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Up and Down California in 1860-1864;
The Journal of William H. Brewer:
Book 2, Chapter 2

The Road to New Idria—Examining the Mines—Hot and Dry—Back to San Juan.

New Idria Quicksilver Mines.
Sunday, July 21, 1861.

Monday, July 15, was spent in making preparations for leaving San Juan. All baggage that could be dispensed with was left in town; we were cut down to the shortest allowance. Tuesday we were up at early dawn, had our breakfast before five, and were soon loaded up. We passed east across the level San Benito Valley, which for eight or ten miles was as level as a floor, then struck up a side valley. We lunched at a ranch, Tres Pinos, fifteen miles, and then struck up the Canyon Joaquin Soto (Arroyo los Muertos of the map). The country became drier and the air hotter. Hills rose on each side, often high and steep, and in places the valley widened, showing that much more water once existed there. High terraces indicated the shores of an ancient lake. These terraces were most beautiful and made a remarkable contrast with the rugged rocky hills behind.

We at last entered a narrow canyon, and before night stopped at a spring where a Mr. Booker has a ranch. Desolate and dry as this region is, over some of the hills grass and oats grow, which although scanty are very nutritious, and a few cattle and sheep may be grazed. In this barren, hot, scorching, inhospitable, comfortless place was the ranch, and the proprietor regaled us with an account of its advantages. “The finest ranch anywheres near!” “Good water!” “The fattest of cattle!”

Around this place rise high hills, entirely of stratified gravel, in some places nearly as hard as rock, which has been washed down from the mountains and has formed a deposit of incredible thickness. It is cut into steep bluffs, in many places six hundred or more feet high, very steep; and the hills, of the same material, rise 1,800 feet high. It must have a thickness of at least two thousand feet, or nearly half a mile! Yet it is quite modern. Surely this region could not always have been so dry. Not the least remarkable fact is that a part of this has been turned up on edge by earthquakes or similar agencies in such a late geological period.

We spent the forenoon of Wednesday, July 17, examining this deposit and measuring the height of one of the hills, and in the afternoon came on twelve or fourteen miles to a well, the only water for thirty-five miles of our road. Our road lay up a canyon, rising, and our camp was near the summit, about two thousand feet above the sea, yet the day had been intensely hot. Over these hills there is scanty pasturage; a man has three thousand sheep which feed there and water is drawn by hand for them during the dry summer. The mountains here are depressed, a “gap” as it were, so the road does not rise above 2,000 or 2,500 feet. We slept in the open air, as usual. How clear the sky was! Never in Switzerland even have I seen so clear a sky of nights. The thermometer fell to 40° F. (only eight degrees above freezing) at night, yet there was no dew, so dry is the air at this season.

Early dawn found us astir, and after a scanty breakfast we were early on the way. We crossed the ridge and then descended into the valley of Little Panoche Creek. Beyond the ridge we found many pretty oak trees scattered over the gentle hills into which the chain is divided, and scattered pines were seen on the mountains at some distance, but on sinking a few hundred feet into the valley an entirely different landscape was entered. A plain extends for many miles up into the mountains, the bed of an old lake, its bottom level as a sheet of water. Lines of terraces around the margin tell unequivocally and plainly of old shores and different levels of water. This is on the map between the two branches of the Panoche River, now dry beds of sand. We crossed this plain, some ten miles or more—naked, dry, desolate. No tree cheered the landscape, no living thing, save insects, told of life. Toward the southeastern end of the valley we came to a clump of cottonwoods along the dry river bed, whose lively green looked refreshing; then we turned up a very wild, rocky, narrow canyon, the Vallecito, about six or seven miles, to a place where we found water and a house—Griswold’s. The heat of the sun in this canyon was fearful.

