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Guide to the New Almaden Mine (Calif.) Collection, 1845-1973
Special Collections M0270  
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Collection Details
 
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Historical Note

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: New Almaden Mine (Calif.) Collection,
    Date (inclusive): 1845-1973
    Collection number: Special Collections M0270
    Creator: New Almaden Mine (Calif.).
    Extent: 86 linear ft.
    Repository: Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information

    Access Restrictions

    None.

    Publication Rights

    Property rights reside with the repository. Literary rights reside with the creators of the documents or their heirs. To obtain permission to publish or reproduce, please contact the Public Services Librarian of the Dept. of Special Collections.

    Provenance

    Gift and purchase, Mrs. Phillips Schneider; gift of New Idria, Inc., 1976.

    Preferred Citation:

    [Identification of item] New Almaden Mine (Calif.) Collection, M0270, Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

    Historical Note

    In 1845, Captain Andres Castillero of the Mexican Army was sent on a routine scouting patrol through what is now northern California, then part of Mexican territory. As an amateur geologist, Castillero recognized the possibility that the rolling hills held vast mineral deposits. During a visit to local Indians, his suspicions were confirmed. The Indians told him of the red rock they used to make paint, and of the cave where the walls were solid deposits of this red rock. A trip to the cave left Castillero amazed; the red rock was cinnabar, high grade mercury ore. He quickly filed a claim with the most suitable local authority, a justice of the peace, and received mineral rights to excavate the mine site. The rights were divided among five principal holders, including Castillero, his guide, and the Indians who led him to the mine.
    Unfortunately for Castillero, Mexican land claim regulations were unusually complex, and he found that his claim to the mine could be disputed in court by anyone interested in filing their own claim. This consideration, along with orders from the Mexican Army to prepare for war with the United States, led Castillero to sell his rights to the mine to Barron, Forbes Company, an English industrial firm.
    Barron, Forbes Company, which operated a cotton mill in Tepic, Mexico, soon acquired controlling interest in the mine by buying the shares of the other principals. Organized mining operations began at the renamed New Almaden Mines (after the famous Almaden quicksilver mine in Spain) in 1847. It was the first large-scale mining venture in California.
    New Almaden proved to be a bonanza. Not only were there huge cinnabar deposits to be mined, but the demand for quicksilver soon skyrocketed. Because of its chemical affinity for gold and silver, mercury was of inestimable value in the refining process of precious metals and was needed throughout the United States, Mexico, and South America. Under the direction of Henry W. Halleck (later a general in the Civil War), the Mexican miners of New Almaden tunneled into the hillside to hammer and blast the cinnabar from the mine walls. Carried or pulled to the surface, tons of ore were roasted in huge furnaces to free the mercury. The silver liquid then passed through condensers into vats, from which it was carefully ladled into seventy-five pound flasks.
    The miner's life at New Almaden was not an enviable one. Men worked ten to twelve hour shifts, six days a week, for wages of $1.50 to $2.50 a day. Deep, hard-rock mining in tunnels was dangerous enough in itself, but New Almaden miners had to contend with the highly poisonous mercurial fumes as well. Barron, Forbes showed little regard for the welfare of its employees. Medical care was virtually non-existent, and workers lived in squalid conditions, their hastily built shacks dotting the hillside of what became known as Spanishtown.
    Barron, Forbes ran New Almaden at great profit and with no interruption for a decade. But the success of the venture began to attract others who endeavored to share in the bounty. Questions soon arose regarding the legality of the original Castillero claim as well as the subsequent transfer of shares to Barron, Forbes. The complexity of sorting out Mexican land titles in what was now United States land compounded the problem. A claim presented to the Board of Land Commissioners by Barron, Forbes in 1852 proved unsatisfactory, and a suit disputing the ownership of the mine was filed. A court injunction in 1858 forced Barron, Forbes to shut down operations while investigation and litigation continued. In 1863, the case reached the United States Supreme Court, where it was decided in a four to three decision that the title did not belong to Barron, Forbes.
    Seizing the opportunity, the Quicksilver Mining Company made ready to take over the property. This firm, of Pennsylvania and New York, was formed solely in anticipation of a favorable Supreme Court ruling; once that ruling was handed down, the company quickly prepared for the takeover. Barron, Forbes attempted to resit the court decision--armed confrontations at the mine entrance between men from the Quicksilver Mining Company and miners for Barron, Forbes nearly resulted in bloodshed. President Abraham Lincoln entered the fray by issuing a writ supporting the federal seizure of the mine and equipment, but the public outcry over the arbitrary use of executive authority forced the President to back down. A settlement was eventually reached in 1864 that enabled the Quicksilver Mining Company to gain possession of New Almaden on payment of $1,750,000.
    Under the Quicksilver Mining Company, little time was lost in resuming operations. Samuel Butterworth resigned as president of the company to become general manager of the mine (at an annual salary of $25,000). Under his able direction, the mine boomed; New Almaden produced more quicksilver in 1865 than the fabled Almaden in Spain, the world's greatest mercury mine. Gross income for the three year period 1864-1867 totaled some $6,000,000. Over one thousand men, mostly Cornish and Mexican immigrants, were on the company payroll.
    Butterworth brought routine and rigid order to New Almaden where none had existed before. Mine property was declared private, and a toll gate was erected at the entrance. Improvements in mining operations were initiated, machinery was improved, and the processing became more sophisticated. A tramway was constructed that brought ore from the shafts to the furnaces. Mine superintendants maintained a tightly controlled daily routine. Cornish Cousin Jack and Mexican minero often labored alongside one another by day, but separated at quitting time--one returning home to Englishtown, the other to Spanishtown.
    Samuel Butterworth resigned in 1870 and his nephew, James B. Randol, became general manager. Randol's long tenure of twenty-two years resembled that of his uncle in many ways. The company expected discipline, order, and hard work from its employees; they in turn received benefits that the company extended. Mine workers lived in company houses, relaxed at company recreation halls or company-sponsored social events, and spent their $40 to $100 a month at the Derby and Lowe company store. Those who paid one dollar a month to the Miners' Fund, New Almaden's health plan, received medical care from the company physician.
    The mine continued to yield huge amounts of ore during Randol's years as manager. Newly-designed furnaces roared around the clock, reducing 154 tons of ore every twenty-four hours. By the early 1890s however, the glory days of quicksilver production in New Almaden were over. The mountain of cinnabar that lay beneath the cave Castillero had discovered was nearly depleted. The company cut back on employees and reduced operations. The 1893 depression forced even further cutbacks, and by 1912, the Quicksilver Mining Company had filed for and been granted bankruptcy.
    Sporadic attempts to resume even small scale mining at New Almaden occurred throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Rising price and demand for mercury, especially during the war years, attracted many firms to the abandoned equipment and buildings atop Mine Hill as late as the 1950s. Production was limited, however, and each new venture lasted only a few years at most. During World War II, the mine was kept open and running on government orders, even though it was operating at a loss.
    Today, the remains of the New Almaden repose quietly in the Capitancillos hills. The mine is protected from any land development by virtue of its Department of the Interior status as an historic landmark. Recent restorations of houses for viewing by the public and the opening of a museum signal the opening of a new era for New Almaden as a public park.