Larry M. Vredenburgh


SEPTEMBER 18, 1992

Mining in the vicinity of Victorville has been greatly influenced by the combination of location and geology. The Mojave River provided a natural trail for Indian commerce as does it heir Interstate 15. Nearly every expedition in the first half of the 1800s passed through here. During the California gold rush period an important cut-off from Salt Lake City for immigrants arriving too late to cross the Sierras safely came through here. We know that one such party of immigrants discovered gold in 1849 at Salt Spring near the south end of Death Valley - it seems entirely possible that the colorful hills in this vicinity lured the curious prospector to them as well. Close on the heels of the gold-rush of 1849, the Mormons came en-masse to settle San Bernardino, and some 40 years later were credited for the initial discoveries here, although I have not found hard evidence of this.

The earliest mining in the vicinity began in 1854 with the discovery of gold in Bear Valley by John Brown. Although mining continued here in a small way William Holcomb's May 4, 1860 discovery of gold in the valley that bears his name, created a stampede. Within a year nearly 1,500 people resided in Holcomb Valley. However the richest gold was quickly exhausted and most drifted on. Soon after Holcomb's discovery John Cushenbury found silver ore just to the north of Cushenbury Springs. And, three years later John G. Nichols, former mayor of Los Angeles constructed the road up Johnson Grade to serve his Moranga silver mine located east of Baldwin Lake.

During the early 1860s men passed through here to the mines in the Providence Mountains, El Dorado Canyon east of Searchlight on the Colorado River, and the copper mines located in the barren mountains west of the Needles. During the late 1860s and early 1870s numerous mines were worked in the California Desert including those in the Clark Mountains, New York Mountains, Resting Springs and Avawatz ranges. Eventually mills were constructed and large amounts of freight passed to the mines through here. On the way south, at first, passed rich ore and later bars of silver bullion for final refining near San Francisco. I am in possession of a Xerox of a 1865 map which shows a gold mine, near the present site of Oro Grande, but I have no other information regarding the site.

Panamint! was the cry during 1873-74 as literally thousands flocked through here to the silver mining camp in the rugged mountains west of Death Valley.

Discoveries of copper made in the Ord Mountains early in the 1870s led to the establishment of the McKinzie Mining district on April 25, 1872. The meeting establishing this district was held at Brown's Ranch at the present site of Hesperia, and the district did encompass Oro Grande and Victorville, however there is no indication those present were aware of the mineral riches here.

Captain A. G. Lane had established a ranch on the Mojave River near Oro Grande as early as 1862. Lane in his spare time had prospected the hills above Oro Grande and was rewarded with the discovery of some exceedingly rich float rock. Yet it was years later in January 1873 that he found its source - and Silver Mountain was christened.

Several newspaper articles in 1873 and 1874 mention that Lane was supervising construction of the new Panamint Road, but never again is he linked with mining at Silver Mountain.

Beginning in the summer of 1879 a there was a rush of sorts to the "Mohave River Mines" in the hills above Lane's crossing. In September 1879 the Santa Ana Herald reported that R. A. Maddox had left some specimen rock at the newspaper office. Two weeks later a correspondent wrote back providing a glowing account of the rich ore noting "I put a piece in the fire and when it was at a red heat I poured water on it and immediately the surface was covered with splotches of fine silver. I have no doubt it would assay $300 per ton." He also noted that there were two companies and 30 men at work. One of these companies was the Soledad Mining Company. The Colton Semi-Tropic of June 12 1880 published a short account of the mines here. In this article the area was identified as the Cottonwood District. The Blue Jacket mine on Gold Hill had most of the superlatives heaped on it. Here gold assaying $125 to $4,000 per ton was found. All of these samples were reported to be free milling and the company predicted that "this mineral hill is to become one of the greatest mining localities in California, especially because of having the advantage of the heavily wooded river flowing at the base of the mountain."

By July 1880 the Red Mountain Gold and Silver Mining District had been formed encompassing six square miles, whose western border was about 6 miles east of Lane's Ranch, placing the Oro Grande Mines right on the western border.