At Griswold’s the stream emerges to the surface, poor, salt, alkaline water, and here he has his ranch. We camped under some cottonwoods, bought a bag of barley for our mules, and resolved to stay the rest of the day. The place was dirty enough—dry, dusty sand, which hot gusts of wind at times blew into our eyes and mouths—there was neither cleanliness nor comfort in taking our meals and the water was very nauseous. Griswold, a hard looking customer, expatiated on the qualities of his “ranch”—squatter claim of course, for who would buy such a place? His cattle were “the fattest in the state” (and, strange enough, they were in good order); “such good water,” etc. “To be sure,” he said, “it does physic people when they drink much of it, but a little whiskey kills the alkali.” Sitting by his “spring,” a dirty mudhole, and pointing exultingly to some frogs, he exclaimed triumphantly, “Look at them toads—they can’t live in poor water!” It was interesting to me to know that a frog could live in such a solution. The thermometer stood at 92° F. in the coolest place I could find, in the shade and wind. He said it was the coolest day for over a month, too cool for him after the last two months’ heat!

The thermometer, placed in the sun, soon rose to 150° F. on this “cool” day, and that with the wind. You can well imagine what the hot days must have been. That night it sank to 46° F., a daily range of over one hundred degrees!—a range as great as from zero of winter to the hottest in the shade of our summer. With this daily change in temperature, no wonder that the plants of this state are so peculiar!

We found some very interesting geological facts there, so we waited over. We were up at dawn and came on ten or twelve miles to a stream, where we stopped and took breakfast. This brook looked refreshing, the first for fifty miles, and our morning ride was refreshing. Once we came on a drove of ten antelope, the first we have seen. They were very plentiful a few years ago in this state, in large flocks. They are very graceful, pretty animals, like small deer, but little taller than sheep. After breakfast, Professor Whitney and I came on ahead, leaving the rest to follow. We struck up a very wild, picturesque canyon into the heart of the mountains, rising very fast, and in six or seven miles, before noon, came to the furnace and the director’s house, below the mines. We introduced ourselves, and found a place to camp, and two hours later the rest of the party arrived.

The New Idria quicksilver mines lie in the heart of the chain of mountains which runs southeast from Monte Diablo. There are three principal mines—New Idria, Aurora, and San Carlos—all in the center of the chain, with some six or seven miles between their extreme limits. The furnace and the superintendent’s quarters are in a valley some six miles from some of the mines, and three or four miles from the others, at a height of 2,500 to 2,700 feet above the sea. The highest mine lies 2,500 feet higher still. Mr. Maxwell, the superintendent, is very obliging and shows us every attention. Friday afternoon we examined the furnaces and the works for preparing and reducing ore. These are on a large scale and are very complete and scientific in their arrangement. Averill and I dined with Mr. Maxwell that afternoon, and champagne was introduced in our honor.

Yesterday, Saturday, July 20, we started under the guidance of Mr. Maxwell for the San Carlos Mine. The road ran up a canyon and over ridges—steep, yet a good road. Three yoke of oxen were toiling up with an empty wagon to bring down ore. We passed a cluster of tents and cabins of the miners at “Centerville” on the way. A single frame house perched on a lofty crag at a dizzy height was seen from below, and being the only house we asked what it was. “Oh, a billiard saloon and drinking house,” was the answer. “A man recently built it and I believe he has other refreshments for the miners, a load of squaws went up a day or two ago.” We passed this cluster of cabins and continued our way, and in due time reached the San Carlos Mine.

The mine is almost on the summit of a mountain about five thousand feet high. The ore is diffused in streaks through the rocks and is wrought extensively. Diggings, galleries, shafts, and cuts run in every direction, wherever the richest ore may be found. The rock is a very remarkable one, a sort of altered slate, acted on by heat and hot water, and the brilliant red ore is diffused through it. We spent five or six hours there, visiting every working. We planted our barometer on the summit. I had carried it up, and we got our observations for altitude, to be calculated after our return. The miners are mostly Chileans, a hard set, and their quarters are in shanties covered with bushes, in huts, and even in deserted workings. We went into one to get a drink of water; it was a deserted gallery, and a squaw was in attendance, the wife pro tem of two or three miners.

The view from the summit is extensive and peculiar. It is to the north and east that the view is most remarkable—the Panoche plain, with the mountains beyond—chain after chain of mountains, most barren and desolate. No words can describe one chain, at the foot of which we had passed on our way—gray and dry rocks or soil, furrowed by ancient streams into innumerable canyons, now perfectly dry, without a tree, scarcely a shrub or other vegetation—none, absolutely, could be seen. It was a scene of unmixed desolation, more terrible for a stranger to be lost in than even the snows and glaciers of the Alps.

