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American Latino Heritage
New Almaden Mining Historic District
Located just 12 miles south of San Jose, California is the tiny village of New Almaden, the once world famous quicksilver (mercury) mining community that is now a National Historic Landmark district. The New Almaden Mine produced mercury beginning in 1845, making it California’s oldest mining operation. Predating the major California gold rush of 1849, the mines at new Almaden produced $70,000,000 in quicksilver – a fortune greater than any California gold mine that made New Almaden the most valuable single mine in the State. Quicksilver was the leading reduction agent for gold and silver until the discovery of the cyanide process in 1887. Using Spanish and Mexican mining techniques, Mexicans were the first to develop the New Almaden mining area, and therefore were essential to the rapid growth of California’s great gold and silver mining industries.
Long before the successful mining operations of New Almaden in the 1800s, local Ohlone Indians used the area as a source of the deep red mercury-bearing rock, cinnabar. The Ohlone painted their bodies a bright red with the cinnabar and also found it an important item to trade. Cinnabar expeditions came from as far away as Walla Walla, Washington to the New Almaden area to trade or fight for the prized resource.
The first non-Indian person to discover the cinnabar deposits was Secundino Robles, a native Californio. In 1824. he found the deposits in the Capitancillo Hills on the land once owned by Jose Reyes Berryessa, a retired sergeant of the Presidio of San Francisco. Robles shared his discovery with Antonio Sunol, a Mexican settler, and Luis Chabolla. Excited by the idea that the hills might also yield gold and silver, Sunol and Chabolla, made unsuccessful attempts at extracting the metal but abandoned their venture.
By 1845, Andreas Castillero, a native of Spain and a captain in the Mexican Army trained in geology, chemistry, and metallurgy, became interested in the red rock in the Santa Clara area. He recognized and proved that this red rock contained quicksilver. On November 22, 1845, Castillero filed a claim and a declaration of intent with the Mexican government for the land. Rewarded the land, Castillero returned to the “Santa Clara” mine with William Chard, a carpenter he met in San Jose, and hired Indian workers to build rudimentary furnaces to work the mine. By 1846, after some successful firings of the ore, Castillero realized that he needed more capital, labor, and equipment to develop his mine fully. Castillero left for Mexico to obtain capital for his venture. While on his trip, however, the Mexican military required his services due to the growing conflicts between Mexico and the United States, and he never returned to California.
Late in 1846, Castillero sold part of his shares in “Santa Clara” to the English industrial firm of Barron, Forbes, & Co. The firm operated a cotton mill in Tepic, Mexico. Barron, Forbes, & Co. changed the Santa Clara name to New Almaden after the famous and greatest quicksilver producing mine in the world located in Almaden, Spain. Around this time, as California’s gold and silver mining industries grew, so did the need and demand for quicksilve. Living up to its new name, New Almaden would eventually become the second largest quicksilver mine in the world.
In the fall of 1847, under the Barron, Forbes, & Co. and with the necessary capital to develop a mine, Alexander Forbes arrived at New Almaden from Mexico with a large crew of Mexican workers and equipment. Mexican labor and Spanish/Mexican mining technology were essential in the early development of New Almaden. Early miners, many of whom were from Sonora, built structures like the Hacienda de Beneficio (reduction works), which still stands today, and the planilla, the mine’s long, open shed where ore cars were unloaded and crews of laborers broke the ore to specified size and separated it according to its value. The workers were divided into two groups classified as “Tanateros” and “Mineros.” The Tanateros carried the ore out of the mines, a physically strenuous and demanding task.
The Tanateros and Mineros built their homes over several low ridges in a large open ravine near the mine. This settlement became Spanishtown and housed as many as 1,500 Mexican and Chilean miners and their families. Spanishtown was New Almaden’s largest settlement. While there are no buildings remain to be seen in Spanishtown, visitors can take the Almaden Quicksilver Historic Trail to stop #5 where beneath the tall cypress trees is the unmarked site of Spanishtown’s Guadalupe Cemetery.
Eventually, New Almaden contained three separate enclaves: Spanishtown, the Hacienda, and Englishtown. The Hacienda settlement was built along Alamitos Creek during the 1850s. By the 1860s, English miners arrived from Cornwall and established Englishtown. During the 1870s and 1880s, Chinese immigrants arrived at New Almaden to work as miners and cooks and to do laundry, but they did not establish a separate enclave.
The Hacienda settlement became the gateway to the New Almaden mines. Here, neat rows of cottages owned by the company and rented to supervisory personnel sat near the Casa Grande. Captain Henry Halleck, the mine’s general manager during the 1850s, had the Casa Grande designed and built in 1854 by architect Francis Meyers. For decades, this palatial brick, adobe and wood, three-story building, served as a personal and official residence for the New Almaden Mining Company. John McLaren, designer of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, later landscaped the five-acre grounds around the Casa Grande. Today, the Casa Grande serves as the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum.
Other buildings in the Hacienda include a two-teacher school built near the Casa Grande in the 1860s, many one-story adobe and board-and-batten miner’s houses, and the Carson-Perham Adobe built between 1948 and 1850 by Mexican miners. The adobe was later the home of George Carson, the mine company bookkeeper, postmaster, telegraph operator, and Wells Fargo agent. Constance Perham lived in the adobe house for many years as well, establishing a private museum there in 1949. The Santa Clara County Parks & Recreation Department purchased her collection of mining artifacts, memorabilia, and historic photographs of New Almaden, in 1983. Today, walking tours and wayside signs encourage visitors to explore the history of New Almaden at the Hacienda.
By 1864, the Quicksilver Mining Company of New York and Pennsylvania began operating the mine after beating the Barron, Forbes, & Co. in an eight-year legal battle. In 1870, James Randol became general manager of the mines, reorganizing the entire mining operation for more efficient production. The mine and its villages flourished during the 20-year directorship of Randol. Not only did he reorganize the mine, he also established an authoritarian structure at the mine and throughout New Almaden. Company sponsored organizations, which were progressive but authoritarian, presided over residents’ health, wealth, cultural and social lives.
After Randol’s retirement in 1892, the mine began to decline. By the turn of the century, most of the Mexicans, who had been so instrumental in the early development of New Almaden, had moved away. In 1912, the Quicksilver Mining Company declared bankruptcy and closed. As the 20th century moved forward, the settlements of Spanishtown, the Hacienda, and Englishtown became mostly deserted except for a few older residents staying in the company houses along the creek at the Hacienda.
Today, visitors can experience the diverse and exciting history of New Almaden through walking tours; stopping by the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum; or by taking the Almaden Quicksilver Historic Trail at the Almaden Quicksilver County Park. Along the way are the Casa Grande, many of the buildings and structures associated with the mine, some of the historic miners’ homes, and the natural and mining landscape of the area. Artifacts from Cornish, Mexican, and Chinese mining families are on display at the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum.