Samuel Gilson

Drawing of Gilson in 1903.
Used with permission from Alycia Aldrich of the Utah State Historical Society on 4/18/2013 (State of Utah, 2013).

Kyle Jackson, Sarah Pick and Katie Simmons
GO 521 History of Geology
Emporia State University
Spring 2012

Table of Contents
Samuel Gilson
Mining and Uses

Life of Samuel Gilson

Early Life

Sam Gilson was born in 1836 in Plainfield, Illinois. At the age of 15, he and his brother James ventured to the American west in search of gold. They did not find success in gold, so they moved to Nevada, where they ran a mercantile business and raised livestock in Lander County and later White Pine County. It was in Nevada, that he met and married Alice Larkin Richardson, who is believed to be a descendent of both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Gilson and his wife would eventually have 12 children (Van Leer, 1996).

Between 1860 and 1870, Gilson and his brother James served to supply horses for the Pony Express. In 1860, the brothers also worked as riders for the Pony Express between California and Missouri. In 1870, Sam and James Gilson decided to move their cattle herds to Kansas. However, plans changed, and they stopped in the Sevier Valley of Utah to open a ranch. There, Sam Gilson also served as a deputy US Marshal under William Nelson and MT Patrick (Van Leer, 1996). In 1884, he began to work under US Attorney WH Dickson, indicting Mormon leaders for polygamy (Nichols, 1995).

Mining and Development of Gilsonite

The origin of Gilson's discovery of gilsonite is punctuated with inconsistencies. It is rumored that he came upon the material by mistake while he was following directions of a group of Native Americans. As the story goes, he was driving a horse herd back from Colorado sometime in the 1880s, when he either accidentally discovered or was shown an outcropping in Horse Canyon, east of Price, Utah. He later returned to the canyon in search of coal for coking, a process of heating impurities out of coal for optimal fuel usage (World Coal Association, 2013). Though he did not find coal at Horse Canyon, Gilson did open coal mines in Cordenly Canyon. He also discovered Buckhorn silver mines near Fish Springs, Utah (Van Leer, 1996).

In 1882, he was rumored to have discovered gilsonite while watching ants take a black substance to their hill. Several years later, widow Alice Gilson told an interviewer that her late husband had friends in the Shoshone and Piute tribes. She explained that a chief told him about a black substance that would not burn, and took him to the veins where he could find it (Van Leer, 1996). Perhaps the story of Gilson’s discovery of the material will never be clear.

Upon his discovery of the substance, Gilson continually experimented with it in his home kitchen. During this time, he was able to exploit the potential uses for the product many of which would become used at an industrial level. His experimented with a variety of uses for gilsonite including paint, wire insulation and even chewing gum. He is said to have spent time at the Washington D. C. Smithsonian Institution, testing various qualities of gilsonite (Van Leer, 1996). He later became business partners with Bert Seaboldt of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. The partners developed and financed gilsonite mines (Tripp, 2004). In 1889, Anheuser-Busch Company of St. Louis purchased his concepts and named the company Gilson Asphaltum Company. The product was to be used to line beer barrels in lieu of importing rock asphalt from Sicily (Van Leer, 1996).

Late in Life

Gilson later worked to defend labor rights for miners. Evidence suggests that Sam Gilson was not well received by public figures in his later years. A report out of the Deseret News in April of 1904 referred to him as an "insurgent." This particular article was regarding a town hall meeting in Price, Utah, in which Gilson was slated to discuss mine workers who were jailed for unclear reasons. The workers at the mine were known to have previously filed grievances against the Utah Fuel Company. It is believed that Gilson was jailed for protesting miners' rights. (The Deseret Evening News, 1904).

After his departure from the mining industry, Sam Gilson worked to invent and patent designs for several of his inventions. Among his inventions were an airplane, a railway platform, and coal coke oven. He fell ill in November of 1913, and he never recovered. He died on December 2, 1913 and he was buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Salt Lake City, along side family members (Van Leer, 1996).


