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Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (1862) by James M. Hutchings




Sixty-five miles south of San Francisco, near the head of the beautiful and fertile valley of San José, and in an eastern spur of the Coast Range of mountains, is the quicksilver mine of New Almaden.

With your permission, kind reader, we will enter the stage as it waits on the Plaza, San Francisco, and, as the clock strikes eight, start at once on our journey. Lucky for us, it is a fine bright morning, as the fog has cleared off, and left us (on a dew-making excursion, no doubt, up the country), and as we are to be fellow-travellers, at least in imagination, and wish to enjoy ourselves; while the stage rattles over the pavement, and rumbles on the wood planking of the streets, let us say “Good-bye” to our cares, as we did to our friends, and leave them, with the city, behind us.

How refreshing to the brow is the breeze, and grateful to the eye is the beautiful green of the gardens, as we pass them, in the suburbs of the city, on our way. Even the hills in the distance are dotted with the dark green of the live oaks, and are beautiful by contrast.

On, on, we go, rolling over hills, travelling in the valley, passing farms and wayside houses; now watering horses here, then changing horses there, and dropping mail bags yonder, until we reach the flourishing old Mission of Santa Clara. Here we long to linger, and as we look upon the orchards laden with fruit, we almost wish to bribe the coachman to wait while we buy, beg, or steal, those cherry-cheeked and luscious-looking pears; or take a walk amid the shadows of the old Mission Church. But the signal “all aboard,” hurries us to our seats, and we soon enter an avenue of old willow and poplar trees, that extends from Santa Clara to San José, a distance of three miles, and which was planted by and for the convenience of the two Missions. On either side of this avenue, at intervals, there are tasteful cottages, flourishing farms, nurseries, and gardens, which are well supplied with water from artesian wells.

Arriving in San José, we find a neat and pleasant agricultural city, with all the temptations of fruit and flowers in great variety, and a brisk business activity observable, in each department of business, in the streets. One thing may impress us unfavorably here, viz.: the large number of members of the legal profession (thirty-seven, we believe) in so small a city.

This fact brought to mind—


“An upper mill, and lower mill,
    Fell out about the water;
To war they went, that is to law,
    Resolved to give no quarter.

“A lawyer was by each engaged,
    And hotly they contended;
When fees grew scant, the war they waged,—
    They judged, ’twere better ended.

“The heavy costs remaining still,
    Were settled without pother—
One lawyer took the upper mill,
    The lower mill the other.”

—and it set us to ruminating. But let us jump into the easy coach in waiting, and we shall forget all that, and have a very pleasant ride of fourteen miles upon a good road, through an evergreen grove of live oaks, and past the broad shading branches of the sycamore trees, and in a couple of hours find ourselves drinking heartily of the delicious waters of the fine cool soda spring, at the romantic village of New Almaden. As we have passed through enough for one day, let us wait until morning, before climbing the hill to examine the mines.


This mine has been known for ages by the Indians, who worked it for the vermilion paint that it contained, with which they ornamented their persons, and on that account had become a valuable article of exchange with other Indians, from the Gulf of California to the Columbia River. Its existence was also known among the early settlers of California, although none could estimate the character or value of the metal.

In 1845 a captain of cavalry in the Mexican service, named Castillero, having met a tribe of Indians near Bodega, and seeing their faces painted with vermilion, obtained from them, for a reward, the necessary information of its locality, when he visited it, and having made many very interesting experiments, and determined

the character of the metal, he registered it in accordance with the Mexican custom, about the close of that year.

A company was immediately formed, and the mine divided into twenty-four shares, when the company immediately commenced working it on a small scale; but, being unable to carry it on for want of capital, in 1846 it was leased out to an English and Mexican company for the term of sixteen years; the original company to receive one-quarter, of the gross products for that time. In March, 1847, the new company commenced operations on a large scale, but finding that to pay one-fourth of the proceeds, and yet to bear all the expenses of working the mine, would incur a considerable loss, they eventually purchased out most of the original shareholders.

In June 1850, this company had expended three hundred and

eighty-seven thousand eight hundred dollars over and above all their receipts. During that year, a new process of smelting the ore was introduced by a blacksmith, named Baker, which succeeded so well, that fourteen smelting furnaces have been erected by the company upon the same principle.



