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

Kern County


Atolia-Randsburg tungsten boom

(The Atolia tungsten mines and the California Rand Silver Mine are actually located in San Bernardino County near the San Bernardino-Kern County line. Their story is included here as the logical continuation of the Randsburg area mining history)

Randsburg by the beginning of the twentieth century has settled into a calm period of average, modest mining production. No new gold discoveries were made after 1900 and the easy diggings had been worked and reworked. The lode mines were being run by companies and corporations, and the gold placers yielded less and less. Since 1896 miners and prospectors in the Stringer District (southeast of Randsburg) had been cursing the unwanted appearance of a creamy white substance in their pans and dry washers that was interfering with the gold recovery. The nasty stuff was nicknamed “heavy spar.” 36

It was actually scheelite, tungsten ore. Hundreds had discovered “ heavy spar before, cursing it for getting in the way. Yet when George Gay and Pat Burns found float at the St. Elmo Mine in 1904, they recognized it as scheelite. In trying to trace the float back to its source, the two missed the rich Atolia veins but discovered that the Stringer District veins contained tungsten values.37

Randsburg stirred and yawned as men ran back to the Stringer District to relocate that “heavy spar.” What was once cursed was now coveted! Gay and Burns missed the rich veins of the Atolia District because the veins were entirely covered by detritus except at one location. In the excitement that the two created, this was soon discovered as the Papoose, which from 1908 to 1911 was the leading scheelite mine in the world. With the Papoose discovery and the later location of the Union Mine, Randsburg had something to shout about. Her second boom was on, even though, due to the more glamorous Nevada strikes (Tonopah, Goldfield, Rhyolite), and a few California booms (Skidoo and Greenwater), Randsburg's jubilation went largely unnoticed outside the county.

Atkins and De Golia put up the first tungsten mill in 1907. Combining their names, the prospectors gave the name Atolia to their camp, located 4 miles south of Johannesburg. Atolia's 60 citizens dry washed the area for high grade float, and many worked for the Atolia Mining Company, which very quickly bought up all the good ground, becoming the owners of 56 claims accounting for 95 percent of the entire district's tungsten production.38

Atolia was becoming very wealthy and being very quiet about it, arousing no outside interest. The Atolia Mining Company produced close to $100,000 worth of ore in 1906, their first year of operation. By 1913, just 7 years later, they had produced $1,000,000 worth of ore. In 1914 the Atolia Mining Company sold 28,000 units of tungsten ore worth a total of $182,000. A unit is 20 pounds of ore containing 60 percent or more of tungsten trioxide. At that time a unit of ore sold for $6.50. Because of the wartime demand for tungsten (used as an alloy to harden steel), its price more than doubled in 1915 to $14 a unit. The Atolia Mining Company nearly doubled their production that year to 54,000 units, raking in $763,000 from ore worth only $360,000 the year before. The outside world began to notice Atolia and the population that year rose to 300.39

Atolia's biggest year was 1916, as the value of tungsten was skyrocketing. Doubling its production again, the Atolia Mining Company produced 108,000 units of ore at $33 a unit for a total of over three and a half million dollars. Atolia's population swelled to 2,000. Storekeepers took tungsten ore in exchange for groceries and merchandise, and Illingsworth and Dunnell, a local merchant house, received $200,000 worth of ore by May, 1916.

Eastern manufacturers sent buyers to Atolia to bid on tungsten ore like bushels of wheat or cotton, with prices for small amounts of high grade ore, in at least one instance, reaching $90 a unit. The buyers didn't ask too many questions as to where the tungsten came from, as highgrading was all too common. However, miners were watched as if they were mining South African diamonds; lunch pails were inspected daily, and ore was sealed before shipment by rail. Tungsten had become a precious metal 40

Water was almost just as precious in Atolia. Shipped in by rail from Hinkley, a tank car of water cost between $15 and $28. Until 1917, when the Randsburg Water Company pipeline reached Atolia, the mining company was doing it's best to conserve water and even caught rainfall with gutters on every building.

People in the Randsburg area made thousands of dollars from tungsten overnight. One S. E. Vermilyea purchased a lease for $2,000 and worried that he'd never recover his initial investment. Three days later he hit high grade ore and refused an offer of $25,000. A canvas bag the size of a shopping bag filled with high grade scheelite float was worth $350. Even children gathered the ore and made big money.41

Such an opportunity was too good to last. In 1917 the Atolia Mining Company sold 116,000units, 8,000 more than were produced in 1916. Although this was worth more than two million dollars, this represented a loss of one and a half million dollars over what the same amount would have brought in 1916. The price of tungsten had dropped to $18 a unit.