What is Gilsonite?

Gilsonite is a solidified hydrocarbon (asphalt) that is a glossy black color. It is brittle and lightweight (AGC, 2013), naturally occurring in dikes, veins, sills and fracture fillings (Boden and Tripp, 2012). Gilsonite when freshly broken has a shiny luster to it resembling obsidian, but weathered Gilsonite is a dull black color that closely resembles coal. Asphaltites, such as Gilsonite, are usually found in sedimentary basins associated with oil shale, such as the Uinta Basin (Tripp, 2004). The term “gilsonite” is trademarked by the American Gilsonite Company (AGC, 2013), but may also be called asphalt, asphaltite, asphaltum or uintaite (Ziegler, 2010).

Mined dike near current American Gilsonite Company manufacturing plant in Bonanza, Utah. Image taken by Katie Simmons 3/18/2013, with processing by Susie Aber.

Where is Gilsonite Found?

Gilsonite is found in a 60 mile (97 km) by 30 mile (48 km) area in the Uinta Basin of Northeast Utah. Gilsonite is found in veins between 18 feet (5.5 m) to just fractions of an inch (millimeters). The Uinta was formed during the Sevier/Laramide mountain building episode (Tetting, 1984), creating crustal downwarping of the basin (Verbeek and Grout, 1993). Most of the dikes are contained in the poorly consolidated sandstone and mudstone of the Uinta Formation (upper Eocene) which is above the oilshales of the Green River Formation. The Green River Formation released fluids and pressure filling the voids in the Uinta Formation (Tetting, 1984).

Dikes in this area are part of several systems in the area: Pariette, Fort Duchesne, Ouray, Willow Creek, Rainbow, and Cowboy-Bonanza. Pariette is the site of the earliest operations and found in the western edge of the vein areas and the Fort Duchesne can be found in the northwest area. The Ouray system, near Ouray, Utah, is one of the least mined areas due to a depth of 400 meters and being narrower than other dikes with the Willow Creek, south of the Ouray, probably being a continuation, and contains only two dikes that have been mined intermittently (Verbeek and Grout, 1993). The Rainbow System contains the largest known dikes that were once the site of large scale mining operations. The only system of dikes known to enter Colorado is the Cowboy-Bonanza. This contains 9 of the largest dikes and has been mined since 1890 and continues today (Verbeek and Grout, 1993).

Map of dike locations within Northeastern Utah and Western Colorado;modified to give names fo the dike systems. Used with permission from the director of the Utah Geological Society, Rick Allis, 3/18/2013. (Tripp, 2004)

Mining and Uses


The market cost of gilsonite can range from $250 to$1800 per ton in the current market, where in the late 1800s was $10 to $12 per ton (Wright, C.L., 2012). The value is based on five factors: (1) if the gilsonite is crushed or not; (2) what kind of packaging is used; (3) what the melting temperature is; (4) whether or not anything has been added to the gilsonite; and (5) whether or not the gilsonite underwent processes to remove contaminants (Tripp, B.T., 2004). The earliest known record of gilsonite mining dates back to 1868. Mining gilsonite is a painstaking endeavor mostly because of the fact that gilsonite veins are so narrow and run deep. There is also the constant threat of an explosion due to the gilsonite dust becoming ignited. Since mining gilsonite is such a challenge, today's mining techniques are similar to what they were 100 years ago (Chemical Mine World Co., 2009). At first, gilsonite was mined by surface trenching using tools such as picks and shovels.

Over time, mining tools came to include bulldozers, tunnel-building machines, and water-jet cutters that were attached to mining cars (State of Utah, 2013). Present day gilsonite mining occurs in underground tunnels that follow the veins and miners use an air powered chipping hammer (Tripp, B.T., 2004). Since those interested in buying gilsonite want the purest form they can get, miners have to be careful so that the mined gilsonite avoids being contamination from the surrounding rock. Once removed from the vein, the gilsonite tumbles to the bottom of the mine shaft, enters a vacuum tube, and is then carried to the surface by a pneumatic conveyer. Once it reaches the surface, the gilsonite is then processed in order to remove impurities. It wasn't until 1888, twenty years after the first documented mining, that gilsonite started to be shipped regularly (Tripp, B.T., 2004).


