Gary B. Speck

How would you like to take a guided tour through the surface workings and mill buildings of the United State's largest operating gold mine, a mine that during the past 120 years of continuous operation has yielded over $1 BILLION in gold?

It grew up in the heart of America's most controversial gold rush, South Dakota's 1876 Black Hills gold rush. The name of this mine The Homestake.

Shouldering pine-clad granite hills above the Great Plains, the Paha Sapa (Hills that are Black), attracted the Native American population as well as trappers and a few wayward prospectors, who claimed to have found placer gold deposits hidden in the hill's forested vales. Further "scientific" expeditions in 1857, 1859, and 1865 revealed gold did exist, but the Sioux Nation refused entry to the encroaching white men, at least for a while.

In 1868, the federal government allocated the Black Hills to the Sioux Nation as part of their reservation. But after gold and silver were discovered in nearby Montana, in 1874, the government wanted to protect travelers to Montana, so in late July 1874, the 7th Cavalry under the command Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer explored the region and looked for a place to establish a military post. They also looked around to verify if gold really did exist in the hills. It did, and by August the "New Gold Country" was making splashy newspaper headlines across the nation.   As the hills officially were set aside as part of the Dakota Sioux' reservation, the military had to enforce a no-entry policy. Even so, miners still managed to sneak in around the gauntlet of soldiers and Indians. This angered the Sioux so much, a war developed between them and the white intruders. Over in Montana, the pivotal battle and the most costly in terms of lives lost on both sides, as well as the battle that absolutely enraged the American public, happened in July 1876. Along the Little Big Horn River, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out. The American public demanded retribution against the Sioux, which began a major campaign against them. A year later the Sioux were so demoralized and weakened, their beloved Black Hills were now occupied and controlled by the Americans.  

The door had been opened, so the rush began. Tens of thousands of miners poured into the Black Hills, and mining camps popped up throughout the region, especially around the rich placers in Deadwood Gulch. Three miles to the southwest, Alex Engh, Hank Harney, and Fred and Moses Manuel discovered a rich lead of gold, on April 9, 1876. After nine years of prospecting throughout the West, the Manuel brothers and their partners hit the BIG ONE. The claim was called the Homestake, and soon Lead City (pronounced LEED) developed nearby, and Deadwood had some competition.

The Homestake turned out to be a mountain of free-milling gold.   Word of the richness of the Homestake Mine got out quickly, and in June 1877 George Hearst the well-known San Francisco based mine speculator (and his two business partners), arrived in the Black Hills. They left $105,000 "poorer", but owners of what was soon to become the San Francisco based Homestake Mining Company. Over the next few years, Hearst purchased neighboring claims, obtained water rights on nearby Whitewood Creek, and began to assemble the Homestake empire. The Homestake Mine was Lead's number one mine, and contributed a way of life to a small rag-tag mining camp, maturing it into a major mining city. By the summer of 1879, the Homestake operation consisted of ten major and several smaller mines, 540 stamps in six mills, a huge assortment of buildings and over 500 employees.

In 1899 the Homestake was one of the first, if not THE first, American gold mining operation to install the newly developed cyanide processing. This method of gold recovery increased the recovery percentage from 90% to nearly 100%.  The treated ore came from both the underground shafts and tunnels, and the growing open pit that operated from 1876-1945.

A half-century later the mine was still producing, and in 1942, was one of the few mines in the country that was not closed during WWII. Even after the war ended and gold was artificially valued at $35/oz., the mine continued to be worked profitably. In 1983 tests were run in the open pit and it was determined to be economically feasible to begin mining operations there again. That ore is now trucked to the top of the pit in huge dump trucks and dumped into a 6300' long pipe conveyor belt that carries it to the mill across the gulch.

Today the Homestake is the largest gold mining operation in the country as well as the most productive mine in the Western Hemisphere. It has also become the most productive single mine operation in the world, with total production estimates ranging from $500 million to over $1 BILLION. The ore is obtained from both the 400' long, 1300' wide, 500' deep open pit excavation, and 8000' deep shafts with their miles of underground workings.

Tours of the surface workings at the Homestake Mine have been conducted since 1920, and over 2 million people have taken it. They are reasonably priced, and well worth the time and energy. At the mine's visitor center, a video outlines the history of the mine and shows various facets of the complex's operations. Many books on local history are also available.

The tour of the milling complex begins at the visitor center, which sits on the south lip overlooking the monstrous open pit excavation. Buses leave from the building and wind their way up to the top of the hill into the mine's complex of buildings. The tour stops at the Yates Shaft headframe, where mine visitors don blue hardhats and enter the huge corrugated steel tower erected in the 1940s. This tower is the "skyscraper" of the complex, and dominates the city's skyline from its hilltop perch. Inside are hoisting cages which raises and lowers miners deep into the bowels of the mountain. There are huge buckets of raw ore brought up and dumped into various crushers on the west side of the room.  It is here the ore undergoes its first crushing as it begins its milling process.

The tour exits the headframe, then around the side of the to another building just east of the Yates headframe.  This structure is the hoisting house where operators still sit on elevated stools and keep track of their personnel cages and ore buckets. Television monitors allow visitors to see what is going on inside the bucket dump station.  Connecting the two buildings are the thick iron cables that raise and lower the hoists and ore buckets up and down the main shafts. Leaving the hoisting facility with fresh ore samples in hand, visitors are bused past the award-winning waste water pretreatment plant, where cyanide eating bacteria clean the water to where it exceeds federal standards for clean water!  The tour then loops past other buildings such as a foundry, metallurgical labs, and other structures. At the South Mill, visitors stroll across platforms and look into the heart of where the ore is processed. Here it is ground into a fine powder by ball, roller and drum mills prior to being sent to the cyanide vats in two nearby "sand plants'.

The Homestake Mine still produces over $2 million in gold per year, and the mine employs about 1300 people.  Approximately 2500 tons of ore are required to produce a single 400-ounce bullion bar.   The town of Lead relies on tourism and the mine for its economy. Even though it is not as picturesque or as touristy as its more famous and glitzy neighbor Deadwood, the Lead Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places. The entire eastern part of town was relocated to the southwest in the early 1930s, as subsidence created havoc among the buildings, some of which had sunk as much as 35 feet. Much of the caving problems were rectified when the mine began backfilling tunnels and shafts with the milled tailings, thus solving two problems...subsidence and where to dispose of millions of cubic yards of sandy waste.

The mine sits at the east end of Lead, and is highly visible from almost anywhere in the entire town. This tour through America's most productive gold mine is a must for anybody interested in silver and gold mining. Even the kids will be fascinated!


This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for Aug-Dec 2000 and January 2001. The long time was due to a computer failure, and subsequent time involved in rescuing the page.

This is one of the locations featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.




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FIRST POSTED: January 01, 2001

LAST UPDATED: March 20, 2005




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