Desert Fever
An Overview of Mining History of the California Desert Conservation Area

Imperial County



Located 8 miles northeast of the Cargo Muchacho District, the Southeastern Chocolate Mountains area was primarily a gold district, although silver, lead, and copper were also found and mined here. Placer gold deposits had been worked here in this area long before the United States acquired the territory. 18

The Chocolate Mountains hold gold and silver values in narrow quartz veins with some high grade pockets. Placer gold deposits occur along the mountain's western and southern flanks. The loose gold would concentrate itself into bedrock depressions giving part of this geographic area the nickname “Potholes.” The area is located in the north half of section 25, Township 15 South, Range 23 East, San Bernardino Meridian, of the Bard 7 1/2 - minute quadrangle. This area is where the Spanish settlers mined gold for the first time in recorded California history, and lies one-quarter mile west of present day Laguna Dam and adjacent to and underlying the All American Canal. 19

The Potholes district had a reported total production of $2,000,000, taken out over a period of many years by a multitude of men (upwards of 400) working independently. The miners usually operated in one or two man groups. They moved from gully to gully like nomads as old areas would cease to pan out and new ones were sought. The district, at gold prices of less than $35 an ounce, became uneconomical by 1900. Large-scale hydraulic operations were attempted in this area and in the Picacho Basin, using the Colorado River as a water supply, during the 1890s without success. In 1942, evidence of old Mexican workings and arrastres were abundant in the area. 20

Duncan, Trio and Senator mines

The Three C's or Duncan Mine, probably the source of the Potholes District gold, was one of the many mines in the Southeastern Chocolate Mountains area to be located close to the Colorado River. Owned by a R. J. Duncan of Yuma, the mine in the late 1800s consisted of a 150-foot shaft. Today it has 300 feet of horizontal workings and a 300-foot shaft with 5 levels. 21

Located right next door, the Trio Mine operated during 1933 through 1935 by the Trio Mining Company. The All American canal flooded the mine workings in 1936. The Senator Mine, 1 mile northwest of the Imperial Reservoir, was located in June, 1877. It's peak period of production occurred from 1896 to 1900. Totaling the production from those years with it's production for 1935 shows 1,100 ounces of gold were recovered from its 3 to 8 foot wide quartz vein. 22

Picacho Mine

Perhaps the most famous mine in this area, and in all of Imperial County, is the Picacho Mine (also known as the Dewitt C. Jayne Mine). Dr. Jayne was a New York drug manufacturer and one of the first to invest in this mine. His investment may have been profitable, but the Picacho Mine was beset with problems and bad luck every decade of its active existence.

David Neahr began construction for the mine of a fifteen stamp mill overlooking the Colorado River in 1879. In 1882, 8,000 tons of ore were mined, yielding an average of $21 per ton. Although the mill was profitable, Neahr was forced into bankruptcy when a dishonest employee stole $7,000. At approximately the same time, Neahr was seriously injured by a runaway horse and died in 1898.23

The California Gold King Mining Company, with former Colorado Senator Stephen A. Dorsey as president, consolidated the Picacho mines and operated them until 1906, when the Picacho Basin Mining Company took over. In 1902, a huge 450 ton mill was in operation, and by 1904 it had 700 employees with a monthly payroll of $40,000. A narrow gauge train brought ore from the Picacho Mine to this mill, which was boasted as the largest cyanide plant in America. At this time the town of Picacho, which grew up and around the mill, consisted of some 2,500 souls. 24

In July, 1904, a belt in the mill broke loose due to overloading, and the flywheel disintegrated, showering pieces through the roof and up to one-fourth of a mile down slope. Although workers repaired this damage quickly, construction of the Laguna Dam on the Colorado curtailed the hauling of ore concentrates by steamer to Yuma, and this, plus diminishing ore values, contributed to the final shutdown of the mill in September, 1910.25

In 1939, the Nipissing Mining Company of Canada hauled in a 200-ton mill from Tonopah, Nevada, in efforts to re-establish mining operations at Picacho, but World War II prevented the company from staging a comeback. Ruins of the mill, the machine shop of the 450-ton mill, and the boiler and tank are among the objects and buildings still standing. The total production estimate for the Picacho Mine is approximately $2,000,000.26

The townsite of Picacho is now partially covered by the Colorado River and is part of the Picacho State Recreation Area. To the east of the Picacho townsite lies White Gold Basin, named after the presence in that area of a gold with an abnormal amount of silver, causing it to appear white. Two mines, the Gilden Dream and the Mayflower, were both active in this area in the late l890s and early 1900s.27

South of the Picacho townsite but north of the Picacho Mine were two placer mines, the Georgia Placer and Crescent Placer mines. Both are in Little Picacho Wash and were located in 1891. Source of the placer gold is presumed to be from the Picacho Mine area. Copper was discovered in the early 1 900s in this same area. The Picacho Copper Mine is in a 100 by 1,600 foot mineralized zone. Although no recorded production is known to have taken place, the area is popular with rockhounders as malachite, azurite, black agate, chalcedony, and galena are found here and near Picacho Peak. 28