The process of extracting the quicksilver from the cinnabar is very simple. The ore chamber, B. is filled with cinnabar, and covered securely up; a fire is then kindled in the furnace at A, from which, through a perforated wall of brick, the heat enters the ore chamber and permeates the mass of ore, from which arises the quicksilver, in the shape of vapor, and, passing through the perforated wall on the opposite side, enters the condensing chambers at C, rising to the top of one, and falling to the bottom of the other, as indicated by the arrows, and as it passes through the condensing chambers (thirteen in number), it cools and becomes quicksilver. Should any vapor escape the last condensing chamber, it passes over a cistern of cold water at D, where, from an enclosed pipe, water is scattered over a sieve, and falls upon and cools the vapor as it passes into the chimney, or funnel chamber, at E.

The quicksilver then runs to the lower end of each condensing chamber, thence through a small pipe into a trough that extends from one end of the building to the other, where if enters a large circular caldron, from which it is weighed into flasks, in quantities

of seventy-five pounds. To save time, one set of furnaces is generally cooling and being filled, while the other is burning.

Now, let us gradually second to the patio, or yard, in front of the mine, a visit to which has been so truthfully and beautifully described by Mrs. S. A. Downer, that we are tempted to introduce the reader to such good company.


“At the right, was a deep ravine, through which flowed a brook, supplied by springs in the mountains, and which, in places, was completely hid by tangled masses of wild-wood, among which we discerned willows along its edge, with oak, sycamore, and buckeye. Although late in the summer, roses and convolvuli, with several varieties of floss, were in blossom; with sweet-brier, honeysuckle, and various plants, many of which were unknown to us, not then in bloom, and which Nature, with prodigal hand, has strewn in bounteous profusion over every acre of the land. To the left of the mountain side, the wild gooseberry grows in abundance. The fruit is large and of good flavor, though of rough exterior. Wild oats, diversified with shrubs and live-oak, spread around us, till we reach the patio, nine hundred and forty feet above the base of the mountain. The road is something over a mile, although there are few persons who have travelled it on foot, under a burning sun, but would be willing to make their affidavits it was near five.

“Let us pause and look around us. For a distance of many miles, nothing is seen but the tops of successive mountains; then appears the beautiful valley of San Juan, while the Coast Range is lost in distance. The patio is an area of more than an acre in extent; and still above us, but not directly in view, is a Mexican settlement, composed of the families and lodging-cabins of the miners. There is a store, and provisions us carried up on pack-mules, for retail among the miners, who may truly be said to live from hand to mouth. This point had been the resort of the aborigines, not only of this State, but from as far as the Columbia River, to obtain the paint (vermilion) found in the cinnabar, and which they used in the decoration of their persons. How long this had been known to them, cannot be ascertained; probably a long time, for they had worked into the mountain some fifty or sixty feet, with what implements can only be conjectured. [Stones and pointed sticks.—Ed.] A quantity of round stones, evidently from the brook, were found in a passage, with a number of skeletons; the destruction of life having been caused, undoubtedly, by a sudden caving in of the earth, burying the unskilled savages in the midst of their labors. It had been supposed for some time that the ore possibly contained the precious metals, but no regular assay was made till 1845; a gentleman now largely interested, procured a retort, not doubting that gold, or at least silver, would crown his efforts. Its real character was made known by its pernicious effects upon the system of the experimenter. The discovery was instantly communicated to a brother, a member of a wealthy firm in Mexico, who, with others, purchased the property, consisting of two leagues, held under a Spanish title, of the original owner. For some years but little was done. The ore proved both abundant and rich, but required the outlay of a vast amount of capital to be worked to advantage; and while Nature, with more than her usual liberality, had furnished in the mountain itself all the accessories for the successful prosecution of her favors, man was too timid to avail himself of her gifts.


“In 1850, a tunnel was commenced in the side of the mountain, in a line with the patio, and which has already been carried to the distance of one thousand one hundred feet by ten feet wide, and ten feet high to the crown of the arch, which is strongly roofed with heavy timber throughout its whole length. Through this the rail-track passes; the car receiving the ore as it is brought on the backs of the carriers (tenateros) from the depths below, or from the heights above. The track being free, we will now take a seat on the car and enter the dark space. Not an object is visible save the faint torch-light at the extreme end; and a chilling dampness seizes on the frame, so suddenly bereft of warmth and sunshine. This sensation does not continue as we descend

