Barren open pits, overburden stripped away, ruined rivers, flattened mountain tops. It doesn't have a very good reputation and probably doesn't deserve it. Yet even today it provides a significant part of our energy mix, despite the destructive effects it has on our atmosphere, land, water, and the lives of the miners themselves. A hundred years ago it provided much more of our energy.
California doesn't have much of a reputation for coal mining. During the middle and late Paleozoic, when widespread parts of the eastern United States and parts of Europe were covered by forests, swampls and coastal estuaries, California was pretty much underwater, and no major coal seams ever formed.
The situation was a little different about 50 million years ago. The Ancestral Sierra Nevada, the mountains that formed while granite was cooling deep in the Earth, had been worn away, and the modern Sierra Nevada had not yet begun rising. Large meandering rivers coursed across the landscape, bringing sediments into the coastal complex from sources as distant as central Nevada and Idaho. A shallow sea filled the forearc basin that paralleled the Pacific coast, and along its margins there were beaches and barrier islands, along with coastal estuaries and jungles of tropical vegetation. The river and coastal complex formed a sedimentary layer called the Domengine Formation (in the Sierra Nevada foothills, it is known as the Ione Formation and the Auriferous Gravels). It was here that coal formed in California. It was a low-grade form of coal called lignite. It had none of the quality or energy content of bituminous or anthracite coal, but it was close to San Francisco, and it was the only coal for hundreds, even thousands of miles. Coal mining began in the Coast Ranges above Antioch in the 1850s, eventually producing four million tons before shutting down around a half century later. Several thousand miners and their families lived in five villages in the immediate vicinity, and dug miles and miles of tunnels into the hills (I've heard of upwards of 200 miles of passageways).
The towns faded away and many of the underground workings collapsed. In the 1920s, a new resource was being mined here: sand. Sand? What in the world for? For glass-making. It turns out that the sandstone of the Domengine Formation is very pure, almost 100% quartz. If you've ever stood on a sandy beach in California, you would know that the sand in the state is usually gray or brown in color because of the many other minerals that are present. It's only sands that have been transported along lengthy rivers and deposited in coastal regions where they would be washed back and forth for millennia that they reach that level of purity. Those were the conditions present as the Domengine was being laid down 50 million years ago. Glass mining took place through the 30s and 40s, and ultimately 8 miles of huge tunnels were excavated. That's a lot of glass bottles...
|California paleogeography from interpretive signs at Black Diamond Mines, mapping by Ron Blakey of Northern Arizona University|
So it was that last Saturday, the Geology Club at my college finally conducted their semester field trip, two weeks after the semester was done. We headed out to the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, a unit of the East Bay Regional Park District to have a tour. Not a tour of the former towns...we were going underground!
|Diagram from interpretive signs in the visitor center|
Near the exit, we had a view down into the Eureka slope, one of the coal mines active in the 1860s. The picture below doesn't provide the downward perspective. It sloped about 30 degrees or more and disappeared in the darkness below. Visiting a coal mine? Fine. Working in one every day of one's working life? No, thank you. I like the job I have now.
We approached the surface after close to a half mile of walking underground. We had barely begun to explore the intricate boxwork of passageways in the mine. The visitor center occupies a particularly large tunnel at the other opening to the mine (the "emergency exit").
Although there are occasional tailings piles of coal here and there, the region has recovered nicely from the mining days, and is a nature preserve today with miles of trails and picnic areas. More information about the park can be found at http://www.ebparks.org/parks/black_diamond. It's well worth a visit!