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The lasting impact of mercury mining

  • 11 gaye Mt. Jackson Mine

Would California be a better place today if gold had not been discovered in the foothills of its boundary mountains 162 years ago?

There are historians who think so. They believe our settlement would have been slower, more deliberate and less chaotic; that the rush to statehood would not have been granted so precipitously to fill the national coffers.

These are interesting thoughts, big, broad ramifications of the Gold Rush, but there is other fallout that isn't so sweeping, with continuing malevolent effects. What comes up frequently in this area — what, in fact, has Bureau of Land Management officials hard at work right now — concerns a byproduct of gold processing, a silver-white metallic substance called mercury.

When gold miners realized they could no longer pick up nuggets in the stream and the excitement of the '49er migration faded, gold mining became just another extractive industry, albeit a profitable one. Hydraulic mining engineers knew that the way to recover gold from low-grade ore was by a process called amalgamation, the treatment of the ore with mercury to extract gold.

THERE WAS NO GOLD worth mentioning in Sonoma, Lake or Napa counties, but there was a wealth — if you can put it that way — of cinnabar, the mineral that contains mercury, or quicksilver, as some know it.

Californians had been mining mercury since Mexican days. After statehood, the large New Almaden Mine, south of San Juan Bautista, supplied most of what was needed for the many and varied uses of mercury — medical, wood-processing, early photography (Daguerreotypes) and even hat-making where the toxic fumes from the substance caused a form of insanity.

(This gave rise to the descriptive phrase "mad as a hatter," and, of course, to the name of the Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland," although his "madness" did not have the same symptoms as true mercury victims.)

The gold amalgamation demand doubled the price of mercury in the 1870s and set prospectors on the march through the Mayacmas where the owner of the Geysers resort, Col. A.C. Godwin, had filed the first local claim in 1859.

What was known as the "Quicksilver Rush" resulted in hundreds of mining claims filed in the corners of the three counties in the 1870s with colorful names like the Rattlesnake, the Blue Jacket, the Red Cloud, the Flaming Star and Robert Louis Stevenson's hideaway, the Silverado. Miners named them for women — Edith, Emma, Georgia, and for their homes — Illinois, Missouri, Chicago.


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