Catalina’s “Underworld”—Part 2
For nearly a century, Catalina Island was poked and prodded by mining interests in the pursuit of a variety of earth’s metallic treasures, notably silver, lead and zinc and (to a far lesser extent) gold. The remnants of this once robust era are still out there in the hills and, as you will see if you keep prospecting deeper into this column, there is no shortage of mystery surrounding them.
As noted in last week’s column, for obvious reasons I won’t divulge the exact locations of any of these mines. Nothing will make you the subject of a future Mysterious Island column faster than to disappear forever into one of these holes. In addition, most of them are on private property whose owners don’t take kindly to such trespasses. In any case, most of them have been sealed up and are flooded with ground water.
There is an old legend about the first discovery of gold on the Island that has been haunting Catalina history books for more than a century. In 1832, a man named George C. Yount was on a seal otter hunt along the leeward coast of Catalina. During one of his visits to shore he claims he came across a “ledge of gold-bearing quartz.” He grabbed himself a chunk of the material (which he later claims he lost), but for some reason wasn’t impressed enough at the time to look for more.
Over the ensuing 20 years, Yount returned to the Island three times to try to find this lode once again, but to no avail.
The tales of his purported discovery, however, propelled Catalina Island into the world of large-scale mining—an episode that lasted nearly a century.
The true mining history of Catalina doesn’t so much start with Yount’s discovery, but with our own mini-Gold Rush in the Civil War era; an interesting interlude in Catalina’s history complete with its own gold rush town called “Queen City” at the Island’s West End. The “rush” didn’t last for long, however, due mostly to the fact that no one was finding any gold along with the fact that the Union Army decided to evict all the miners so they could set up their operations at the Isthmus.
In the late 1800s, a British mining syndicate mined for silver in (where else?) Silver Canyon and mining got another big boost during the Wrigley era in the 1920s.
The Blackjack Mine, for example, reached its heyday during the Roaring ‘20s. Lead, silver and zinc were extracted from the mine and carried by ore cart along a precipitous skyway down to the processing facility at White’s Landing where the finished material was then taken by barge to the mainland. (I remember many years ago talking to a former Blackjack miner who told me that their transportation to and from the worksite each day was a thrilling ride aboard these carts. That alone would make the hours of underground toil and labor worthwhile!)
Catalina’s mining era ended in 1927 with the closure of all mines on the Island, due mostly to the collapse of prices on world metals markets. But as noted earlier, the above-ground workings still exist and much of the labyrinth of tunnels they left behind still lie hidden beneath the topsoil.
A widely-known mine on the Island’s East End that was shut down in the 1920s still has a number of rusting mining carts strewn about. Its ancient wooden towers with their wire rope running off into the undergrowth are still there, entangled in vines and rotting away in the jungle like some abandoned colonial operation in the Belgian Congo.
I remember talking to one adventurous former resident of the Island who told me of a camping trip she took one time into another one of Catalina’s mines.
This particular mine was one of those partially submerged mines where a portion of her subterranean adventure took her through an underground pool. Knowing this ahead of time, she packed her goods in a dry bag and set off.
After entering the mine and successfully fording the underground reservoir, she set up camp in a little recess. I remember her telling me she sat up all night inside her little dome tent absolutely terrified because “something” was in the mine with her—something “big.” She refused to go to sleep or step out of her tent for fear of encountering whatever creature was sharing the cavern with her that night.
The whereabouts of most of the Island’s mines are well known, thanks to good old-fashioned record-keeping. However, some of these caverns apparently escaped this diligence as evidenced by a fascinating discovery I made several years ago—a discovery not made on Catalina Island, but in a used book store in Long Beach.