Beyond this lay the San Joaquin, or Tulare, Valley, wide and dreary. It is fifteen to twenty-five miles wide, without trees, save a green belt along the river—all the rest dry and brown. Dust rose from it, shutting out the mountains beyond, but in places we could see the snows of the Sierra Nevada glittering in the sun through the veil of dust that hung between us. They looked grand and sublime in the faint outlines we could see and appeared ten or twelve thousand feet high. Although we were so high, five thousand feet, yet the temperature was about 80° F.

New Idria Mine.
Wednesday, July 24.

Sunday, July 21, seemed hot enough but it was only the beginning. We remained three days longer, the thermometer each day rising from ninety-five to one hundred degrees in the coolest place we could find. God only knows how high in the hottest places!

Monday we visited the largest mine, the New Idria Mine proper. We were on hand early and three of us went in, accompanied by the superintendent and mining captain. We spent the day under ground. For six hours we threaded drifts, galleries, tunnels, climbed over rocks, crawled through holes, down shafts, up inclines, mile after mile, like moles, sometimes near the surface, at others a thousand feet from daylight.

The distribution of ore through the rock is very capricious, and where a thread of it can be found it is followed up, so the workings run in every conceivable direction, and being mostly mined by Chilean and Mexican miners, the work is more irregular by far than the burrows of animals. Sometimes we climbed down by a rope, hand over hand, bracing the feet against the wall of rock, sometimes on escaladors, sticks merely notched. But the trip was interesting, and as they wanted our professional advice, we saw all, the two men devoting the day to us.

Iron pyrites occurs in the rock, which decomposes on exposure to the air, causing heat, and the temperature of some of the galleries was near 100° F. Most of the mine, however, was deliciously cool. Although so deep in places, there is no water, save a very little in the very lowest drift, and the rock has been so broken by volcanic forces and cracked in every direction and the galleries are so extensive that the air is perfectly pure and so dry that the miners use rawhide buckets.

The effect was often picturesque indeed—the brilliant red ore contrasting with the dull color of the rock, the miners, naked above the waist, their lithe forms and swarthy skins shown by the light of our candles, the broken walls, the occasional sound of a blast, like heavy, dull, underground thunder. We emerged at 4 P.M. into the hot, dry, scorching outer world and took our dinner at five o’clock—the air heated to near 100° in our cool camp, where there was a brisk breeze.

Tuesday we rode to the Aurora Mine, which is not good for much, then visited the top of a ridge 4,500 feet high. Here there was a very extensive vein of chromate of iron, the black heavy ore occurring in immense quantities. This was supposed to be silver ore of the richest kind! A company was formed, many tons got out, a furnace built, thousands of dollars expended, and then it was found that there was not a particle of silver in it. But this led to the discovery of the quicksilver mines.

But oh, how hot it was, even at that height! The sand burned our feet through our boots, and a stiff breeze, dry and hot as if from a furnace, played over the ridge. We saw much of geological interest and got back to camp before night.

Last night I returned on foot to a cragged ridge, 1,500 or 2,000 feet above camp, for specimens. It was a toilsome walk, but I was repaid. The sun set while I was there, coloring with orange light the barren mountains north and east and even showing plainly the snowy Sierra in the distance. The view was glorious but desolate as a desert. A few clouds curled over the distant snowy peaks, crimson in the rays of the setting sun. But the shades drew on, the valleys grew darker, and I took my way back. It was cooler, but still hot. I stopped often with my load of specimens. How still it was!—no sound of a bird in the evening twilight, no chirrup of insect, but silence, deathly stillness reigned.

Wednesday we spent in making another visit to the New Idria Mine, and getting ready to be off. It was even hotter than before. We took double sets of astronomical observations that day, for latitude and longitude. In such cases I have to “mark time” with the chronometers, while Professor Whitney observes with the sextant. He says that I mark time more accurately than many old astronomers who have practiced all their lives—making long sets agree to the tenth of a second.