Atolia tungsten production for 1918 was $1,525,000 from 61,000 units of ore at $25 a unit, and in 1919, when only 4,000 units were sold at $16 a unit, the Atolia boom was over. The next year the Atolia Mining Company didn't ship a single unit of ore. With demand down (World War I was over) and tungsten being quite inexpensively mined in China, Atolia seemingly died.42

The California Rand Silver Mine-Randsburg's silver boom

Randsburg's third boom was caused by silver. One of the greatest silver mines in the desert West, the Kelly, or California Rand, was discovered by two men who were out locating red paint. Jack Nosser, an old-time prospector and miner, had some claims near Atolia that he felt lacked only development work in order to become paying mines. He offered John Kelly, sheriff of Kern County, a share in the claims if Kelly would raise the money needed. Kelly and County Assessor Edith Coons put up the cash. Kelly, Coons, W. H. “Hamp” Williams (a good friend of Kelly) and Nosser formed a partnership.

Development work failed to reveal anything worthwhile, and Miss Coons was beginning to believe she was only throwing her money away. This was her second gamble that hadn't paid off, her first being an unsuccessful stab at relocating the Lost Padre Mine. Kelly, in order to help offset some of the grubstaking expenditures, recalled some red paint pigment claims that were eligible for relocation. He told Nosser and Williams they were on the side of Red Mountain, and the two left to relocate the ground in their names. It was hoped the claims would generate a small amount of quick cash.43

Williams picked up specimens of horn silver on his way back from having located the paint claims, and forwarded the samples to Kelly in Bakersfield. Within days Kelly was back in Randsburg with an assay report that read $60 in gold and 436 ounces of silver per ton. The specimens were found on idle property owned by the heirs of ore D. J. Mc Cormick. The claim is a few hundred feet from a main road, and there was a 130-foot shaft on another part of the claim. The operators were looking for gold, not silver. It seems amazing to some that such a wealthy mine (it later produced more than $13,000,000 worth of ore) was passed right over by two waves of prospectors who combed the hillsides during the last two rushes. Actually Williams was extremely lucky. The silver veins only appear, due to a fault zone, at the discovery outcrop, and even that is almost hidden. It is even possible that the outcrop was not exposed at the time the original owners sunk their shaft.44

Silver has always played a minor role in Randsburg's early mining history. In 1908, the Randsburg District produced $650,000 in gold and over $5,000 in silver. The silver was entirely a by-product of gold mining. This calculates to a maximum gold fineness of about 750. (The Yellow Aster bullion averaged about 790 fine) The silver content was nothing to brag about. It lowered the value and purity of the gold bullion and would have been considered to be a poor reflection of the gold camp's richness. Although silver was present here and noticed from the beginning, no major attempt to discover silver was made at Randsburg because no large silver vein was ever suspected in this gold district. Now, all of this changed abruptly.

Kelly, Williams, Nosser, and Coons immediately secured an option on the McCormick property for $5,000 and claimed all the adjacent land they could. Miss Coons and Kelly disposed of a small portion of their individual one-fourth shares in the mine for $50,000. The mining world sat up and took a heavy interest. Was it only a rich surface deposit or a second Comstock? 45

Circumstances heavily favored the partners. No development work was needed to get at the ore; they just scooped it out. After two months $1,770,000 worth of ore had been extracted and the mine was still just a hole 50 feet deep, with no waste dump. With a railroad in the front yard and the Pittman Act pegging silver at one dollar an ounce, the California Rand Silver Mine certainly was found at the right time and in exactly the right place, enabling its owners to make millions.

With the discovery of silver, Randsburg went wild for the third time. The towns of Osdick and Hampton were born in the summer of 1919. The post office came to Osdick on February 14, 1922. The production of the California Rand Silver Mine from June I, 1919, to August 1, 1923, was over $7,000,000. In 14 months from 1921 through February; 1922, one claim (the Grady Lease) produced 18,245 tons of ore valued at $1,613,074! Silver mines and prospects popped up along a 2 mile by 1 1/4 mile area. Shafts were dug south and north of the Kelly in hopes of meeting the extension of the high-grade mineralization. Most failed, except the Coyote on the southeast edge of the Kelly and the Santa Fe on the northeast edge.46

In June 1923, with the provisions of the Pittman Act fulfilled, silver prices dropped to 65 cents per ounce. However, by careful management and increased production, the California Rand was able to continue mining silver profitably. By 1926 the mine had a total gross production of over $13,000,000 with dividends totaling $4,500,000. In 1929 the mine could not be operated profitably, and it was sold to Henry W. Klipstein of the H. W. Gould Company for $50,000. In the fall of that same year, the post office at Osdick changed its name to Red Mountain. 47

Atolia after the silver boom

The California Rand Silver Mine had stolen the show in April, 1919, while Atolia apparently breathed its last breath. While 1921 was the California Rand Silver Mine's biggest year, with silver production for the whole county over $3,000,000, the Atolia Mining Company shipped no tungsten ore whatsoever during 1920,1921, or 1922. However, tungsten was still to play a supporting role in keeping Atolia alive. Between 1923 and 1939, the Atolia Mining Company sold over $3,000,000 worth of ore. Atolia had not died at all.

When tungsten prices collapsed after the war, the Atolia mines experienced a brief inactivity. The Union Mine, the chief producer in the district, was reopened in 1924, and production increased substantially in 1925 to nearly a quarter of a million dollars worth of ore. In 1926 production surpassed a quarter of a million dollars, and in 1927 and 1928, production was slightly under $200,000 for each year. By 1929, Atolia was again on the decline, plummeting from a production of $100,000 that year to a low of less than $15,000 in 1932.

