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common ground

Industrial Archeology
Summer 1994, vol. 7(2)

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*  Written in Rock and Rust

(photo) Mill worker filling a shuttle, ca. 1917.

"Standing in the cold, numbing rain, I was surrounded by a sea of brick rubble [and] rusting car bodies. It was a challenging place to do archeology. The site was both foreboding as a focus of study and contaminated with cadmium."

Joel W. Grossman

by David Andrews

The Joshua Tree beckons to travelers along the faded tar road, edges blurred by desert brush and sand. Mormon pioneers named the tree, the legend goes, whose upraised limbs led them on to the promised land. But these modern-day seekers are on quite another quest: to record southern California's mining heritage--which stretches from the 1800s through the "second gold rush" of the Great Depression--before it's too late.

The long-abandoned mines face a host of dangers, from souvenir hunters to the rising price of gold, which, along with improving technology, may lure a new generation of prospectors to the rocky slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. And with the San Andreas Fault slicing through the valley below, quakes threaten to plunge the remains into the ever-widening shafts that pierce the mountain flanks.

Given the threat, the recording teams' timing couldn't be better. Nor their composition. For the first time in the 25-year life of the Historic American Engineering Record--the National Park Service unit that manages the teams--a bona-fide, dirt-digging archeologist will labor alongside the traditional recruits: architects, engineers, historians, and photographers.

The idea is tailor-made for this project. Although the monument is best known for its namesake--the legendary Joshua Tree--the region's cultural roots run nearly as deep. "From early human habitation, to gold mining, to cattle eras and modern times, we have a continuum here," says former Joshua Tree Chief of Resources Bob Moon. "The human adaptation to this area is just a spectacular story."

A chance meeting led HAER, long at the forefront of industrial archeology, to field the new team member.

In January 1989--at the behest of HAER chief Eric DeLony and Bob Spude of the National Park Service Rocky Mountain region--100 professionals and scholars convened at southern California's Death Valley National Monument to flesh out a plan to deal with the disappearing sites. During a brainstorming session at the monument's historic Skidoo Mine, DeLony says, "Shelly Davis-King, an archeologist from California's mother lode region, asked what was I planning to do archeologically. I said 'Well, we usually don't do archeology' and she jumped on me. 'How can you not do archeology?' She really opened my eyes and pointed out the potential of an archeological component."

Since Davis-King wasn't available for the recording project, DeLony recruited archeologist Don Hardesty from the University of Nevada at Reno--an expert in the history of mining--and together the two spearheaded the concept at the heart of the Hard Rock Mining Initiative, as the Park Service calls the plan. Now, he says, "I wouldn't venture into a ruinous hard rock mining site without an historic archeologist. There's just so much to be revealed that without one you would be selling the site short and missing an awful lot."

Hardesty has the "best vision" for interpreting the West's hard rock sites, says DeLony. The archeologist accompanied HAER teams to both of the properties recorded at Joshua Tree.

The team assigned to the Lost Horse Mine is not about to sell this site short. Like an old miner scouring his pan for that flash of color, they will pour over hundred of bits of information. The team's makeup ensures that not much will be missed. Field leader Karl Stumpf of Falls Church, Virginia, brings his skills as a manager and practicing architect. Architect Carolyn Kiernat hails from Minneapolis. A third architect, Martine Dion, is here from Quebec, Richard Vidutis of Takoma Park, Maryland, is the team's historian.

And Lost Horse will benefit by the experience of not one but two archeologists: Hardesty and Lester Ross (at the time with the San Bernadino County Museum Archaeology Information Center). Nationally known lensman Jet Lowe, on staff at HAER, will capture the site on film.

Long-Lost Glory

They start work with a brisk trek up a faded wagon road early one morning in June 1992.

"We got up at 5 a.m. to get out there before the heat of the day," Vidutis says. After an hour clambering up the rocky terrain, the destination looms in sight: a long-petered-out encampment of rotting wood, decayed foundations, and rusted pipes and machinery--the 25 percent of the operation that has survived the ravages of time.

Long gone are the glory days of Lost Horse, when miners scratched out in the neighborhood of $5 million in today's currency from the 500-foot-deep shaft. That may be small change next to the fortunes made by the Sacramento mother lode further north, but Lost Horse has its own story to tell.

