and all the ‘49ers are resting in peace.

But don’t tell that to 79-year-old Phil Martin, sitting at the table in his Carson City home, brandishing a stack of assay papers.

“You’ve got to see this. It’s all confirmed: Gold, silver, lead, zinc, copper — all in one place,” Mr. Martin exclaims. “I’m telling you, there are at least $250 million worth of minerals in there.”

He is excited and exasperated, all at the same time. He spotted Chalk Mountain in central Nevada in 1972, drilled test shafts, staked his claims and kept quiet.

Now that the price of gold is near a record $480 an ounce and silver is pushing toward $8 an ounce, the time has come to introduce it to the world.

He wants a modern-day William Ralston — the Bank of California president in the 1860s who bankrolled many Old West mining ventures — to come forward and underwrite his project.

But modern-day Ralstons are biding their time, and that makes Mr. Martin angry.

“They just don’t understand,” he fumes.

Mr. Martin is one of the old-time prospectors who still seek precious ore in the mountains of Nevada.

“There may not be as many of them as in the old days, but individual prospectors are still working in Nevada,” says Doug Driesner of the Nevada Commission of Mineral Resources.

Their number is hard to pinpoint. Bill Kohlmoos, vice president of the Nevada Miners and Prospectors Association, said there might be about 100 of them. Others say a couple of dozen.

But few dispute they are out there, still climbing mountains, staking claims and hoping.

John McFarren, 82, a prospector who retired to Yerington, Nev., not far from where he found his first lead and silver deposits in 1948, thinks the economic boom in China and the revolution in telecommunications will keep demand for precious metals high.

Nevada remains the third-largest gold producer in the world, after South Africa and Australia, earning more than $2.8 billion for its gold and $69 million for its silver last year, state government statistics show.

U.S. production of gold has grown more than elevenfold since 1975 — from a little more than 1 million troy ounces to 11.3 million in 2000 — and continues to remain high, says the U.S. Geological Survey.

That’s the good part. The bad part is that for most who try their hand at prospecting, it turns out to be a thankless job.

“Ninety-nine out of 100 prospectors work their entire life and never find a single property worth anything,” says Mr. Kohlmoos, 82.

Mr. Kohlmoos, who still spends up to seven months every year in the field, recalls almost dying in a 1961 blizzard and running for dear life a year later from a cloud of radioactive dust that escaped from the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. He remembers lying unconscious for a day in a rattlesnake-infested gulch after a heatstroke and nearly getting killed when his jeep rolled over.

But the incurable optimist unfailingly pushed forward, to new mountains and dry riverbeds. Because no matter how minuscule the odds and unfair the lottery, somebody eventually wins the jackpot.

In contrast to the old days, modern prospectors rarely develop their finds themselves. Instead, they try to lease them to big mining conglomerates for $20,000 to $30,000 a year, says Steve Craig, president of the prospectors association.

“If they are able to lease three or four properties simultaneously, they can make a pretty good living,” he explains.

But the deck often is stacked against them. In order to discourage frivolous claims, the government charges yearly fees for maintaining them and limits their size to 20 acres.

In addition, the Clinton administration, Mr. Kohlmoos says, made the mining business more difficult by introducing scores of environmental regulations.

“In some cases, you have to produce now 56 studies and reports before you sink the first shaft,” he said.

That forces prospectors to relinquish most of their claims, except those properties they deem the most valuable.

Babies sometimes get thrown out with the bath water. Mr. Kohlmoos knows. It happened to him.

He says he staked a string of claims on a prospective gold field north of Winnemucca in 1970, but initial drilling produced mediocre results and the claims soon were abandoned.

They eventually were picked up by Amax Gold Inc., which discovered in 1984 what would become the world-famous Sleeper Mine.

“It is the richest bonanza in the United States and maybe in the world,” Mr. Kohlmoos says. “You could fill a water pail with the ore there and have $50,000 worth of gold in it.”

He once held title to that land. It could have been his. He could have become the John Mackay of our time, the wild Irishman who stumbled into Virginia City in 1860 with nothing but a shovel in his hands and ended up owning the town.

Could have. He shrugs his shoulders and seems to be searching for the right words.

“There’s no point looking back,” Mr. Kohlmoos says, waving his hand. “Let’s go out and find another one.”

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