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In and near the city of San Francisco, the traveller will find many fine scenes amid the Coast Range, even though fresh from the grandeur of the Yosemite and the higher Sierra. Within the city limits, by ascending Telegraph or Russian Hill on a clear day, you have before you a magnificent panorama; the splendid bay, dotted by sailing vessels and steamers from every clime, extending out to the vast Pacific through the Golden Gate—golden in the hues of an autumnal sun, and golden in the untold treasures to which it has afforded a pathway the surrounding mountains, coming down to the sea, with their beautiful contrasts of reddish rock and green slopes, and their picturesque cañons rich in the trees characteristic of California—Alcatraz Island, with its fortifications, the more distant and lofty Angel Island—on the eastern side of the bay, the flourishing town of Oakland, noted for its University, and its connected villages, with the Contra Costa Range in the background, surmounted, though at a considerable distance, by Monte Diablo; to the south, from a neighboring hill, one may look into the San José Valley, famous for its mines of quicksilver; and many other objects crowd into the view, which the eyes must ever delight to look upon.
Monte Diablo, about 3,850 feet high, is very conspicuous, being quite isolated on the north, and its doubly-conical summit very graceful; it is distant from the city twenty-eight miles in a N. N. E. direction. The ascent is made from Clayton, which may be reached by land or by water; the distance to the top is only six miles, and may be easily made, and back, on foot or on horseback, in a day. The view from the summit is probably unsurpassed in extent, owing to the disposition of the mountains, and its position in the centre of a great elliptic basin. According to the geological survey of California, “the eye has full sweep over the slopes of the Sierra Nevada to its crest, from Lassen’s Peak on the north to Mt. Whitney on the south, a distance of fully 325 miles. It is only in the clearest weather that the details of the ‘Snowy Range’ can be made out; but the nearer masses of the Coast Ranges, with their innumerable waves of mountains and wavelets of spurs, are visible from Mt. Hamilton (15 miles east of San José) and Mt. Oso on the south, to Mt. Helena on the north. The great interior valley of California—the plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin—are spread out under the observer’s feet like a map, and they seem illimitable in extent. The whole area thus embraced within the field of vision, as limited by the extreme points in the distance, is little less than 40,000 square miles, or almost as large as the whole State of New York.” Extensive mines of bituminous coal have been opened here, and yield a large supply for the city.
The report continues: “What gives its peculiar character to the Coast Range scenery, is the delicate and beautiful carving of their masses by the aqueous erosion of the soft material of which they are composed, and which is made conspicuous by the general absence of forest and shrubby vegetation, except in the cañons, and along the crests of the ranges. The bareness of the slopes gives full play to the effects of light and shade caused by the varying and intricate contour of the surface. In the early spring, these slopes are of the most vivid green—the awakening to life of the vegetation of this region beginning just when the hills and valleys of the Eastern States are most deeply covered by snow. Spring here, in fact, commences with the end of summer; winter, there is none. Summer, blazing summer, tempered by the ocean fogs and ocean breezes, is followed by a long and delightful six months’ spring, which, in its turn, passes almost instantaneously away at the approach of another slummer. As soon as the dry season sets in, the herbage withers under the sun’s rays, except in the deep cañons; the surface becomes first of a pale green, then of a light straw yellow, and finally of a rich russet-brown color, against which the dark-green foliage of the oaks and pines, unchanging during the summer, is deeply contrasted.”
Among the many points of interest in the Coast Ranges, easily accessible from San Francisco, are Clear, and Borax Lakes, about 65 miles N. W. from Suisun Bay, and 36 miles from the coast. Borax Lake is a depression on the east side of the narrow arm of Clear Lake, from which it is separated by a low ridge of loose volcanic materials, consisting, of scoriae, obsidian and pumice. It varies in size according to the time of the year, and the comparative dryness of the season. In September, in ordinary seasons, the water occupies an area about 4,000 feet long and 1,800 feet wide in the widest part, irregularly oval, its longest axis being about east and west, with an average depth of 3 feet; it has been known to extend over twice this area, and has been at times entirely dry. The water from the lake contains about 2,400 grains of solid matter to the gallon, of which about one-fourth is borax. The borax, being the least soluble substance contained in the water, has, in course of time, crystallized out to a considerable extent, and now exists in the bottom of the lake in the form of distinct crystals of all sizes, from microscopic dimensions up to two or three inches in diameter. These crystals form a layer immediately under the water, mixed with blue mud of varying thickness. It is believed by those who have examined the bottom of this lake that several million pounds of borax may be obtained from it by means of movable coffer-dams at a moderate expense. According to the San Francisco papers, during the year 1865 this lake supplied the local demand for borax to the amount of 40 tons, and yielded 200 tons additional for shipment to New York. It is collected from the mud at the bottom of the lake during the dry season, at the rate of about 2˝ tons per day. The crude borax, thus obtained, is so pure, that the mint and assayers of the city use it in preference to the refined article brought from abroad.
In regard to the minerals of California, Prof. Whitney has reported that of the 65 elementary substances found in nature, so far as known to chemists, there are not 40 which have yet been proved to occur in California in mineral combination, and more than 20 elements are wanting on the Pacific coast. Of these a few are extremely rare, but the absence of some is surprising; fluorine, a substance of very general distribution in its abundant source, fluor spar, seems to be wanting in California, unless it exist in some of the micas. Taking, the whole Pacific coast, from Alaska to Chili, the following facts appear: The small number of species, considering the extent of region as compared with other parts of the world; the remarkable absence of prominent silicates, especially the zeolites; the wide spread of the precious metals; the abundance of copper ores, and comparative absence of tin and lead; the similarity in the mineralized condition of the silver; the absence of fluor spar as vein-stone; no mineral species peculiar to the coast. Black oxide of manganese has recently been found in large quantities in a mine in the Coast Range, not far from the city of San Joaquin.
The quicksilver mines at New Almaden, California, are in one of the branch valleys of the San José, about twelve miles from the town of that name, and about sixty miles south of San Francisco. The ore is a sulphur of mercury, and is found irregularly disseminated among beds of clay, slates and silicious strata, supposed to belong to the Silturian age; though rich specimens will yield sixty-seven per cent. of mercury, the average is about thirty per cent. The Indians had for a long time used this cinnabar as at pigment, and had excavated fifty or sixty feet into the mountain in search of it; in 1824 the Spaniards attempted to work the ore for silver, and afterward, in connection with the Mexicans and English, worked it successfully for quicksilver, the annual product being estimated at a million dollars. In 1858 the United States took possession, and the present, workings are entered by an adit two hundred feet below the old excavations, extending about 1,500 feet into the hill; side galleries extend from this in the line of the deposit. This is a very interesting place to visit, and you may be rapidly carried, doubled up in a box, along a tramway very far into the bowels of the earth; the pitchy darkness, abominable smells and noises, and rapid rate at which you are whirled through passages, where a projecting, elbow or head would be attended with dangerous consequences, give a sufficiently vivid practical illustration of some parts of Dante’s Inferno. The simplicity and effectiveness of the smelting operations, by which the volatilized mercury is arrested, will excite the admiration of the visitor. Though the atmosphere of the mines is not unusually unwholesome, the men and the animals employed about the smelting works are subject to salivation, skin diseases, and the other attendants of mercurial poisoning. Other productive mines are also worked in this neighborhood. The product of California in quicksilver is annually more than two million pounds, against three and a half million at Almaden, in Spain, and one million at Idria, in Austria; most of the American quicksilver is carried to China.
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