Or rather several stories, depending on who's telling. In one, a cowboy named Johnny Lang found ore while searching for his lost steed. Another version has a gang of rustlers stealing Lang's horses while he and a partner staked the claim. In a third, Lang bought the claim from someone else who stumbled on it while looking for his horse.

Whoever the horse belonged to, Lang and his cohorts did file a claim in 1893. Thomas and J.P. Ryan bought out Lang's partners two years later, and he eventually sold his interest too. Rumor has it that Lang was caught stealing the others' share. In 1905, the miners hit a fault line and lost the ore-bearing vein. Part of the monument since 1936, the remains have stood rusting and unused since a failed attempt to re-start the operation in the 1930s.

The deep gash in the mountain's face fed the site's center-piece-a ten-stamp mill-which is the prime focus of the team's attention. The stamps, weighing in at 850 pounds apiece, crushed ore from the mine into fine powder. The powder was then mixed with a mercury compound that held the gold while the rest washed away. The precious yellow metal was then extracted from its liquid host.

Something just as precious was essential to the entire process: water. This is how it worked. Rock was dumped into a chute just outside the mine entrance at the ridgetop. Once crushed, the powder slid into flowing water, which ran over copper plates coated with mercury. Forced downhill by gravity, the liquid amalgam of gold and mercury flowed over more plates for further refining. By the time the flow reached bottom, the ore had been stripped clean.

Pioneered by the ancient Romans, the process migrated to this hemisphere with the Conquistadors in the 1500s. Even today, it makes hard rock mining a risky business, says DeLony. "The tough part of hard rock mining is the tremendous capitalization up front. You may have to run miles of pipeline out a site. That's why it's such a boom or bust proposition. You can hit it big or lose thousands if not millions of dollars." At Lost Horse, the miners ran a riveted pipe from a ranch three miles away--as the crow flies--over the rugged terrain.

The team's job is to document how this age-old technology worked, as well as how it shaped life at Joshua Tree. And was in turn shaped by it.

After the arduous hike, the team is enveloped by--in DeLony's words--"splendid isolation." It's 12 miles to the nearest phone (a gas station booth on I-10); the only link to the outside world is a two-way radio tuned to monument headquarters. Days sizzle with temperatures to 110 degrees; nights echo with the call of the coyote. You either love the desert or hate it, DeLony says.

This team, well briefed by Park Rangers, has no trouble adjusting. "The landscape, the plants and trees all seemed so dry and sparse at first, yet breathtaking," says Dion. "I didn't think I could adapt myself so fast to a place full of snakes, insects, spiders, and scorpions. Of course the two June earthquakes made it even more contextual."

Besides, the job provides plenty of distraction over the course of twelve weeks. "You can generally break the summer into three parts," DeLony says. "The first three to four weeks is very, very intensive field work where you're measuring the site. The middle portion is where you're developing your drawings and pieces for the historical reports. The last part is production. The architects are on the board finalizing their ink-on-mylar drawings, the historian is at the word processor."

Historian Vidutis, to draw his picture of life at Lost Horse, ranges far outside the monument's boundaries-to newspaper archives and land offices in Sacramento, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. Lowe comes in during the final phase to do his lens work. "These prints are not 35-millimeter snapshots, they are large format--4 x 5s, 5 x 7s," says DeLony. The large format's precision is essential to recording the nuances of the mining operation and producing a record-quality photograph.

Making the Gears Mesh

Many things are going on at once over the project's course. Initially, there's a learning curve as the team deciphers the particulars of the site (Hardesty is the only one versed in mining technology). With this group, drawn from different disciplines, it takes awhile to "mesh gears" as team members learn each other's language. Architects think in terms of drawings, for example, while archeologists think in terms of site descriptions.

Hardesty and Ross characterize the site's archeology using five categories: artifacts, features, feature systems, sites, and districts. It is a sophisticated descriptive technique; ultimately, their archeological "map" can be linked to similar ones from other sites to show the hard rock mines in a larger historical context.

