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Americans mine for gold in northern Korea: Part 1

The area surrounding Taracol mining camp ― one of the main mines of the OCMC. Most of the Korean miners lived in the large village nearby while the Western employees were housed ― in the beginning ― company dorms and later in homes they built themselves. Circa 1913. Robert Neff Collection (courtesy of the Heppner family)
The area surrounding Taracol mining camp ― one of the main mines of the OCMC. Most of the Korean miners lived in the large village nearby while the Western employees were housed ― in the beginning ― company dorms and later in homes they built themselves. Circa 1913. Robert Neff Collection (courtesy of the Heppner family)

By Robert Neff

They say that every picture is worth a thousand words, and while that may be true, unless we have the background and provenance of the picture, the words are merely that ― a jumble of words with no true story.

Many of you are probably aware that I have a great interest in the foreign-owned gold mining concessions in northern Korean from the mid-1890s until 1939. Over the past couple of decades I have managed to find information on hundreds of miners and their families as well as collect images, memorabilia and even a home-movie.

Some of it I purchased, while a lot of the material was provided by the families of these miners ― and, in a few cases, by the miners themselves.

The stamp mill at Chittabalbie where the ore was ground up. There weren't that many gold nuggets ― most of the gold was obtained by crushing rocks. Circa 1904. Robert Neff Collection
The stamp mill at Chittabalbie where the ore was ground up. There weren't that many gold nuggets ― most of the gold was obtained by crushing rocks. Circa 1904. Robert Neff Collection

Discovering these miners and their ancestors is like finding gold ― it is a laborious pursuit that requires great patience, time and, unfortunately, money.

In the past, when I discovered the name of a miner and what city they hailed from, I often ended up calling everyone in that city with the same last name and asking them if they ever had a relative who worked in the gold mines in Korea.

Obviously, more often than not, the answer was no. However, every so often, I would get a positive response but even then there were rejections. Some people felt I was stalking them while others were unhappy with me digging up their families' past ― we all have skeleton or two in our closets.

The mill was extremely loud and often communication had to be done using gestures and a form of sign language. It was rough work and the mills were usually kept in constant operation. Working in the mill had one great advantage ― at least in the winters ― it was warm. Circa 1901. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Amstead family)
The mill was extremely loud and often communication had to be done using gestures and a form of sign language. It was rough work and the mills were usually kept in constant operation. Working in the mill had one great advantage ― at least in the winters ― it was warm. Circa 1901. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Amstead family)

Fortunately, the internet and the various archives now available have made it much easier to rediscover these foreign residents of Korea's past. Of course, none of this was done entirely by myself.

Many people have assisted me over the years in hopes that the miners' stories might be remembered in print ― unfortunately, except for the various articles in newspapers and magazines, I have failed to accomplish my end of the bargain. Many of these early patrons have since passed on ― their correspondences and material haunt me with guilt.

This is the 300th article of this series and I thought it would be fitting to choose a handful of pictures of the American-owned Oriental Consolidated Mining Concession (OCMC) and let them remind me of my unfulfilled promise.

(More pictures tomorrow)

Many of the American miners came from Whitley County, Indiana. They were young men ― many from farms ― and they came to Korea seeking adventure and financial stability. Most found it. A few, however, returned home in shame ― bitterly denouncing the company for their failures. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)
Many of the American miners came from Whitley County, Indiana. They were young men ― many from farms ― and they came to Korea seeking adventure and financial stability. Most found it. A few, however, returned home in shame ― bitterly denouncing the company for their failures. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)

The founder of the OCMC ― a resident of Whitley County ― paid back his community by providing employment for the young and willing and a second-floor library. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)
The founder of the OCMC ― a resident of Whitley County ― paid back his community by providing employment for the young and willing and a second-floor library. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)

Getting goods and machinery to the mining concession was no easy matter. There were few roads and the company often had to rely upon large teams of oxen and ponies for transportation. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Lower Family)
Getting goods and machinery to the mining concession was no easy matter. There were few roads and the company often had to rely upon large teams of oxen and ponies for transportation. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Lower Family)

Captain Ebenezer Barstow ― former ship's captain and the superintendent of transportation for the American mines. He was definitely a character. There were at least two attempts on his life and he was not shy in returning the favor. Perhaps his most infamous story involves a bear trap in the company's payroll chest ― the would-be thief ended up with a mangled hand and a one-way trip to Hawaii. Circa 1913. Courtesy of the Linstead family
Captain Ebenezer Barstow ― former ship's captain and the superintendent of transportation for the American mines. He was definitely a character. There were at least two attempts on his life and he was not shy in returning the favor. Perhaps his most infamous story involves a bear trap in the company's payroll chest ― the would-be thief ended up with a mangled hand and a one-way trip to Hawaii. Circa 1913. Courtesy of the Linstead family



The area surrounding Taracol mining camp ― one of the main mines of the OCMC. Most of the Korean miners lived in the large village nearby while the Western employees were housed ― in the beginning ― company dorms and later in homes they built themselves. Circa 1913. Robert Neff Collection (courtesy of the Heppner family)
The area surrounding Taracol mining camp ― one of the main mines of the OCMC. Most of the Korean miners lived in the large village nearby while the Western employees were housed ― in the beginning ― company dorms and later in homes they built themselves. Circa 1913. Robert Neff Collection (courtesy of the Heppner family)

By Robert Neff

They say that every picture is worth a thousand words, and while that may be true, unless we have the background and provenance of the picture, the words are merely that ― a jumble of words with no true story.

