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Mining History of Death Valley National Park

Death Valley National Park Mining History

Did you know that Death Valley has more abandoned mines than any other national park? Thousands of abandoned mine sites are scattered across the park’s 5,200+ square miles. It’s really not surprising when you consider that gold, silver, lead, zinc, antimony, flourspar, cinnabar, Epsom salts, mercury, tungsten, copper, borax, talc, sodium chloride, and manganese all have been mined here for well over 150 years. Some of the strikes were short-lived, others lasted for the life-time of the miner, but all prosperous large-scale metal mining in Death Valley ended around 1915.

Although the facts are sketchy, story has it that the Death Valley mining boom began when a westbound 49'er stumbled on a mound of pure native silver. The prospector used some of the silver to mold a primitive gunsight for his rifle. That bit of metal grew into the legendary Lost Gunsight Mine. As word spread, prospectors headed to Death Valley to search for the hill of silver. It was never found, but it set off a wave of mining that would continue for decades.

The first big strike in the Death Valley region occurred in 1873, when incredibly rich silver deposits were discovered in the Panamint Range, near the head of Surprise Canyon. Immediately, the mining camp of Panamint City sprang up and became home to 2,000 citizens. The town was abandoned after only three years, when the silver stopped producing. A flash flood in 1876 destroyed what was left. Panamint City was called “the toughest, rawest, most hard-boiled little hellhole that ever passed for a civilized town.” Its founders were criminals who accidentally found silver while hiding from the law. They gave up their life of crime to mine silver— at least for a while.

The next big strike was in 1897 when gold was discovered near the mouth of Pleasant Canyon. Named after a famous Australian gold camp, the town of Ballarat took hold, and was home to 400 people. The gold mines at Ballarat boasted good yields before the yellow metal veins gave out.  The Radcliffe mine alone produced 15,000 tons of gold ore from 1898-1903. Although just dots on the map now, the once rich ghost towns of Panamint City, Ballarat, Chloride City, Skidoo, Harrisburg, and others were wild and booming in their heyday.

Generally, all gold prospectors got started the same way— they looked for veins of quartz or seams of red or yellow iron-stained rock. Miners followed these veins, drilling and blasting to break the ore loose, they then sent the ore to mills to extract the gold. A profitable mine would yield about an ounce of gold per ton of ore. The Keane Wonder Mine was one of the most successful gold mines in the entire Death Valley region. $625,000-$682,000 worth of gold was taken from here between 1907-1911. Although the mine still exists, until the site can be made safer, the National Park Service has closed the Keane Wonder Mine and surrounding area to the public.

Pete Aguereberry and His Eureka Mine

gold mining
Rusty relics of Pete Aguereberry's camp still stand.

Although most mines in Death Valley National Park are closed to the public and in need of safety improvements, there is one you can still explore. The Eureka Mine has been stabilized, so you can follow in the path of one of the most famous prospectors in the region— Pete Aguereberry. Take two flashlights when you enter the mine tunnels, one for use and one for backup. In the winter, this mine is closed with a bat gate due to hibernating Townsend's long eared bats. The mine opens again each spring.

Pete Aguereberry was just a greenhorn when he and his partner, old-timer Shorty Harris, discovered gold in the Providence Ridge in 1905. Their discovery triggered another short-lived mining boom, and within a few months, at least 20 other parties were working in the same area. Of all the miners who toiled here, though, it was Pete Aguereberry who persisted.

Born in France in 1874, at an early age Pete had read about the astonishing gold discoveries in California and couldn’t wait to become a prospector. He realized his dream at age 16 when he set sail for America in 1890, and made his way to California. In 1905, Pete was headed to Ballarat with Shorty Harris, but before he got there he found gold-bearing Providence Ridge. Pete filed claims for himself on the north side of the hill, while Shorty took claims on the south side.

Beginning in 1907, Pete worked his Eureka Mine and other claims for 40 years, mostly on his own. Historians estimate that he extracted about $175,000 worth of gold during his lifetime (then valued at $20 per ounce). He died in 1945, and is buried in Lone Pine, California. It was Pete’s remarkable persistence, not his financial success, that made him one of the most recognized prospectors in Death Valley. Aguereberry’s camp still stands, so stop and take a look around when you explore his Eureka Mine. Pete’s original two-room house, including an antique gas stove and refrigerator are still in their places. Outbuildings and two other guest cabins are next to it. Although tempting to take a souvenir, federal law protects every rusty drum, car part, and nail, so leave everything undisturbed.

Not far from the Eureka Mine is Mr. Aguereberry’s Cashier Mill. Built in 1909 and powered by gasoline engines, the mill pulverized the ore, then chemical processes using mercury and cyanide extracted the gold. The mill site and surrounding mines were originally part of Shorty Harris’s claim, which he sold to the Cashier Mining Company. Aguereberry later bought the mill site, adding to the seven Death Valley mining claims he already owned.

Harmony Borax Works and Wildrose Charcoal Kilns

Harmony Borax Works and Wildrose Charcoal Kilns

In addition to precious metals, the Death Valley region was also mined for minerals such as borax, commonly used in detergents and as a fire-resistant additive to fiberglass and other materials. The Harmony Borax Works, built by William Tell Coleman, was active from 1883 to 1888. This mill was famous not so much for its ore deposits, but for the Twenty Mule Team wagons used to transport the borax across the desert. A very memorable advertising campaign using the wagons’ image was used to promote Boraxo soap and the Death Valley Days radio and television programs.

Click here to download the full story by Denise Seith (6 page .pdf). This photo feature first appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Gold Prospector Magazine, pages 56-61.
Death Valley National Park Mining History