Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Depth Matters: A Tour of the Kennedy Mine Property in California's Mother Lode
The mine was the subject of my last post, a first impression of some of the info I learned during the tour: how people died working underground. The tour at the mine was conducted by volunteers working with the Kennedy Mine Foundation, a non-profit organization, and our guide was a fountain of information. The tour is above ground, as the mine was vertical for hundreds of feet, and flooded to boot. Our tour actually lasted 40 minutes longer than the scheduled 90 minutes, which caused me a bit of stress as I was watching the clock ticking towards the appointment time for our other scheduled tour! It was a great opportunity to see one of the most important mines of the Mother Lode.
The grounds are heavily overgrown with gray pine and oak trees, and the site is actually preserved as open space for wildlife (the wishes of the last owner of the land). This was quite a contrast to the old days; a look at old photographs indicated that the site was actually pretty barren of vegetation during the mining years.
The mine waste was a problem. It was full of sulfide minerals that converted to acids on exposure to the atmosphere, and water in the town below was being fouled. In the early 1900s, a system of buckets and giant wheels was constructed to carry tailings over a nearby ridge to a reservoir that could isolate the poisons from the domestic water supply (you can see pictures of the wheels here).
The Kennedy Mine operated unsuccessfully from 1860 to the late 1870s. New technology (especially the invention of dynamite and steam operated drills) led to a successful expansion of the mine in the 1880s, and the Kennedy operated profitably until 1942 when it is shut down by presidential decree during World War II. When it closed down it was the deepest mine in the United States at 5,912 feet. It ultimately produced about 1.5 million ounces of gold, worth about $2.4 billion at today's prices. It was one of the biggest gold producers in the Mother Lode.