While production increased slightly in 1933 (to $78,000), it wasn't until 1934 that things really started up again. Since 1915, the Flatiron, Spanish, and Par mines were considered exhausted and lay in a state of abandonment. In 1934, they were reopened by lessees, new ore bodies were located, and $1,000,000 worth of tungsten came out of these “worked-out” mines between 1934 and 1940. The Atolia tungsten district is an extremely rich zone. A U. S. Geological Survey report declared that “the tungsten-bearing fissure veins at Atolia contain the largest bodies of high grade scheelite discovered in the United States, and possibly the world.” The ore processed by the Atolia Mining Company averaged 4.14 percent W0 3. 48

The Atolia District in 1940 consisted of over 61,000 feet of underground workings with 71 shafts. Of the 56 claims owned by the Atolia Mining Company, the most productive mines in the group have been (in order) the Union, Papoose, Amity, Par, Spanish, and the Flatiron. The Union Mine by 1940 was the deepest Atolia mine, at 1,021 feet, with close to 5 miles of underground workings. The Papoose was 361 feet deep that year with less than a mile of underground workings. The Amity ore was very rich, averaging 11.62 percent W03. The Paradox Number 3, a mine developed since 1936, was found in 1940 to be the most complex mine structurally in the district due to its having a thick high grade ore body broken by many small faults. 49

While the Atolia Mining Company produced 95 percent of the tungsten from this district, a Mr. P. J. Osdick owned 7 claims east of the AMC properties and reportedly produced nearly a quarter of a million dollars from his Skylark Mine during the boom of 1916-1918. J. C. Raynor, N. H. Myers, and G. T. Ingram jointly owned the Federal mine group which lies south of the Atolia Mining Company property.50

In 1937 over 250 men were employed in Atolia, many of them working for one of the more than 50 lessees who were operating various parts of the Atolia Mining Company properties. The company usually operated only a few of its mines, dedicating themselves instead to milling all the district's ore. In 1938 and 1939, lower prices drove some of the lessees away, but in 1940 there were still 27 of them operating. By 1940 the price per unit of tungsten had once again reached the $20 level, as the metal was once again needed for the war effort. By the end of 1941, the United States Government had put tungsten ore on the list of minerals to be stockpiled. In 1942 the Atolia Mining Company, along with five other producers accounted for 92 percent of the state's tungsten production and helped make California the leading tungsten producer in the

Gold during the tungsten and silver years

In 1905, when “heavy spar” was recognized as valuable tungsten ore and the rush to Atolia was on, Randsburg was still producing gold. The Yellow Aster had over 7 1/2 miles of underground workings. By 1912, miners had dug another 7 1/2 miles of workings, bringing the total to 15. In comparison, Randsburg's second biggest mine, the Butte, has a little over 2 miles of underground workings.

The Yellow Aster experienced a brief inactivity during World War I. When the mine reopened in 1921, only 50 of the 100 stamps in the big mill were crushing ore. It wasn't until 1933 that the mill once again operated at full capacity. During the 1920s, when the nationwide economic atmosphere was that of prosperity, the Yellow Aster was leased to various companies. Lessees produced during this time $850,000 from ore averaging $20 to $27 per ton.

In 1933, the Yellow Aster was leased to the Anglo American Mining Corporation. Its president, Henry W. Klipstein, is the same man who purchased the California Rand Silver Mine in 1929. Most of the ore mined from 1905 to 1933 came from a large glory hole, and in 1938 open-pit mining began on its walls until the mine was closed in 1939. Although the Anglo American Mining Corporation was contemplating shutting down operations due to a diminishing profit, the immediate reason for the closure of the Yellow Aster in December, 1939, was an employee strike. With the price of gold pegged at $35 an ounce and a wartime inflationary economy driving up prices and wages, gold mining simply became unprofitable. Employees could work in aircraft and automobile factories and make much more money. It was not shut down due to any lack of ore. In 1940 the glory hole of the Yellow Aster was estimated to still contain several million tons of rock with an average value of .02 ounce of gold per ton. 53

Limitation Order L-208 wasn't needed at all to close the Yellow Aster. Economic and political conditions immediately prior to World War II had already knocked the wind out of Randsburg, and a half-century tradition of continuous mining in this district came to an abrupt end. The Yellow Aster has proved itself to be the principal source of gold in Kern County. Its production of over $12,000,000 is one-fourth of the entire amount of gold production in Kern County from 1880 to 1957. The entire Rand District produced over $20,000,000 in gold. It's ten biggest producing gold mines and their production figures (in dollars) are: Yellow Aster,$12,000,000; Butte, $2,000,000; Sunshine, $1,060,000; Blackhawk, $700,000; Operator Divide, $600,000; Big Gold, $500,000; Buckboard, $500,000; King Solomon, $500,000; Little Butte, $400,000; Santa Ana Group, $400,000.54

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