Father’s Day Trip into the Past

    The fathers in my family, my father and my husband, had a Father’s Day to remember this year. They took off the father mantle for 3 days and became kids again. I planned and took them on a weekend adventure into old gold mines, ore mills, dirt, and ghost towns. It was also a trip into genealogical history, though I certainly didn’t phrase it that way to them.

From 1909 to the mid-1950s, my mother’s family owned a gold mine called the Kate Hardy Mine. The Kate Hardy Mine began in 1860 and had a productive history prior to entering my family lore. In 1909 my great-grandfather, Will Beggs, bought the mine in partnership with another man, and continued to mine ore. The mine itself was managed by my great-granduncle, John Beggs, and later by my grandfather, Merle Beggs, between 1909 and the early 1920s. In the 1940s and 1950s my father, as designated “son” accompanied my grandfather on several trips to the mine. His last visit was 60 years ago.

The Kate Hardy Mine is located in a very remote part of California. I know it is hard to believe that there is a really remote part of California, but if anywhere qualifies as remote, Sierra County is it. One major road, Hwy 49, winds through the county, dotted with its largest cities: Downieville (population in 2010 was 282), Sierra City (221), Sierraville (200), and Loyalton (769).

To prepare ourselves for the Kate Hardy Mine, we visited the relatively well-preserved Kentucky Mine, outside of Sierra City. This is a park run by the Sierra County Historical Society. It was here that any semblance of fatherly maturity vanished, at least on the part of my husband; smiles, hands touching artifacts and rocks, running the blacksmith’s Pelton wheel, flashlighting the dark tunnel, playing with one- and two-jack drills, enjoying stories of powder blasting hard rock, barely contained from jumping in the ore cart for a ride, and helping power the much larger Pelton wheel that ran the stamps in the mill. We visited a representation of a miner’s cabin, a very luxurious miner’s cabin, truth be told, the blacksmith shop area inside the entrance to the mine, a bit of the tunnel itself, and the stamp mill.

Photo: The Kentucky Mine Stamp Mill, courtesy of the Sierra County Historical Society

The stamp mill was Stamp-mill-3-2011-300x200by far the most interesting building. Three-plus stories basically enclosed one machine designed to crush quartz ore into a powder. The one-ton ore cart filled with quartz rock rode on rails from the mine entrance into the top floor of the mill. The ore was dumped onto iron grates, of varying sizes, called “grizzlies”, designed to separate the ore by size. The ore was then funneled down through chutes to the next floor where the 10 stamps, large wooden pillars capped with iron ends, powered by a Pelton wheel, crushed the ore into powder. In front of the stamps are large wooden trays where the powdered ore was washed in a slurry over mercury coated copper sheets. The gold adhered to the mercury forming an amalgam. The powder that remained was washed into the lowest story of the building to shaker tables, where it was sluiced, to recover more gold. The amalgam was separated outside in a way that vaporized the mercury, leaving only the gold. The vaporization itself was enclosed, so as to recapture the mercury for reuse. All in all, a very dangerous and exhausting occupation.

The Kate Hardy Mine is located just outside of Forest, California, also called Forest City, on Oregon Creek, in the heart of Sierra County. Forest is a ghost town, has been for many years. Maybe was when my father last visited 60 years ago. A photo tour of Forest is available online at Ghost Town Explorers (http://www.ghosttownexplorers.org/california/forestcity/forestcity.htm). There are a few hardy souls who live in some of the remaining houses. The land is owned by the U.S. Forest Service. Once a year the Clampers (E Clampus Vitae) open the small historical museum and run a portable stamp mill on the property. We timed our visit to see the museum and the mill. We also took the self-guided walking tour of the town, with its 150 year-old houses, stores and schoolhouse.

Just northwest of town is 39the Mountain House Cemetery, which is still in use today. This is the “new” cemetery, with graves dating back to the 1860s. It is here that we went to see the grave of my great-granduncle, John Dixon Beggs. He died dramatically in 1911, while he was living here as manager of the Kate Hardy. His obituary in a weekly journal of the time, Mining Science, 7 September 1911, tells the tragic tale of his pistol falling from his holster while he bent to fix a loose board, accidentally firing a bullet through his heart, and John falling dead at the feet of his wife.

Further west is the small winding dirt road to the Kate Hardy Mine. The mine is now owned by the Brush Creek Mining Company, but is not being worked at this time.

2 Kate HardyThe buildings are in disrepair, but still standing are a large shop, the old ball mill, and the building with the shaker tables, among others. In the case of the Kate Hardy, the mill used iron balls, about the size of a cannonball, in a drum to crush ore, instead of the stamp mill with vertical crushers. My father also recalled a house on the property where some of the men lived when he visited. The openings to two tunnels were blocked but visible.

2b bridge to south tnnels and powder storage shed

5 south tunnel interior

6 original mine opening

Over the three days, in addition to the two mines, we visited five museums: Sierra City, Downieville, Forest, Alleghany, and Goodyear’s Bar, all with small but interesting historical collections. Alleghany’s collection of mining paraphernalia was particularly interesting, with maps of the local mines and a demonstration of miners’ lamps using candles and carbide.

Fire, water, black powder, dirt and rocks, sledge hammers, Pelton wheels, loud stamps and balls, deadly chemicals. Hard and dangerous work.