Articles - Current hard rock gold mining in Los Angeles County

Current hard rock gold mining in  Los Angeles County 

By Hugh Blanchard

A hundred years ago, the clatter of rock drills and the thumping of stamp mills was commonly heard in parts of L.A. County.  Today these sounds are long gone, although their legacy is still evidenced by the Big Horn, Red Rover, Governor and other once famous mines that remind us of our lusty mining heritage.

Yet, contrary to general belief, hardrock mining never completely disappeared.  There are still three hardrock mines occasionally being  worked in the Angeles National Forest.  One, the Benco Mines, several miles east of Lake Castaic which consists of two shallow tunnels occasionally worked during the past 20 years for platinum and rare earth  according to its owner Joe Benz of Saugus.  It is located at the end of gated Forest Road 7N221 two miles past  the old Knapp Ranch and a short distance beyond the purported Gillette Mine (which an authoritative source state was never a mine but rather a ransacking of a Chumash burial ground in a unsuccessful attempt to find buried treasure) 10 miles northwest of Redrock Mountain.  The other two mines, also occasionally  worked one man operations, are mined for gold and are off Angeles Forest Highway near Monte Cristo Campground.

                                    the Benco Mines (Blanchard 2004)

The Falcon is at the end of a posted and gated side road about a third of a mile off of Forest Road 4N18, 1.3 miles south of Mill Creek Summit Ranger Station, on the western slope of Granite Mountain.  It has been worked off and on since 1877.  There were formerly utility and storage buildings, an A-frame cabin and a cable tram and mill.  All these were destroyed in the widespread Sage fire in 1979.  Its owner since 1985 has been Dr. Ralph E. Pray of Monrovia (his Ph.D. is in metallurgical engineering).  Dr. Pray in his vigorous mid-seventies has been a miner and mining consultant for over 50 years, primarily in the western U.S. but also in Alaska, South America and Africa and has written numerous articles on mining.  He recently transferred title of the mine to his son Ross.

The main tunnel or adit, which is posted and gated, is at  5000’ elevation and reportedly is about 300’ long.  Two shorter tunnels are at the 5200' and 5450' elevation levels. As of this writing  (November 2004) the main tunnel has recently suffered a partial collapse at the entrance and a complete collapse 75 feet farther in and the No. 2 tunnel at the 5200' elevation level has a similar collapse 10 feet inside the entrance.  Dr. Pray advised the writer that he  has no immediate plans to reopen the tunnels.

                         Falcon mine upper adit (No. 2 tunnel at 5200')

Another two tenths of a mile farther on Forest Road 4N18 is a small 30' adit on the left side about 30' up the bank. This was formerly worked by Dr. Pray who determined it was not commercially feasible to continue mining. It has no name just a mining claim number. I have dubbed it 'Falcon Mine Annex'.

                   The writer on Forest Road 4N18 with the mine above-
                it has no name, just a mining claim number. (March 2008)

The Lucky Strike is at the end of a gated road six tenths of a mile up Forest Road 4N18,  a half mile south of its junction with Forest Road 8N23, which begins at Monte Cristo Campground. This segment of FR4918 aka Lynx Gulch Rd has several bad spots along its 5 mile stretch which stop most vehicles. The mine  has been operated on and off since the mid-1920s. It was initially opened by Fred W. Carlisle who also worked the nearby Monte Cristo Gold Mine from 1915 to 1946. Carlisle blasted shut the opening prior to his death in 1946. Otis Lewis, who with other family members has long operated the nearby Hidden Springs Café, reopened the mine in the late 1980’s and continues to work it occasionally. The mine is  posted, has two gates presently (August 2005) unlocked and as a result of a recent theft a stern no trespassing notice. It is reportedly 138 feet long on one level and is near the firebreak between Iron and Round Top Mountains.

