Step by step at Carissa Mine

Jun 14, 2017 By Robert H. Peck, Staff Writer

Restoration work brings more life to historic site steadily

Despite budget shortfalls and unexpected obstacles, the Carissa Mine and Mill restoration project ongoing for more than a decade is pressing ahead near South Pass City.

The site has been open for tour during the summer season for several years, each year with more and more of the old mine restored to operative status as equipment is repaired and processes understood.

New equipment

South Pass City historian and mine restoration project specialist Jon Lane said new equipment for the growing collection of original mine and mill machinery at the site often comes from surprising places--including being tripped over by South Pass site workers in the sagebrush surrounding the city, where it has been lying since some time around the mill site's late-1940s abandonment.

At that time, equipment from the area was either discarded or shipped off to nearby mines. A collection of outfits in Atlantic City's orbit have turned up Carissa equipment, but Lane said two of the more notable recent discoveries were simply found lying in the brush, waiting to be turned up.

The first is an air-powered mining drill from the Carissa's early 20th century operations. Lane and his crew have several such drills on site, and have worked with volunteers to restore them to operating condition. That endeavor includes not only shaping up the actual ironwork of the machinery itself, but also restoring an air compression system at the mine site so that it can power the drills.

Lane said much of the restoration work has been done by unpaid volunteers, particularly on the air compressor, a tractor-esque engine and body attached to a period air tank in the lift house north of the Carissa mill site. Lane added that he hopes to have restored drills, including his newly discovered brush piece, in working condition enough for site visitors to use them to break up rocks outside the mine site in coming years.

Lane's other recent discovery is a possibly unique drill bit sharpener from the early 1910s. A vital missing piece of the device was found near the mill site, and Lane is working on restoring the full sharpener, most of which is housed with the drills and the compressor in the mine shaft's lift house. If fixed, it will be the only operational machine of its kind that Lane knows of - on Earth.

Working order

Both the drill and the bit sharpener join a host of restored mining equipment already residing at the Carissa site, large and small. In collaboration with local artists, machinists, restoration specialists, and a small army of volunteers, Lane and his team have restored many comic book-esque mining machines to working condition, rendering the Carissa site a one of a kind look back at the history of Wyoming mining.

Bucket elevator

One notable piece that Lane has worked on restoring for years finally is nearing completion: a bucket elevator, used to lift mined material out of a huge ball mill and into position for the mill's inner workings to refine its valuable innards into their pure forms.

The bucket elevator is the culmination of volunteer labor and a wide-ranging search for parts that Lane has been undertaking over the course of some years.

The elevator's buckets had been moved to a nearby mine site and were donated by locals to the Carissa effort. A belt for the lift also is ready to use, and the underlying framework and foundation for the elevator are in place.

Lane said the main remaining hurdle for this vital component in the Carissa project is electrical work, although this hurdle is substantial. Bidding on Carissa projects is a tall order for many local electricians, who must go nearly an hour out of their way to the site just to survey it before drafting and bidding on the project can begin. Still, Lane said he expects to have the elevator operational by the fall, marking the end of a seminal period object that someday is intended to carry materials through an operational version of the restored Carissa mill.

Budgets and volunteers

Asked if Wyoming's budget shortfalls have affected his work, Lane said times were tougher than usual. He said there was a sense of a "dangling sword" over the project that could fall at any time.

But he spoke highly of donations and grants from the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund and others, noting that the State of Wyoming often willing to match private donations to the Carissa, which is part of the larger South Pass City State Historic Site.

"Every time we have asked, [the state] has responded," Lane said. "We are doing OK. That may even be a guarded way to say we are doing well."

The relative danger of budget cuts makes outside contributions to the project all the more vital. Lane said many of the Carissa's most notable features, and much of his research into the site, have been made possible by the work of local people and interested persons willing to lend generosity to the mill. To that end, he said he is always on the lookout for opportunities to reach out and share the project with others.

Of his work sparking public interest in the historic site, Lane said, "You never know what seeds you're planting that might grow later on."