Before leaving, a few words as a summing up. The mines have been profitable to the stockholders, and are still. They own several miles in extent, have a store, sell goods to the miners at great prices and profits. There are 250 or 300 persons employed in the various departments. The miners work by the job—the average wage is about three dollars a day, but often less than two, but in rich luck sometimes as high as twenty or twenty-five dollars a day. Such streaks of luck are profitable to the company as well as to the miners, and can only take place on finding unexpectedly very rich ore. The yield of quicksilver now is about nine hundred flasks of seventy-five pounds each per month, or about 67,500 pounds, and it sells at thirty-five to forty cents a pound. It is sent to San Juan, thence to Alviso on the Bay of San Francisco, and there shipped.

The work at the furnaces is much more unhealthy and commands the higher wages. Sulphurous acids, arsenic, vapors of mercury, etc., make a horrible atmosphere, which tells fearfully on the health of the workmen, but the wages always command men and there is no want of hands. The ore is roasted in furnaces and the vapors are condensed in great brick chambers, or “condensers.” These have to be cleaned every year by workmen going into them, and many have their health ruined forever by the three or four days’ labor, and all are injured; but the wages, twenty dollars a day, always bring victims. There are but few Americans, only the superintendent and one or two other officials; the rest are Mexicans, Chileans, Irish (a few), and Cornish miners.

I can hardly conceive a place with fewer of the comforts of life than these mines have—a community by itself, 75 miles from the nearest town (San Juan) and 135 from the county seat, separated from the rest of the world by desert mountains, a fearfully hot climate where the temperature for months together ranges from 90° to 110° F., where all the necessities of life have to be brought from a great distance in wagons in the hot sun. As might be expected, little besides the bare necessities of life is seen, and if any luxuries come in, it is only at an extravagant price.

Such is New Idria and by such toils and sufferings do capitalists increase their wealth!

San Juan.
July 29.

Thursday, July 25, we were up at three o’clock. We loaded up by the bright moon, and at four o’clock, just as the first streaks of morning light began to be seen in the east, we were on our way. The twilight in this latitude is shorter than it is farther north, and it soon became light. As we emerged from the canyon into a wider valley six miles below, the sun came upon us, now in all its force. We stopped at Griswold’s, fifteen miles, for breakfast, and to feed. Our mules had had no hay or grass, merely dry grain (barley), and but little of that, since we got into this region. Our breakfast was eaten with the thermometer at 95°, although but 8° in the morning; but our appetites were good after seventeen hours’ fast.

We were now on our way again, along the foot of the most barren chain of mountains, or rather between two such, in the Vallecito Canyon. Then we struck across the plain of Panoche. I wish I might describe that ride that you might realize it, but words are tame. The temperature was as high as any traveler has noted it (so far as I know) on the deserts of Africa or Arabia. Hour after hour we plodded along—no tree or bush. A thermometer held in the shade of our own bodies (the only shade to be found) rose to 105°—it was undoubtedly at times 110°, while in the direct rays of the sun it must have fluctuated from 140° to 150° or 160°. I think, from other observations, it must have risen to the last figure!

Imagine our feelings when we found that after our first drink a hole had been knocked in the canteen and our water was all gone. But the plain was crossed, and at its edge we stopped for a few minutes under the shade of a large oak. Here it was cooler—the mercury sank to 100°. It was the first tree we had seen for twelve miles of the road—I mean near the road—and we were still ten miles from any water. Here the road takes over the hills, dry and barren, but with scattered trees, oaks. None of the trees there (although some of the oaks are large) have foliage enough to make a complete shade—the leaves are too small, scarcely an inch long, and too few to shut out the sun. So, too, the pines, although their leaves are very long, cast only a very scanty shade. Many shrubs have the leaves with their edges turned to the sun, like the trees of the deserts of Australia—a most curious feature!

As we climbed the hill, panting and thirsty, we met a wagon with some watermelons! A man visiting the mines had bought, at San Jose, 110 miles distant, some fine melons. Needless to say, we bought two, although the price was the modest sum of two dollars each. We stopped under a tree near by and ate them. They were large and fine ones, and I never knew before how deliciously refreshing a watermelon could be. He will sell the rest at two and three dollars each at the mines; a large muskmelon he valued at four dollars. These facts are significant as showing how rare such luxuries must be there to command such prices. I surely felt satisfied with my expenditure of a dollar for a third of one of them.