Gilsonite has numerous uses, most of which are either in the oil field, in inks and paints, in asphalts, or in foundries. In the oil field, gilsonite has applications in cementing, oil-based drilling fluids, and water-based drilling fluids. Gilsonite is the best plugging agent to use in cementing. By adding it to cement, one can reduce the weight of the mix without having the mix lose its strength. Gilsonite is used in oil-based drilling muds for when drilling companies come across certain geological formations. And using gilsonite in water-based drilling fluids can stabilize rock units and prevent washout of the hole.

Gilsonite resin is used in newspaper inks and can be added to paints and varnishes. When it is used in paints, the gilsonite enhances the gloss and resistance to weathering. When gilsonite is added to asphalt, it gives the resulting mixture a higher stability and more resistance to water stripping, while lowering the risk of deformation and lowering temperature susceptibility. It also increases the mixture's resistance to erosion. Gilsonite can be mixed with coal and used as an ingredient in foundry sands. The use of gilsonite in foundry sands improve the finish of the metal castings (American Gilsonite Company, 2013).Other uses of gilsonite include paint for cars and buggies, linings for beer vats, waterproofing primer, roofing asphalt, lining for ponds and ditches, and fireworks (Chemical Mine World Co., 2009).


Aerial Photographs

The Earth Science Club at Emporia State University went to a few of the dikes near Bonanza, Utah. While there several photographs were taken, both from the ground and from a blimp. The blimp and camera rig was supplied by Dr. Aber, as well as the processed images.

Image from club trip using blimp photography. For more information on the activities and pictures, click the image. (Aber and Aber, 2013)


Aber, J.S. and Aber, S.W., 2013. Gilsonite Mines: Northern Utah. Gilsonite Mines accessed 20 April 2013.
American Gilsonite Company (AGC), 2013. Industries and Products. American Gilsonite Company accessed 13 April 2013.
Boden, T. and Tripp, B.T. 2012. Gilsonite veins of the Uinta Basin, Utah. Utah Geological Survey, Special Study 141. Google Books accessed 15 April 2013.
Chemical Mine World Co., 2009. Gilsonite. accessed 10 April 2013.
The Deseret Evening News. April 27, 1904. Sam Gilson to Hold Indignation Meeting. Deseret Evening News accessed online April 2013.
Nichols, Jeffrey D. 1995. Utah State History Department. Utah History to Go website. Utah State History Department accessed online April 2013.
State of Utah, 2013. Mining. Utah Historical Society accessed 18 April 2013.
Tetting, T.N. 1984. Origin of Gilsonite fractures in Uinta Basin, Utah. American Association Petroleum Geologists, Bulletin 68, p. 951-952. American Association of Petroleum Geologists accessed 16 April 2013.
Tripp, B.T., 2004. Gilsonite, an Unusual Utah Resource. Utah Geological Survey. Survey Notes. Volume 36, Number 3. Survey Notes accessed 18 April 2013.
Van Leer, Twilla. November 26, 1996. Deseret News. Wealth of Interests Never Made Miner Rich. Deseret News accessed online April 2013.
Verbeek, E.R. and Grout, M.A. 1993. Geometry and Structural Evolution of Gilsonite Dikes in the Eastern Uinta Basin, Utah. US Geological Survey Bulletin 1787-HH. United States Government Printing Office, 1993.
Wright, C.L., 2012. Ghost Towns and Gilsonite of the Uinta Basin. accessed 21 April 2012
World Coal Association website. Uses of Coal. World Coal Association accessed online April 2013.
Ziegler Chemical & Mineral Corporation. 2010. What is Gilsonite? Ziegler accessed 16 April 2013.

For more information on this class, please visit: History of Geology Syllabus

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