Their report explains the technique. Objects that can be car- carried away are classed as artifacts. Features, on the other hand, are not portable: mine shafts, vats, footpaths, foundations, and so on. Feature complexes are clusters of features associated with the same activity, such as piping water or mining ore. The mining complex includes claims markers, prospecting pits, mine shafts, a rail cart system, and so on. Sites and districts are self-explanatory: Lost Horse is a mining site within the larger Joshua Tree mining district.

Hardesty underscores that, by themselves, neither a recording project nor an archeological inventory can do the site justice. The two must work together, hand in glove.

He and Ross detect many remains not part of the historic record: two ore crushers, a possible amalgamation site, cyanide tailings, a water tank, troughs, a chicken coop, a barbecue, and refuse heaps rich enough to make an archeologist smile.

For this initial survey, the pair do no digging (that comes later, depending on the monument's plans). Instead they systematically inspect the ground while scoping the surrounding hills with binoculars. Ross says the miners felled a forest of pinyon and juniper to shore up the shaft and power the steam engines.

During the operation's heyday, an entire crew did nothing else but log the giant juniper bushes and pinyon pine trees that once blanketed the hills. The wood stoked massive boilers that, through pressure, powered the flow of water 700 feet up the mountainside. Today, although the hills have been denuded, a few pinyon pine survive in the deep washes.

Standing at the mouth of the mine, Hardesty gazes into the darkness once lit by the hat-lamps of the long-gone. There is a wealth of history here, he says, more than enough to establish the place along Joshua Tree's "continuum of human habitation."

A macabre twist in that continuum connects Lost Horse with the other major property to be recorded.

Mining in the Vernacular Vein

In 1931, William Keys patched together the Wall Street Mill from tractor engines, chicken coops, timbers, and cyanide tanks he'd rounded up from mines that had gone bust (by this time, a cyanide process had replaced mercury-water amalgamation). Like any enterprising entrepreneur, he saw a need and the way to fill it.

With the Depression, the desert had once again cast its spell, luring the jobless south from Los Angeles into the Mojave. Newspapers called it the "second gold rush." Some, DeLony says, were able to "scrape together a living" on the slopes of the Little San Bernardino Mountains.

Many came with a bedroll, a pickup, and not much else. They trucked their diggings to a "custom mill" that, for a cut, refined the product. Wall Street was one such outfit.

The HAER team is similarly stripped down and ready to work this scorching summer six decades later. This group is staffed by Supervisory Architect Ruth Connell of Annapolis, Historian Elizabeth Wegman-French of the University of Colorado, and Architectural Technicians Guek Hoon Ong of Louisiana State University and John Eberly of Texas Tech. Hardesty is the team's archeologist; Brian Grogan of Yosemite, California, is the photographer.

Wall Street is the only mill in the region that remains virtually intact and potentially operable (having done so as recently as 1966). Because of that, and its local technological significance, it has already won a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

There is much to measure and interpret. An ore chute, ore crusher, and a two-stamp mill are supported by skeletons of heavy timber. The construction around this hardwood core is an eclectic assemblage of wood framing and corrugated sheet metal. The decks encircling the structures are made of wood planks while floors at grade are of the most modest of materials: dirt.

The mining equipment includes refining tables, a water pump, a Fairbanks Morse engine to run it, two large galvanized-iron water tanks, and a 12-horsepower Western gas engine to power the labyrinth system of shafts, belts, and pulleys. San Francisco's Baker Iron Works built the mill in 1891; the rest of the machinery dates from the 1890s to the 1930s.

"Wall Street was what you would call a vernacular site," says DeLony, "cobbled up from bits and pieces of timber, sheet metal, and automobile engines. Bill Keys was a 'desert rat,' combing the desert for anything of value. Lost Horse, on the other hand, was more sophisticated, a real mining company with definite goals and objectives and expected efficiency and productivity to go along with it.

"That's the nice thing about Joshua Tree. You have evidence of two similar operations that represent two different levels of the mining industry, one very thrown together and the other very planned, engineered, and constructed."

This is not to say that Bill Keys wasn't a sharp operator. He sited his mill at a well, avoiding the high cost of piping in water and allowing him to run his own mine.

His was the savvy of experience. Keys came to the desert around 1910, hiring on as a "watchman" for an absentee mine owner. When the owner died, he inherited the mine as back payment for wages. Keys eventually acquired more than 20 claims, which he leased as his main source of income.