California Picacho Mine

Placer deposits in Little Picacho Wash, first worked in the late 1780's were ignored for more than a century until the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad to Yuma became a stimulus that led to a revival of interest in the area. In the 1890s the California Picacho Company consolidated title to these deposits, which were about 5 miles from the Picacho Mine referred to earlier. In 1893, a pumping plant was erected on the Colorado River and 5 miles of flumes were built by an English company, the Picacho Gold Mining Company. This group spent $240,000 before admitting the project was a failure in May, 1894.29

The stock promotion for this ill-fated venture was handled by Baron Grant, who had promoted the Emma Mine in Utah. A Liverpool soap manufacturer, R. W. Hudson, purchased most of the stock. The venture was labeled by a newspaper of the day as one of the most absurd engineering feats ever undertaken in the West”. The flumes leaked, and the pumps could not generate enough pressure to supply more than a trickle at the other end. By 1896, individual miners and prospectors were successfully mining the area by dry washing or hauling the gravel to the Colorado River by mule and were accomplishing through primitive methods what British technology could not. 30


Productive as early as 1867, the Paymaster District, located 16 miles northwest of the Picacho District, includes the area between Quartz Peak and Midway Well. The district is best known for it's silver and manganese production. Some copper at the Volunteer Group Mine was produced on a small scale throughout the 1920s. Chrysocolla, malachite, and azurite are found here. The Jet Black or Hodges Mine produced over 5,000 tons of manganese ore during World War I and II. 31

The Paymaster Mine, located in the central Chocolate Mountains, has been and continues to be the most productive silver and lead mine in the county. After its discovery in 1867, supplies and a fifteen-stamp mill were shipped from San Francisco by boat around Baja California and up the Colorado River to a point near the mouth of Arroyo Seco, 13 miles northeast of the mine. Production continued until 1880, when at the 400 foot level the richer ore ran out. Shortly thereafter, the mill was dismantled and moved to the Cargo Muchacho Mine.

In more modern times the Paymaster was reopened when the remaining ore was discovered to have 6.2 ounces of silver per ton. It was operated from 1919 to 1921. The tailings were cyanided in 1922 and 1923, and in 1938-1939 the Paymaster again saw a brief period of operation. Total production from the Paymaster Mine was about 170,000 ounces of silver recovered from 25,000 tons of ore. 32

Northeast of Glamis in the Paymaster District are a dozen or more gold lode and placer mines, all of shallow depth with little development. The oldest mine, the Mesquite Placers, date back to the 1880s, when 150 men were dry washing the area. This area most likely will become increasingly popular with the weekend prospector and the rockhound.33


Although not as glamorous as gold or silver, several non-metallic and strategic mineral deposits are mined in Imperial County. Most noteworthy is gypsum, which accounted for 50 percent of Imperial County's turn of the century mineral production. The Fish Creek Mountains District, located on the western edge of the county has produced more than eight million tons of gypsum , worth $24,000,000, since 1922.

Fourteen deposits, each different grade and texture of marble, are located in the Coyote Mountains in southwestern Imperial County. The Golden State Mining and Marble Company erected buildings and ordered machinery for a plant at National City to cut and finish the marble. Several carloads of the stone were shipped on the San Diego and Arizona Railroad in the early l920s but the deposits are largely undeveloped.

Manganese and tungsten ore are among the strategic minerals found and mined in this county. Manganese accounted for only 6 percent of Imperial County's mineral production in 1907. The county now ranks first in total production in California. The Chocolate Drop Group and the Lugo Mine in the Palo Verde District of northwestern Imperial County were first developed in the years immediately preceding World War I. Most of the production occurred during a government buying program in the 1950s.

The county's most productive manganese mine, the Pioneer, is located several miles south of the Palo Verde District. Tom Clark and L. L. Morse discovered the manganese mine in the early 191 Os, yet production did not really begin until J. J. Everharty acquired the claims in early 1917. The mine was intensively developed for two years, but the end of World War I caused a shutdown of operations due to lower ore prices. Five thousand tons averaging 39 percent manganese were mined during 19411944, the ore being concentrated in a mill about 6 miles northeast of the mine, near the Colorado River. Like the mines of the Palo Verde District, most of the production from the Pioneer Mine occurred in the early 1950s.

Imperial County supported the war effort by providing 8,000 tons of celestite, an ore of strontium, from 1939 to 1945 for use in the manufacture of tracer bullets and flares. This deposit, the Roberts and Peeler Mine, was located at the northwest end of the Fish Creek Mountains.

Tungsten is found at the P. K. Mine in the Jacumba Mountains, where most of the 2,128 tons of Imperial County's recorded tungsten production came from. Originally a gold mine, it was developed for tungsten during a government stockpiling program of the 1950s. The P. K. Mine is located 1,000 feet from the Mexican border. Tungsten is also found in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains, the Potholes area, and in the Paymaster District.