Many of you are probably aware that I have a great interest in the foreign-owned gold mining concessions in northern Korean from the mid-1890s until 1939. Over the past couple of decades I have managed to find information on hundreds of miners and their families as well as collect images, memorabilia and even a home-movie.

Some of it I purchased, while a lot of the material was provided by the families of these miners ― and, in a few cases, by the miners themselves.

The stamp mill at Chittabalbie where the ore was ground up. There weren't that many gold nuggets ― most of the gold was obtained by crushing rocks. Circa 1904. Robert Neff Collection
The stamp mill at Chittabalbie where the ore was ground up. There weren't that many gold nuggets ― most of the gold was obtained by crushing rocks. Circa 1904. Robert Neff Collection

Discovering these miners and their ancestors is like finding gold ― it is a laborious pursuit that requires great patience, time and, unfortunately, money.

In the past, when I discovered the name of a miner and what city they hailed from, I often ended up calling everyone in that city with the same last name and asking them if they ever had a relative who worked in the gold mines in Korea.

Obviously, more often than not, the answer was no. However, every so often, I would get a positive response but even then there were rejections. Some people felt I was stalking them while others were unhappy with me digging up their families' past ― we all have skeleton or two in our closets.

The mill was extremely loud and often communication had to be done using gestures and a form of sign language. It was rough work and the mills were usually kept in constant operation. Working in the mill had one great advantage ― at least in the winters ― it was warm. Circa 1901. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Amstead family)
The mill was extremely loud and often communication had to be done using gestures and a form of sign language. It was rough work and the mills were usually kept in constant operation. Working in the mill had one great advantage ― at least in the winters ― it was warm. Circa 1901. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Amstead family)

Fortunately, the internet and the various archives now available have made it much easier to rediscover these foreign residents of Korea's past. Of course, none of this was done entirely by myself.

Many people have assisted me over the years in hopes that the miners' stories might be remembered in print ― unfortunately, except for the various articles in newspapers and magazines, I have failed to accomplish my end of the bargain. Many of these early patrons have since passed on ― their correspondences and material haunt me with guilt.

This is the 300th article of this series and I thought it would be fitting to choose a handful of pictures of the American-owned Oriental Consolidated Mining Concession (OCMC) and let them remind me of my unfulfilled promise.

(More pictures tomorrow)

Many of the American miners came from Whitley County, Indiana. They were young men ― many from farms ― and they came to Korea seeking adventure and financial stability. Most found it. A few, however, returned home in shame ― bitterly denouncing the company for their failures. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)
Many of the American miners came from Whitley County, Indiana. They were young men ― many from farms ― and they came to Korea seeking adventure and financial stability. Most found it. A few, however, returned home in shame ― bitterly denouncing the company for their failures. Circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)

The founder of the OCMC ― a resident of Whitley County ― paid back his community by providing employment for the young and willing and a second-floor library. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)
The founder of the OCMC ― a resident of Whitley County ― paid back his community by providing employment for the young and willing and a second-floor library. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Whitley County Historical Society)

Getting goods and machinery to the mining concession was no easy matter. There were few roads and the company often had to rely upon large teams of oxen and ponies for transportation. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Lower Family)
Getting goods and machinery to the mining concession was no easy matter. There were few roads and the company often had to rely upon large teams of oxen and ponies for transportation. Circa 1905. Robert Neff Collection (Courtesy of Lower Family)

Captain Ebenezer Barstow ― former ship's captain and the superintendent of transportation for the American mines. He was definitely a character. There were at least two attempts on his life and he was not shy in returning the favor. Perhaps his most infamous story involves a bear trap in the company's payroll chest ― the would-be thief ended up with a mangled hand and a one-way trip to Hawaii. Circa 1913. Courtesy of the Linstead family
Captain Ebenezer Barstow ― former ship's captain and the superintendent of transportation for the American mines. He was definitely a character. There were at least two attempts on his life and he was not shy in returning the favor. Perhaps his most infamous story involves a bear trap in the company's payroll chest ― the would-be thief ended up with a mangled hand and a one-way trip to Hawaii. Circa 1913. Courtesy of the Linstead family




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