One day in 1925, Keys came face to face with the human continuum of Joshua Tree. He found Johnny Lang partially mummified along a weather-beaten trail. Maybe the double-cross had finally caught up with him. Today, Lang's grave is still in evidence where Keys laid him to rest.

Keys had his own showdown with destiny in the 1940s. Ambushed by an angry neighbor in a feud over the mill road, Keys proved the better shot. Convicted of murder, he spent five years behind bars before an investigation initiated by Eric Stanley Gardner led to a full pardon.

What Made the Project Work

History was made at Wall Street, but most of the mining records for this part of the world are in Riverside, California, and Los Angeles. Wegman-French conducted research there and elsewhere, tracking down old documents, photographs, popular press articles, and more. But eyewitnesses truly put her report over the top.

"What really made the project work for us," says DeLony, "was we would get into it for three or four weeks, learn what we could about the site, begin our drawings, and then bring one of the miners in for a walk-through. He would show us how all of the pieces fit together and answer any unexplained questions we had about a specific machine or feature or hole in the ground. Like 'Where did the water come from?' or 'How did you get the water from the well to here?'

"A lot of these sites would have been worked into the 1930s, the 1940s, so these people are still around but most are well into their elderly years. So you can look at this 1990s period as probably the last opportunity to get them out into the account." The surviving members of Bill Keys' family were also interviewed (he died in 1969).

Hardesty's report complemented the information compiled by the others, noting that--despite "low visibility"--the remains of a bunkhouse, workshop, and transportation network are still in evidence. "Perhaps Wall Street's most immediate preservation goal should be an interpretive plan," he says. His findings, cast in the same categories he used for Lost Horse, promote the possibility.

"One approach is to treat the mill and other mining properties at the monument as parts of a 'collection' to be used in the exhibits of an outdoor museum of technology" to be developed at Joshua Tree. Collections in that "museum," which would encompass all the monument's mining landscapes, could include standing buildings and structures, dumps for waste rock, archeological sites, road networks, and the like. The outdoor exhibits would employ the same museum methods used indoors-labels, interpretive graphics, and devices for directing visitor traffic flow (signage, brochures, and so on).

Last Chance for a Legacy

Hard rock mining is the major historical interpretive theme for a large part of the western United States, says DeLony, and now is the time to record the little remaining evidence of it. "The price of gold is up to $393 an ounce and the technology is out there to rework the tailings from previous gold operations. If something is not done soon, these sites just won't be there in 20 years."

There is hope, he adds. "What I've learned through almost 25 years of doing this is that the mining industry is completely capable of underwriting the costs of some of these interpretive sites and museums. And we have had some success interesting the industry in their own heritage."

Given the workplace hazards faced by miners over the years, does this present a potential challenge in terms of balanced interpretation?

"It does pose an interesting question. When I go up to representatives of the mining industry and say 'Hi, I'm Eric DeLony from the National Park Service,' they usually run to the other side of the room. That happens when anyone from the federal government wants a meeting with them. What we have to offer is the opportunity to commemorate, to preserve, the history of mining. Usually once you start that dialogue there's an interest. You just have to figure out a way to articulate your concerns. But no one can argue that this history should not be preserved in the Historic American Engineering Record in the Library of Congress. Once you get that down then it just becomes a matter of how."

And will the archeologists stay on the same side of the room with his partners from other disciplines? "That depends on the archeologists. In a way I saw that I was venturing onto their turf at Joshua Tree, But to me, it represents an exciting possibility for the disciplines to get together to develop some very interesting projects."

Reports by Richard Vidutis, Don Hardesty, Lester Ross, and Elizabeth Wegrnan-French informed this article. For additional information, contact the Joshua Tree National Monument, 74485 National Monument Drive, Twentynine Palms, CA 92277-3597, (619) 367-7511 or the Historic American Engineering Record, National Park Service, P.O. Box 37127, Washington, DC 20013-7127, (202) 343-9603. Prints of the photographs (and all others in the HABS/HAER collection) are available for a nominal fee through the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service, Washington, DC 20540, (202) 707-5640. Consult the Library of Congress for prices and ordering procedures.