Few of these mines produced much, but one certainly did — the Lost Horse Mine.
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Even before the California Gold Rush of 1849, prospectors were finding gold in southern California. As the rewards from the mines in the Sierras began to wither, miners headed toward the deserts, where hot summers, scarce water, limited wood sources, and the difficulty and high cost of transporting equipment and provisions created a challenging mining environment. But a few hardy adventurers endured, and about 300 mines were developed in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.
Few of these mines produced much, but one certainly did.
Here’s Abigail Trabue
Johnny Lang and his father drove their herd of cattle into the Lost Horse Valley in 1890, having been forced to move west after his brother and six other cowboys were gunned down in New Mexico. One night, while camped in the Valley, the Langs horses disappeared. The next morning Johnny tracked them to the camp of a group of unsavory cattle rustlers, the McHaney brothers, at their oasis encampment.
The oasis that now makes its home as an entrance to Joshua Tree National Park was first settled by the Serrano people, who called it Mara, meaning “the place of little springs and much grass.” Legend holds they came to the oasis because a medicine man told them it was a good place to live and that they would have many male offspring. The medicine man instructed them to plant a palm tree each time a boy was born. In the first year, the Serrano planted 29 palm trees at the oasis. The palms eventually provided the Serrano with the materials for food, clothing, cooking implements, and housing. They were able to successfully cultivate the oasis with corn, beans, pumpkins, and squash, utilizing the life-giving waters that rise along a mountain fault.
The McHaney brothers arrived at the oasis that is now known as twenty-nine palms to hide their stolen cattle trade. They hid cattle that had been poached from other ranchers in isolated rocky coves nearby.
Johnny Lang met up with a man named “Dutch” Frank who had also been intimidated by the McHaneys. Frank had discovered gold – and he was certain that it was a very profitable claim, but he was afraid to begin developing it because of the threat of the McHaneys taking it over. Jim McHaney and another gang member had already forced, at gunpoint, a man named of Frank James to sign over his claim to the Desert Queen Mine, and after he signed, they shot and killed him.
Lang was willing to take the risk of running afoul of the McHaneys for the chance at riches. He and his father bought the rights to Frank’s mine for $1000 and called it Lost Horse. To protect the claim, and protect himself from being outright killed by the McHaney Gang, Lang took on three partners. After filing their claim, they set up a two-stamp mill and began to process gold – lots of it.
A stamp mill consists of a set of heavy steel stamps, loosely held vertically in a frame, in which they can slide up and down. Miners would bring up ore from the mine, and then the stamps would be lifted and dropped onto it, crushing the rock to reveal mineral inside. Mills were categorized by how many stamps they had. Lang’s two-stamp mill had a pair.
The claim was profitable, but Lang and his partners needed a larger financed operation to fully extract the abundance of riches, so they sold their claim to a wealthy rancher from Montana, J.D. Ryan. Ryan found a steam-powered, ten-stamp mill near the Colorado River and had it dismantled and hauled to the mine site. To provide the required steam for the mill, he ran a two-inch pipeline 3.5 miles from the wells at his ranch to an earth and stone reservoir near the mill. Steam engines fueled by trees from nearby mountains were used to push the water up the 750-foot elevation gain where it was then boiled to power the stamp mill. Heating the water at both the ranch and the mill required a lot of wood, and the results of the timbering can still be seen today in the sparsely vegetated hillsides at both sites.
The booming of the ten 850-pound stamps could be heard echoing across the valley 24 hours a day as the ore was crushed. Water added to the crushed rock made a slurry, which washed over copper plates covered with a thin film of mercury. The gold particles clung to the mercury and the debris washed away.
The amalgam of mercury and gold was smelted to separate the two metals. The mercury could be reused and the gold was formed into bricks. These bricks were carried to Banning every week, concealed in a 16-horse freight wagon. The 130-mile trip to deliver the gold and return with supplies took five days.
Johnny Lang stayed with the mine, working for Ryan to supervise the night shift at the mine. The day shift was regularly producing an amalgam the size of a baseball while Lang’s night shift was producing something closer to the size of a golf ball. It took a private detective to determine that when Johnny removed the amalgam from the copper plates, he kept half for himself. Ryan gave Lang a choice: sell out or go to jail. Lang sold, then moved into a nearby canyon where he continued to prospect.
The Lost Horse Mine continued producing until 1905, when the miners hit a fault line, crumbling the rock and forever losing the ore-bearing vein. The mine was leased to others who continued to look for gold over periods of time, but often laid dormant until 1931. During the great depression, gold prices were skyrocketing, so miners went back to Lost Horse to try and recover more gold from unprocessed chunks of material laying around the site with a new process that involved cyanide. They were able to produce a few hundred more ounces of gold.
During one of the mine’s periods of abandonment, Lang returned and set up residence in the cookhouse. Much of the gold he had stolen was still hidden at the mill site, and he had returned to retrieve his stash. He was able to recover some of it and sell it off, but in the winter of 1925, he caught ill. Unable to walk out for help, Lang died of exposure along Keys View Road. His body wasn’t discovered for another two months.
The Lost Horse Mine delivered more than 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver — worth approximately $5 million today — between 1894 and 1931.
With the creation of Joshua Tree National Monument just a few years later in 1936, Lost Horse Mine came under the protection of the National Park Service. Over time, the wooden portions of the cabins and the headframe of the mill, which supported the massive stamps, collapsed.
In the later 20th century, the 500-foot mine shaft, with horizontal tunnels at each 100-foot level, began to collapse. The combination of unstable mine workings and earthquakes created a sink hole near the mill that eventually threatened the entire structure. Even the cable netting and concrete caps that were installed to protect visitors were consumed by the ever-expanding hole.
In 1996 a new technique for capping mineshafts was tried. An expanding polyurethane foam was injected into the hole to provide a stabilizing plug. The plug was then covered with fill material to protect it from UV damage.
Even with the toll that time has taken upon the mine, Lost Horse is still considered one of the best-preserved mills of its kind.
Two distinct desert ecosystems, the Mojave and the Colorado, come together in Joshua Tree National Park. A fascinating variety of plants and animals make their homes in a land sculpted by strong winds and occasional torrents of rain. Dark night skies, a rich cultural history, and surreal geologic features add to the wonder of this vast wilderness in southern California.
There are few facilities within the Joshua Tree’s approximately 800,000 acres, making Joshua Tree a true desert wilderness. About 2.8 million visitors come to the park each year to enjoy hiking, camping, photography, rock climbing, and soaking in the serene desert scenery.
The busy season runs from October through May, as the summer is incredibly hot. Campgrounds usually fill on weekends through most of the busy season, and in the spring, they’re full all week long. During the quieter summer months, all campsites are first-come, first-served.
There is no water available in the park. Bring at least one gallon per person, per day, especially if you will be hiking or climbing. There’s also little to no shade in most places. Protect your skin from the elements and your body from dehydration. Sunglasses, long-sleeved shirts and pants, and a wide-brimmed hat are a must in the desert.
The Lost Horse Mine is a popular hiking destination. The trailhead is located off Keys View Road, and the trail, which is a four-mile round-trip, follows the road developed by the miners to haul ore and supplies. Mine shafts are dangerous, and historic structures are easily damaged. While the Lost Horse site has been stabilized, it is still not safe to walk on.
This episode of America’s National Parks was hosted by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.
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