In order to continue providing capital to explore and develop the mines, in September 1880 the Soledad Mining Company levied an assessment of two cents per share on its outstanding stock. This company which owned the Oro Grande, Garfield and Buena Vista mines was busy mining and, constructing a two and a half mile long ditch to take water from the Mojave and supply power to the stamp mill which was being constructed. The company was headed by James Noel and consisted of men from Los Angeles and Pasadena. No more is heard about the Soledad Mining Company, it seems to have been sold late in the year to the Oro Grande Company headed by Col. H. H. Markham of Pasadena, and Dr. O. H. Congar of Los Angeles. The mill projected to be running January 1, 1881 wasn't - of course. However by the last week of April it was.

During that four month period a transformation had taken place. For one, the humble beginnings of the town of Oro Grande were established. On January 18, 1881 a Post Office was established. Also the area is no longer referred to as the Mojave Mining District. The town consisted of a general store run by Ed T. Johnson, 2 butcher shops, a hotel managed by a Mrs. Wilson, a lodging house and several other houses. The company's holdings consisted of an office, assay office and of course the mill. In the April 1881 election, 91 people in the Oro Grande precinct voted.

The Oro Grande Company employed 30 men and contracted with J. B. Burkhart of San Bernardino to haul ore to the mill. Despite the usual hype fed to the newspapers, it was clear as early as May that there were problems at the mill. The San Bernardino Index reported that the mill was shut down for a week to install amalgamation plates. These plates were standard issue at nearly all mills of the day. In June it was reported the mill was daily running 2-nine hour shifts and they just had the first clean up yielding 8 pounds of amalgam. In a clean up, the mill was shut down and the mercury/gold or silver amalgam was scraped from the plates. This was done regularly, in a large operation perhaps weekly. Finally, in July the truth is admitted, the ore contained little native gold, most of it was combined with pyrite. The mill continued to produce a trickle of bullion, to keep investors on the hook, but it was estimated the tailings contained $40 to $250 per ton. In spite of the reverses the mine was active through November.

This mill despite the advantage of free water power, simply could not recover gold from the ore. Only a smelter could do that, but later we will talk about that. Meanwhile events some 40 miles down river were to resuscitate the dead mill at Oro Grande.

Nearly simultaneous with these events, near the present site of Barstow, Robert W. Waterman and John L. Porter had begun developing George Lee's mercury mine which they found actually contained silver. A camp was quickly established, and the mill began producing silver by November 1881. As usually happened news of the rich silver strike spread fast and soon the hills were swarming with prospectors. On April 6, 1881 the Silver King was discovered in the hills above what was to become Calico. The mine often known simply as the King, not only was nearly the first discovered it proved to be the richest. Apparently without the financial backing that Waterman had to construct a mill the owners of the King mine decided to haul the ore 40 miles up river to the idle Oro Grande mill. The Oro Grande mill began operating March 1, 1882 on ore from the King mine.

Nadeau who is well known for hauling bars of silver bullion from Cerro Gordo and the Modoc mines in Inyo County was contracted to haul the ore. Sixteen to eighteen teams were constantly on the road and moved some 20 to 30 tons per day. On return trips, bars of bullion were bound to the railroad at Daggett for shipment to the San Francisco area for final refining. It was reported that Nadeau was paid $90 per ton. If this is even approaching the truth the ore must have been indeed rich. The 100th bar was carefully packed up and sent to Milwaukee, home to most of the major investors.

On June 1, 1882, the Mining and Scientific Press reported that the King mine was sold to the Oro Grande Company for $300,000 with a $100,000 cash down payment. In December 1882 the new company constructed an impressive ore chute and bin that loomed above Calico. In early 1884 the Oro Grande Company ( the second with that name) purchased the King Mine and Oriental Company's mine and mill near Daggett. After enlarging the Daggett mill to 15 stamps, the ore wagons to Oro Grande ceased. In January 1884 it was reported that there was a 40 day stock pile at the Oro Grande mill. After that milling was done at Daggett on ore from the King mine. During the period of time the Oro Grande mill was running on King ore it regularly produced something on the order of $50,000 per month in silver.