                                the writer at the Lucky Strike mine
             House in the Monte Cristo mine area (Hugh Blanchard Jan 2007)
      Remains of a furnace near Monte Cristo (photo by California Mine Explorers)
                   Monte Cristo lower adit (photo by California Mine Explorers)

         Shovel left in the mine by Otis Lewis who with other family members operates the nearby Hidden Springs Café. (photo by California Mine Explorers)

The are several other nearby gold mines that are no longer in operation.  The Black Cargo was worked on and off under several owners  beginning before 1900 until 1998 when its last owner who filed a claim in 1972 was forced to leave after prolonged litigation with the Forest Service who claimed successfully in Federal Court that his mining claim was invalid because his mining was not commercially viable.  Google "United States vs. Billie Joe Bagwell" for the 2l page federal decision  which discusses mining law extensively as well as the history and length of the Black Cargo Mine. The owner, Billie Joe Bagwell, and his wife Cynthia lived in a cabin with a small mill at the junction of Forest Roads 4N18 and 3N23 on National Forest land.  An earlier miner named P.N. Maynard  who became the owner in 1935  probably built the original cabin and mill. The cabin and mill which was also used as a livestock holding pen were destroyed in the Sage fire of 1979 but both were soon rebuilt by Mr. Bagwell. After their eviction, the Forest Service, in their words, ‘rehabilitated’ the area by removing all signs of the cabin and mill and replacing the existing mine gates with so-called ‘bat friendly’ gates.  The 'bat-friendly ‘ gates have small slots for bats to go through.  There are three gated tunnels to the mine close to each other. The middle tunnel is collapsed after 15 feet.  To the writer it appears the present gates are less ‘bat-friendly’ than their predecessors and the actual reason for the re-gating was to ensure that no future mining claims with attendant homesteading would be made.  The mine which is not posted has two main levels with 181 feet  on the upper level and 151 feet on the lower level with a sturdy 16 foot ladder connecting the two. There is a 30 foot pit on the second level with three fragile ladders leading down. Thus the total length is about  447 feet. There are several bats occupying the mine.

                    Black Cargo mine bat-friendly gate (middle tunnel)

 It is located off the same gated road as the Lucky Strike.  Just after the gate a faint trail on the left leads to the mine entrances  50 feet down the trail.
 The California Journal of Mines and Geology Vol.50 (1954) p.496-497 states the mine was worked prior to 1900 when the ore was milled in arrastres. A 2,000 foot tram was built from the mine to the mill but was replaced in 1952 by the present road extending 3,500 feet from the mill to the mine.  The article gives the total length of the mine as about 700 feet and the depth as 90 feet which is almost double the present known length and depth.
   Below the Lucky Strike and Black Cargo somewhere near the banks of Lynx Gulch Creek is  the Gold Bar Mine, perhaps now clogged or sealed. A half mile down stream  where the creek meets the Lynx Gulch Road  are scattered pieces of concrete which is all that remains of its mill which was demolished by the forest service over 20 years ago.  A forest service water tank near the former mill site marked “Gold Bar” is the only remaining written indication of the mine.

Close by is the historical Monte Cristo gold mining area.  Its posted and gated entrance is off Forest Road 4N18 one-half mile north of its junction with 3N23.  A caretaker presently resides on the premises to prevent trespassing.   The mining area includes much of the triangle encompassing Rabbit Peak and Granite and Round Top Mountains.

              the writer at the posted entrance to the Monte Cristo mine

Unlike the previous mines mentioned this area consists of a 25-acre, privately owned enclave within the National Forest surrounded by 525 acres of mining claims.  The first reported gold mining in the area was in 1895 and continued off and on to 1942.  The Sage fire in 1979 destroyed the mill and other mining structures but three old houses survived the blaze and are still standing.  Bob and Susana Kerstein are the present owners.  Susana’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Walters, acquired the property in 1946.  The Kersteins reside in Falls Church, Virginia where Bob has been an executive in the communications industry and also a major dealer in buying and selling old securities as collectibles.  His website containing a detailed history of the area can be found here.

There are two main mines on the property.  The West Ledge Mine is on the southeastern slope of Rabbit Peak with the main passage extending 268 feet with some water in the last 38 feet.  A 25-foot pit near the entrance leads to a low crawl.  This crawl leads down to an outside entrance which has now been sealed.  This crawlway is very dangerous with a real danger of collapse.  There are several small exploratory digs above the mine.  The main passage is about 4 feet wide and usually 8 to 9 feet high – sometimes higher.  Ore cart rails are present throughout most of the mine.
       Robin, Bil and Tom at the entrance to the West Ledge mine (Oct 2003)

The main Monte Cristo Mine which is about 2,200 feet east of the West Vein Mine has two connecting adits each with its own entrance. The lower adit which is about 300 feet above the houses is horizontal and about 340 feet in length. It ends at the bottom of the upper adit which is a shaft about 60 feet deep.