by Gary Shumway
On August 20, 1896, D. A. Blue began walking carefully along the bottom of a gully on the east side of Rand Mountain. Blue
had learned of the exciting discovery of the Yellow Aster Mine the previous year, and now of several additional promising
locations in this same vicinity in eastern Kern County, California. Enticed by the allure of gold, Blue noted the
fault zone that shimmered through the heat as he began walking up the gully, and remembered with rising interest what
he had heard about hydrothermal solutions that at some time in the geological past had boiled up along fault zones,
and, if conditions were right, deposited precious metals somewhere in the host rock of the area.
Stopping to break promising looking rocks with his prospector's pick as he went along the bottom of the gully, he
suddenly found what he was looking for: a piece of "float." or ore that had washed down from a gold bearing vein
somewhere nearby. If this float could be traced back to the vein outcrop, perhaps the deposit could be developed into
a paying mine.
As Blue found additional pieces of float, his interest made him forget some of the discomfort of the California
desert in August, and he began to sense the heady feeling of being on the verge of discovering great wealth. Carefully
tracing the float to its source, Blue found himself standing in front of three parallel quartz veins, ranging in width
from 18 inches to 3 ½ feet, in an outcropping of schist. He broke off a piece of quartz with his pick, looked it over
briefly, then used his magnifying glass to look more carefully at a couple of promising specks. Enlarged by the glass,
the two dots became what he had hoped they were: two small but very real pieces of gold.
With the nation having codified, in the Mining Law of 1872, the common-law assumption that deposits of precious metals
belonged not to the federal government but to the discoverer,. Blue knew that he had the right to claim any deposit he
discovered and to retain or sell it as he wished, so long as he properly recorded the discovery and performed at least
$100 worth of assessment work each year.
Blue staked his claim by establishing rock monuments at the four corners of a 1500 by 600 foot rectangle. A location
notice was posted at the point of discovery, indicating the locator, date of location, geographic position, name of
the claim, and the specific minerals being claimed. He then legalized his claim by recording it in the San Bernardino
After staking and recording his claim, which he named the Blackhawk, Blue then proceeded to obtain a more accurate
sample of the veins for assay. Ten pounds of rock from different parts of the vein were crushed to the size of peas,
and poured into the shape of a cone. The cone was quartered and two opposite quarters thrown out. The remaining
quarters were further crushed and reduced until each weighed one pound and consisted of fine sand. One of these pound
samples was sent to an assayer, while Blue kept the other for future reference. When the assay results came back, Blue
learned that this mine would indeed be a paying proposition: at the ten prevailing price of $20.67 an ounce, his ore
was worth $60 a ton.
With such favorable assay, Blue could depend on financial assistance in developing his claim, and this assistance was
soon proffered by a Randsburg businessman, D. C. Kuffel. By the next February, the location had been expanded to
include 17 claims, several shipments had been made which ran from $60 to $120 per ton, and 1,600 tons of milling
grade ore had been stockpiled, awaiting the erection of a mill. The Blackhawk shaft was down 100 feet, with a 150
foot drift at the 60 foot level.
The following year, the Randsburg Railway reached the new town of Johannesburg, linking the area with the outside
world, and making the Blackhawk Mine even more profitable.
The years from 1896 to 1903 were the golden years for the Blackhawk Mine. A ten-stamp amalgamation mill was
constructed and put into operation during this time. Since ore from the Blackhawk was free milling, the rock needed
only to be crushed and the gold caught by amalgamation with mercury. In the amalgamation process, copper plates
coated with mercury were set at an angle so that ore pulp from the stamp mill flowed over the plates by gravity
in waves. When the free gold came in contact with mercury-coated plates, the gold adhered to it, as mercury's
capillary action causes it to be repelled by most substances, but to cling to gold, while sand, sulphides and other
materials were carried off by the water. At intervals, the gold was recovered by scraping off the amalgam with a
rubber squeegee. The substance was then squeezed through a chamois to expel excess mercury, resulting in a gob of
40 percent gold.
