On our slow Roadtrek trip southwest following Historic Route 66, we found a listing for the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, New Mexico – but we never found any description of the place.
One lavish New Mexico booklet urged the reader to “go underground,” but gave no details. We found the modest brown sign as we entered Grants on SR 117 (Old 66). In the front yard of an imposing adobe style modern building we saw a giant drill bit, solid steel with numerous carbide cutters. It was used to drill a 2,400 foot mine shaft ten feet in diameter when driven by a 615 HP diesel engine at the top end of a 100,000 pound drill string.
It cost all of $3 per person. We were greeted at the information desk by a former uranium mine supervisor who had spent 43 years, first as a coal miner, “in three-foot seams,” and more than 30 years in nearby uranium mines. He certainly knew his stuff! He directed us into a theater and pressed the button to show a comprehensive video of uranium mining in and around the Grants’ area during the boom in that mineral in the 1950 and early 60s. Videos sometimes give only a superficial introduction to a subject, but that one was technically and pictorially outstanding.
Uranium deposits around Grants extended on the north side of the road in a flattened elliptical-shaped area from Grants to Blue Water, approximately 250 square miles in area. At the time it was the largest known deposit of uranium ore. Claims were staked everywhere. Some deposits were shallow enough for strip mining. Some required underground mining as deep as 800 to 1000 feet down. Unlike coal, uranium deposits are found in irregular pods or islands, varying in purity. So the Geiger counter is the main prospecting tool. Radioactive logging instruments were attached to vertical drills and also horizontal drills. So the 3D size of the “paying” ore body could be determined in advance and the mine extraction planned accordingly. Millions of dollars of ore were milled into yellow cake, a highly concentrated ore, and shipped in barrels to uranium processing plants. By the mid 60s the competitive market for uranium ore moved to lower cost producers offshore and in Canada, ending the mining activity around Grants.
Our guide at the end of the video said, “Time to go underground.” He directed us to the elevator, In the basement of the museum was a full-size replica of a uranium mine we walked through. It exhibited every aspect of the mining activity we had seen in the video. Real mine cars and locomotive stood on a real track. High power ventilation systems — absolutely necessary in a uranium mine to exhaust the radon gas — and various drill rigs were there with their compressed air lines. A long drill could pierce 60-foot long two-inch holes in a 360° fan and a Geiger counter logging device pushed to the hole ends to map the extent of the ore body. A replica blasting setup had wires trailing from a spread of six-foot holes in a gallery face, ready to enlarge the mine. There was even a display of a typical miner’s lunch room!
Back in the lobby of the museum is a large collection of mineral specimens in glass cases for close up inspection. There are dinosaur bones, big and little. Our guide showed us a piece of a femur in cross-section; the marrow interior of the bone had been replaced by calcite crystals. He had recovered it immediately after a blast after the smoke had been cleared by the ventilation system. “A gleam in the rubble caught my eye, and I feared we had killed a miner, but it was the glitter of the calcite crystals in the fossil bone marrow.” He described the original bone fragment as about 18 inches long.
Those with a technical interest will find the New Mexico Mining Museum a wonderful place to spend a couple of hours off the beaten path. Take the kids; they’ll remember it as Roger did when he was taken to the coal mine exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry at age six.