into the subterranean caverns below; and now commence the wonders as well as the dangers of the undertaking. By the light of a torch we pass through a damp passage of some length, a sudden turn bringing us into a sort of vestibule, where, in a niche at one side, is placed a rude shrine of the tutelary saint, or protectress of the mine— Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, before which lighted candles are kept constantly burning, and before entering upon the labors of the day or night, each man visits this shrine in devotion. You descend a perpendicular ladder, formed by notches cut into a solid log, perhaps twelve feet; then turn and pass a narrow comer, where a frightful gulf seems yawning to receive you. Carefully threading your way over the very narrowest of footholds, you turn into another passage black as night, to descend into a flight of steps formed in the side of the cave, tread over some loose stones, turn around, step over arches, down into another passage that leads into many dark and intricate windings and descendings, or chambers supported by but a column of earth; now stepping this way, then that, twisting and turning, all tending down, down to where, through the darkness of midnight, one can discern the faint glimmer, which shines like Shakspeare’s ‘good deed in a naughty world,’ and which it seems impossible one can ever reach. We were shown a map giving the subterranean topography of this mine; and truly, the crossings and recrossings, the windings and intricacies of the labyrinthine passages, could only be compared to the streets of a dense city, while nothing short of the clue famished Theseus by Ariadne, would insure the safe return, into day, of the unfortunate pilgrim who should enter without a guide.

“The miners have named the different passages after their saints, and run them off as readily as we do the streets of a city; and after exhausting the names of all the saints in the calendar, have commenced on different animals, one of which is not inaptly called El Elefante. Some idea of the extent and number of these passages may be formed, when we state, that sixty pounds of candles are used by the workmen in the twenty-four hours. Another turn brings us upon some men at work. One stands upon a single plank placed high above us in an arch, and be is drilling into the rock above him for the purpose of placing a charge of powder. It appears very dangerous, yet, we are told that no lives have ever been lost, and no more serious accidents have occurred than the bruising of a hand or limb, from carelessness in blasting. How he can maintain his equilibrium is a mystery to us, while with every thrust of the drill his strong chest heaves, and he gives utterance to a sound something between a grunt and a groan, which is supposed, by them to facilitate their labor. Some six or eight men working in one spot, each keeping up his agonizing sound, awaken a keen sympathy. Were it only a cheerful sing-song, one could stand it; but in that dismal place, their wizard-like forms and appearance, relieved but by the light of a single tallow candle stuck in the side of the rock, just sufficient to make ‘darkness visible,’ is like opening to us the shades of Tartarus; and the throes elicited from over-wrought human bone and muscle, sound like the anguish wrong from internal spirits, who hope for no escape.


“These men work in companies, one set by night, another by day, alternating week about. We inquired the average duration of life of the men who work under ground, and found that it did not exceed that of forty-five years, and the diseases to which they are mostly subject are those of the chest; showing conclusively how essential light and air are to animal, as well as vegetable life. With a sigh and a shudder we step aside to allow another set of laborers to pass. There they come; up and up, from almost interminable depths, each one as he passes panting, puffing, and wheezing, like a high pressure steamboat, as with straining nerve

and quivering muscle he staggers under the load, which nearly bends him double. These are the tenateros, carrying the ore from the mine to deposit it in the cars; and, like the miners, they are burdened with no superfluous clothing. A shirt and trowsers, or the trowsers without a shirt, a pair of leathern sandals fastened at the ankle, with a felt cap, or the crown of an old hat, completes their costume.

“The ore is placed in a flat leather bag (talégo) with a band two inches wide that passes around the forehead, the weight resting along the shoulders and spine. Two hundred pounds of tough ore are thus borne up, flight after flight, of perpendicular steps; now winding through deep caverns, or threading the most tortuous passages; again ascending over earth and loose stones, and up places that have not even an apology for steps, all the while lost in Cimmerian darkness, but for a torch borne aloft, which flings its sickly rays over the dismal abysm, showing that one unwary step would plunge him beyond any possibility of human aid or succor. Not always, however, do they ascend; they sometimes come from above; yet we should judge the toil and danger to be nearly as great in one case as in the other. Thirty trips will these men make in one day, from the lowest depths.

“For once we were disposed to quarrel with the long, loose skirts, that not only impeded our progress, but prevented our attempt to ascend to the summit, and enjoy from thence a prospect of great beauty and extent. But one woman, we believe, has ever accomplished this feat, which severely tasks the strength of manhood.