The Simons Brick Company mined 150,000 to 200,000 tons of clay at a location near El Centro from 1907 to 1928. The clay, a potentially important commodity in the county's future, was used in the manufacture of brick and tile.

Geodes are found at two locations nicknamed the Potato Patch and the Hauser beds. Both deposits are located in between the Palo Verde Mountains and the Black Hills, 9 miles southwest of Wiley Well. A variety of agates, jasper, and petrified wood are also found in the Palo Verde Mountains.

The aluminum silicate kyanite is found in southeastern Imperial County in the Cargo Muchacho Mountains. Kyanite is used in the manufacture of ceramic insulators and in the construction of kilns, furnaces, and boilers for a variety of industries. Located 2 miles northwest of the Cargo Muchacho Mine, the Bluebird Kyanite deposit was first commercial ly developed by the Vitrefax Corporation in 1925. The kyanite from this deposit was marketed under the trade names of “Argon” and “Durex”. Ten thousand tons of ore were mined valued at $80,000.

Mercury was rumored to have been mined in the Palo Verde Mountains. A campsite there shows evidence of having been worked from the 1930s to 1940s but the only ore present there today is hematite.

Natural deposits of sodium sulfate occur 18 miles northwest of Niland and were developed into the Bertram Mine in 1919. Less than 1,000 tons of sodium sulfate was obtained during three years of activity (1923, 1941, 1942). A high magnesium Content and steeply dipping deposit beds have caused the mine to become idle, yet large mineral reserves remain. Blodite, a mineral containing magnesium sulfate and sodium sulfate is collected at this mine by gem hunters.

Salt from the Salton Sea was recovered by solar evaporation from 1934 through 1945. The Imperial Salt Works were located 12 miles northeast of Niland along the southeast shore of the Salton Sea. The Mullet Island Salt Works were located 6 miles west of Niland and west of Mullet Island. The Mullet Island works produced salt that was mainly consumed locally for use in refrigerated railroads cars, and total production from both companies amounted to less than 25,000 tons of salt worth $75,000 to $100,000.

Carbon dioxide, one of the most interesting mineral resources in Imperial County is found at the southeast end of the Salton.Sea. The geothermal steam potential of this area was first tested in 1927 by the Pioneer Development Company. The low pressure steam encountered was not economically productive, but large quantities of carbon dioxide in the steam were noted. For over a century explorers had noticed the presence of bubbles from this gas percolating up through the mud at thermal springs near Niland.

The first test hole drilled exclusively to test the commercial development potential of naturally occurring carbon dioxide occurred 7 miles southwest of Niland in September, 1932. Two years later the main carbon dioxide field, 5 miles long and 1 mile wide, was discovered 4 miles west of Niland. More than 160 wells were drilled over a 20 year period. Each well had an average productive life span of 2 years.

The Pacific Imperial On-Ice Inc., Natural Carbonic Products Inc., National Dry Ice Corporation and Cardox Corporation were among the companies that produced over the years an estimated 228,000 tons of liquid carbon dioxide and dry ice from the Niland field. Competition, a shrinking market, and the rising Salton Sea made production uneconomical by 1954.

IMPERIAL COUNTY-Looking towards the future

imperial County has a rich historical mining heritage, being the site of the first gold production in California. In addition to its rich past, Imperial County may soon have an important role in the future of the desert. During the Depression, the Niland gas field area supplied southern California with ice, and was an important economic asset for the county. The geothermal steam present in the area, uneconomical by 1920s standards, is now becoming more and more attractive as America looks towards alternate energy sources.

Six KGRAs (Known Geothermal Resource Areas) are located in the southeastern Salton Sea area. These fields are being actively explored and studied by government agencies, and private universities and companies for their potential in supplying electric power, drinking water, and mineral salts.

Gypsum is presently an important mineral commodity of Imperial County and will Continue to be one in the future. Gold and manganese will also play an important part in the future of Imperial County as sizeable deposits of these minerals also remain. The largest gold reserves are to be found in the Cargo Muchacho and southeastern Chocolate mountains, while a large reserve of manganese is found in the Palo Verde Mountains.

Gold, silver and tungsten values are found in the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range. The Mary Lode gold mine, Imperial Buttes silver mine, and Black Eagle tungsten mine are all twentieth century mines of limited development. The Mary Lode Mine produced at least 500 tons of $40 a ton ore. A rich pocket yielded $200 a ton ore, and was so rich that it was shipped without milling. The Imperial Buttes Mine was operated by the Marcella Mining Company in the 1910s. The Black Eagle was a World War II tungsten prospect with no recorded production. Although these particular mines are perhaps of no great historical significance, they point to the future and remind us of the mineral producing potential of our desert military reservations.35


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© Larry M. Vredenburgh, Gary L. Shumway, Russell D. Hartill