In March 1887 a 60, stamp mill was erected along-side the existing mill at Daggett. In late 1888 the company constructed a railroad to the mill which cut the cost of transportation to 7 cents from $2.50 by mule.

At Oro Grande in November 1885 it was reported that the mill was leased to a Denver Company, but nothing more is known.

Shortly after this the area again underwent a transformation. During late early 1887 or 1888, silver/lead ore was discovered in the hills west of Oro Grande. This lead to another rush to the area. Soon small camps sprang up, now primarily west of Oro Grande, and numerous prospectors took to the hills. The silver discoveries prompted the area to be rechristened the Silver Mountain Mining District, harkening back to Lane's 1873 discovery. Although the mines active during the early 1880s were not reactivated, several new ones were. Perhaps most notable were the Sidewinder and the Carbonate. At the Sidewinder mining was diligent during the late 1880s, and a 10 stamp water- powered mill was erected at Victor. A small smelter was erected at Oro Grande in 1891, and ran for awhile on ore from the Sidewinder, and then changed hands repeatedly.

The Carbonate mine located adjacent to the Victor Lime Company's quarry attracted most of the interest in the district during the early 1890's. Iron-stained outcroppings drew the interest of a man named Collins who worked at the limestone quarry. The first indications were that the rock contained silver and lead, but it was gold that stole the show. When the shaft reached 180 feet a small knob of quartz-calcite rock containing flakes of free gold was discovered. The knob widened to a vein several inches wide, literally shot through with sheets of gold. The ore was broken-down on canvas and every ounce was sacked on the spot. One report claimed that this pocket yielded $80,000 in three hours.

Mining is more than just about holes in the ground, mining is about people. This talk is a little thin about the people behind the activity, but Penny Morrow, who I interviewed in 1980 when he was 92 was kind enough to share his life and photos with me. The Morrow brothers, and a sister are shown here before Penny was born in the mid 1880s at a prospect some 40 miles northwest of Barstow. Mining occupied their lives but not entirely, picnics on the river were an important part of life. And, according to Penny, Morrows are credited with constructing the first church in Oro Grande, and running this store.

Even though gold and silver were attracting all the head lines, it was limestone that paid the bills. The limestone quarries at Oro Grande were opened around 1887, and soon two kilns were producing lime for cement. However the timing was not the best, as the Southern California real estate boom of the '80s suddenly went bust (sound familiar?). In 1890 the quarry was already 250 feet long, 100 feet wide and 60 feet high. At the turn of the century some 8 small quarries were active above Oro Grande. At least one produced limestone for refining sugar beets. In 1915 limestone mining for the manufacture of cement was joined by the California Portland Cement operations north of Victorville, and in the mid 1950s in the Lucenre Valley by Kaiser, and the Victorville Limerock quarry, now owned by Pleuss Staffer.

Beginning around 1890 at the St. John quarry, granite was mined for building stone, curbing and street paving stones.

Over the last 100 years or so there have been numerous gold and silver mines discovered in the area and mills and smelters constructed and abandoned. The Ozark mine north of Oro Grande, was active at the turn of the century, and a mill was established. And in the 1920s the old Oro Grande gold mine was reactivated by the Western States Mining Co. The last gold rush in the Mojave Desert, occurred not far from here in the Kramer Hills in 1926. Within the last ten years a major mine has been developed here, a place that had tantalized prospectors with shows of gold for a century, but had not delivered the promised riches.

Other mines, located within the San Bernardino Mountains, were linked with Victorville by more convenient transportation than through San Bernardino include the Rose, Blackhawk and Gold Mountain mines. Their combined production amounted to around $2 million in gold. While it is possible that other sleeping giants (in the sense of gold deposits) may exist at any of these mines, limestone without a doubt has proved more profitable than all of the precious metal mines combined.

But I'm afraid that that story will have to wait for another time.