“We will now follow the tenateros, as they load the car with the contents of their sacks, and ran after it into the open air. There they go, with shouts of laughter; and really, as one emerges into the warm sunshine, the change is most inspiriting. They have reached the end of the track, and throw of the great lumps of ore without an effort, as if they were mere cabbages. What capacious chests, and how gaily they work! Such gleeful activity we never before beheld. The large lumps deposited, they now seize shovels and jumping on the cars, the small lumps mixed with earth are cleared off with the most astonishing celerity. Do but behold that fellow of Doric build, with brawny muscles, and who is a perfect fac simile of Hercules, as be stood engraved with his club, as we remember him in Bell or Tooke’s Pantheon!

“The ore deposited on the patio, another set of laborers engage in separating the large lumps and reducing them to the size of common paving stones, which are placed by themselves. The smaller pieces are put in a separate pile, while the earth (tierra) is sifted through coarse sieves for the purpose of being made into adobes. There is also a blacksmith’s shop for making and repairing implements. The miner is not paid by the day, but receives pay for the ore he extracts. They usually work in parties of from two to ten; half the number work during the day, the other half by night, and in this manner serve as checks upon each other. Should a drone get into the number, complaint is made to the engineer, who has to settle such matters, which he generally does by placing him with a set nearer his capacity, or sometimes by a discharge. The price of the ore is settled by agreement for each week. Should the passage be more than commonly laborious, they do not earn much; or if, on the contrary, it proves to be easy and of great richness, the gain is theirs; it being not infrequent for them to make from thirty to forty dollars a week a-piece, and seldom less than fifteen. In those parts of the mine where the ore is worthless, but still has to be extracted in order to reach that which will pay, or to promote ventilation, they are paid by the square vara,* [* A vara is thirty-three and one-third inches. ] at a stipulated price. They do nothing with getting the ore to the patio; this is done by the tenateros at the company’s expense, as is also the separating, sifting, and weighing. Each party have their ore kept separate; it is weighed twice a week and an account taken. They select one of their party who receives the pay and divides it among his fellows.

“The tenateros receive three dollars per diem; the sifters and weighers, two dollars and a half; blacksmiths and bricklayers, five and six; while carpenters are paid the city price of eight dollars a day. These wages seem to be very just and liberal, yet, such is their improvidence, that no matter how much they earn, the miners are not one peso better off at the end of the month than they were at its beginning. No prevision being made for sickness or age, when that time comes, as come it will, there is nothing for them to do but, like some worn-out old charger, lie down and die. This has reference exclusively to the Mexicans; and it is a pity that a Savings Bank could not be established, and made popular among them. They number between two and three hundred in all; but they are, perhaps, the most impracticable people in the world, going on as their fathers did before them, firmly believing in the axiom, that ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’”

Unfortunately, this mine has been closed by an injunction from the United States Court since the above was written, and an expensive and tedious lawsuit been carried on.


Is the name of a newly opened quicksilver mine, situated in a beautiful and romantic valley on Guadalupe Creek, at the extreme western point of the same range of bills as that of New Almaden, and about four and a half miles from it. This mine was discovered in 1847, but was not attempted to be worked till 1850, when a company was formed and operations commenced; but, owing to the high price of labor and supplies, and the company running short of funds, after a few months, were suspended. In 1855, a new company was formed and incorporated by charter, from the legislature of Maryland, under the title of the “Santa Clara Mining Association, of Baltimore,” with a sufficient working capital to open the mine. erect the necessary smelting works, and carry them on.

“Veins of quicksilver,” writes a friend, “were long since known to exist in these hills, but, owing to the difficulty of finding sufficient quantities of ore to render mining remunerative, nothing of importance was attempted. In November, 1858, Mr. Laurencel employed a party of Irish and Mexican miners to prospect it more thoroughly, and several places were found to be of good promise, and opened. One was called the Providentia Mine, another was placed under the protection of Saint Patrick, and at length, in January, 1859, the present Henriquita mine was found and immediately opened. During the winter and spring quite a limited number of men carried on the work, but the labors of these few were sufficient to prove that there existed a large deposit. In the beginning of June the work was advanced upon a larger scale, and preparations were made to put up the proper machinery for reducing the ore. Every thing was done with dispatch, and on the spot where stood a forest in June, we saw now an establishment so far advanced as to promise to go into operation producing quicksilver, early in September; good proof of the energy and activity of our California miners.

“The system adopted for the reduction of ores is, I understand, the same that was employed by Dr. Ure, many years since, at the mines of Obermoschel, in the Bavarian Rhein Kreis, and which has proved to be much superior to the systems in practice at the Almaden mine in Spain, and the Idria mine of Austria.