This substance was put into a retort and heated, which drove off the mercury into vapor. A Collection system in
the retort allowed the mercury to be recondensed and discharged into a bowl of water. The residue left in the retort
was melted in a graphite crucible in a furnace, and fluxes (borax, soda and silica_ were added to help the slag flow,
pour and harden correctly. Furnace mill workers poured the gold into a cast iron mold and, after the gold was set,
overturned the mold into a bucket of water, where the slag easily separated from the ingot. The amalgamation process
was simple and could be performed as infrequently as once a month, so it was never necessary to have more than
half a dozen men working at the Blackhawk at any one time. It was, in its early years and throughout its productive
life, a small mining operation.
In 1904, tungsten was discovered 2 miles southeast of the Blackhawk, and the area went wild during World War I. Blue
still mined gold during this time, but all the areas's attention went to the developing of tungsten mines. The ensuing
prosperity forced cutbacks at the Blackhawk. The stamp mill was reduced by five stamps, while a mile north, silver was
discovered in 1919, causing Randsburgs' third rush.
In 1921, control of the Blackhawk passed to a small financial group from Pennsylvania. Organized as the Pittsburgh and
Mount Shasta Mining and Milling Company, J. J. Schneider, T. V. Scott, and D. F. McCormick embarked upon an ambitious
plan in February, 1923. It involved the staking and development of other claims in an effort to reach underground
extensions of the mineralized zone of the nearby Kelly silver mine. A vertical shaft 300 feet deep with 1000 feet
of workings yielded nothing spectacular. The rich silver ore zone that was so close by did not enter their claims,
and their gamble did not pay off. They were better off mining gold.
Ten years later, the shafts were 250-300 feet deep, with levels at 50, 100, and 200 feet, and close to a mile of
underground drifts and crosscuts. Electric hoists of from 20 to 50 horsepower were used to carry men and ore from
the mine, and an air compressor was used to run the drills.
In another 10 years the main shaft was down to 600 feet, with levels at 100, 200, 250, 450, 500, and 600 feet, and
with another 3,000 feet of underground working added since 1933.
Executive Order L-208 stopped production at this mine in 1942, after having produced an estimated $700,000 worth of gold, worth between $20.67 and $35 an ounce, from ore averaging ½ to 2 ounces of gold per ton.
Although perhaps the Blackhawk Mine was above average in terms of production, and some of the mines involved more complex milling processes, it to a great degree typifies mining in the California desert. Its story, multiplied thousands of times, is the story of mining throughout this area. The same patters of discovery, development, deals, dividends, daring, decline, and death are found within the story of almost every mine.
Perhaps the most significant way in which the Blackhawk Mine is representative of most desert mines is in its premature closure due to legislative restrictions and price fixing of the 1930s and l940s. The remaining gold values in the ore at the Blackhawk and at hundreds of mines throughout the desert at todays prices often would bring $200 or more per ton. The importance of this fact can only be fully appreciated when one considers that these same mines were worked at a profit years ago when ore values were worth only $12 a ton. Even with much higher labor and supplies costs, the often expensive process of reconditioning abandoned mines, and the nagging costly necessity of complying with a plethora of government regulations, many of these mines could be more profitable now than they were 40 years ago. A new rush back to these mines may be imminent.
It is this fascinating story of gossans and glory holes, of stopes and stamp mills and especially of the unsinkable
optimism of prospector and promotor, that this study details. While this volume was not intended to be a comprehensive
history of all mining activity that has occurred withing the California desert, the attention given to many of the
significant mines should make it useful as an overview, and the index of desert mines, owners and place names should
serve both scholar and enthusiast. With gold, silver and other metals presently commanding unheard of high prices,
increased attention is being given to mining in the desert, and an important new mining era may soon begin. We
earnestly hope that this book will be helpful to those who seek values in the desert, whether from the earth or
from an understanding of mining's historical background.
Desert Fever - Larry Vrendenburgh
Inyo & Kern Co. - Russ Harthill
Inyo County owes much of its development to a single incident that occurred in the winter of 1849-1850. Approximately one hundred impatient emigrants, drawn west as part of the great California gold rush, found themselves trying to escape Death Valley after ...
Kern County ranks first in overall gold production within the California Desert. The dollar figure has been estimated at over 46 million dollars, with almost half of that coming from just two gold mines: the ...
San Bernardino County
San Bernardino County is not only the largest county in California, but it is the largest in the United States. As a county it has been uniquely endowed with rich mineral deposits. ...