One of our mules, Old Sleepy, had been tied behind the wagon, his rider riding in the wagon. He had pulled back some, got a little choked, the dust and intense heat affected him like the blind staggers, and when discovered, grew suddenly very bad. Professor Whitney and I rode on ahead. It took several hours for the rest of the party to get him on to camp—the sheep wells before alluded to—the only water within many miles. Here we camped after our terribly hot day’s ride. Old Sleepy grew worse, a bottle of brandy poured down his throat partially revived him, but he was very ill.

Friday was another hot day. It was impossible to move Sleepy, so after breakfast the rest of the party went on, leaving Hoffmann, Guirado, and me with him, the rest taking all the baggage to the next camp, fifteen miles distant, at Booker’s.

Leaving Guirado with the mule, Hoffmann and I started to visit some hills in the vicinity. We toiled up—temperature 98° to 102° all the time—crossed a ridge, then a deep canyon, then on to another ridge, where we found a worse canyon between us and the peak we desired to scale. But, oh, how hot it was! At times there was a wind more scorching than the still air.

One observation will explain. You all know that evaporation produces cold. If we take two thermometers and keep the bulb of one wet it will sink below the other, the drier the air the more the difference between the wet and dry bulb. In our eastern climate a difference of ten degrees F. is considered very high. I think it is very rarely as much as that in our driest times. I had a thermometer along, and when it had stood at 99° or 100° (the latter heat was observed at the time of the experiment), by merely wetting it with saliva from my tongue, it sank in a few seconds to 64°—or, it sank thirty-five degrees F. I dare say, an ordinary “wet bulb,” where the bulb is covered with cotton and wet with water, would have sunk much lower. Such is that climate! The deserts of Africa are not hotter nor drier than this region at this season, the difference being that here there is rain in the winter. You cannot conceive the thirst that this dry air rapidly creates.

We were very dry, but it was desirable that we scale the peak, so we pushed on. I began to regret that we had attempted to make the peak, when we suddenly and unexpectedly came upon a little spring; the only one, we afterwards learned, within several miles, and this will be dry soon. We stopped there half an hour, and then, refreshed, started on and soon planted our barometer and compass on the peak. It commanded a magnificent view as regards extent, but a desolate one. It was about 2,000 feet above camp, and 3,500 or 4,000 feet above the sea, yet the thermometer stood 98° and 99°, at times 100°, on the summit, and in the breeze!

We were back to camp at three or four o’clock, took our dinner of bread, out of which all moisture had dried, and fat bacon, which we roasted by holding slices on a stick over the fire, and washed the whole down with water neither very pure nor cool—not a luxurious meal, but our appetites proved a good sauce.

We sent Guirado on to the camp where the rest were. We stayed. We had only one saddle blanket, which was insufficient, and the gravel on the rocky ground made a poorer bed than usual. But how clear the sky was at that height! The myriad stars shone with more than the splendor of a winter’s night, and at midnight the moon came up and lit up the scene. We were out of food, but the man who herded the sheep most hospitably offered us his fare, which we thankfully partook of—fried beans, dry bread, and poor coffee without sugar, but it was sufficient.

Before eight o’clock, Saturday, July 27, Peter came back, with provisions to last him three days, to stay with the mule. Hoffmann and I pushed on for San Juan, forty-one miles distant. The first thirty miles was a hot ride, but before ten at night we were at San Juan, having stopped twice, and got something to eat at a Mexican ranch house.

Here we are in San Juan, and are preparing to leave in the morning for Santa Cruz. Professor Whitney left for San Francisco immediately on his arrival here. I did not see him after leaving him at the sheep wells, but he will join us at New Almaden, near San Jose, in about two weeks.

The delightful temperature here at San Juan, of 75° to 85°, is now too cold. I left my coat with Peter and shivered all day yesterday (Sunday) as I lay in camp resting after our hard trip.

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