“What the production of this mine will be, is impossible to foresee; but quite a little mountain of ore, already taken out, and what we saw in our descent into the mine, looks well for the future prospect. A large number of Mexican miners were at work, and as we passed their different parties, I broke from the rocky walls a number of pieces, which, an coming to the light of day, proved to be rich ore.

“The location of the Henriquita mine is one of considerable beauty. A picturesque valley below, with the winding stream of the Capitancillos, and pleasant groves of oaks and sycamores, looks up on one hand to the hill where the mine is perched, some three hundred and forty or fifty feet above, and on the other to the rugged mountain, rising to the height of between three and four thousand feet. The mine employs about one hundred laborers of all classes; the families added would make a total population already of about four hundred persons. A little village has sprung up near the works, containing many neat cottages, a hotel, and several stores. Two lines of stages ran, daily between the mine and the city of San José.

“While here I visited also another spot or considerable interest —a gigantic oak, standing upon a prominent spur of the mountains on the south. It measures some thirty-six feet in circumference, and is, I doubt not, the largest of its family in California. From in its commanding position and size, it is visible at a great distance, still towering high, when all the trees around it are dwarfed into the appearance of mere underbrush.

“In leaving the Henriquita mine, I was more than ever reminded of the immense mineral resources of our State, and of the industry of our people. The works of years in older countries, were here the labor of a few short months only.

“The county of Santa Clara will find in this mine a new source of wealth, and must rejoice at the diligent prosecution of an enterprise so important. As an old miner, I was gratified at what I saw. What the California miner needs is cheap quicksilver; but, as long as its supply is limited, it is kept up at exorbitant prices. With an increased production and a healthy competition, we may expect soon to see it at such a price as will render it hereafter a small item only in the working of the quartz mines, so important a source of wealth and prosperity to California.


“The interesting dedicatory ceremonial of Blessing the Mine is a custom of long standing in many Catholic countries, where mining is carried on, especially among those people who speak the Spanish language. Without it, workmen would feel a religious dread, and consequently a timid reluctance to enter upon their daily labors, lest some accidental mishap should overtake them from such an omission. After this has been duly performed, great care is taken to erect a shrine, be it ever so rude, at some convenient point within the mine, to some favorite tutelary saint or protectress, whose benediction they evoke. Before this shrine, each workman devoutly kneels, crosses himself, and repeats his Ave Maria, or Paternoster, prior to entering upon the duties and engagements of the day. At this spot, candles are kept burning, both by day and night, and the place is one of sacred awe to all good Catholics. The blessing and dedication of a mine is, consequently, an era of importance, and one not to be lightly passed over, or indifferently celebrated.

“On the morning of the day set apart for this ceremony, at the Henriquita or San Antonio quicksilver mine, the Mexican and Chilian señors and señoras began to flock into the little village at the foot of the cañon, from all the surrounding country, in anticipation of a general holiday, at an early hour.

“Of course, at such a time, the proprietor sends out invitations to those guests he is particularly desirous should be present to do honor to the event; but no such form is needed among the workmen and their friends or acquaintances, as they understand that the ceremony itself is a general invitation to all, and they avail themselves of it accordingly.

“Arriving in procession at the entrance to the mine, Father Goetz, the Catholic curate of San José, performed mass, and

formally blessed the mine, and all persons present, and all those who might work in it; during which service a band of musicians was playing a number of airs. At the close, fire-crackers and the boom of a gun cut in the ground, announced the conclusion of the ceremony on the outside; when they all repaired to the inside, where the Father proceeded to sprinkle holy water, and to bless it.

“These duly performed, they repaired to the village, near which is the beautiful residence of Mr. Laurencel, its proprietor, where, in a lovely grove of sycamores, several tables were erected and bounteously covered with good things for the inner man. Here were feasted nearly two hundred guests, of both sexes, with choice viands, in magnificent profusion, while native wines, and other light potables, flowed in abundance. A large number of specially invited guests were at the same time hospitably and courteously entertained within the house by Mr. Laurencel, his lady, and her household. After dinner, there was music and dancing upon the green, exhibitions of skilful horsemanship, and a variety of amusements, which were participated in by the assembled company with the utmost zest, and were kept up, we understand, until a late hour. The day chosen for this festival was the day of San Antonio, the patron saint of the mine, and the birthday of the little Henriquita, Mr. Laurencel’s daughter, the more immediate patroness of the same.”

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