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HI HO SILVER

KEARSARGE, Inyo Co., CA

by

Gary B. Speck

           

On the cold windy evening of June 23, 1996, my wife and I set up our tent on our first kid-free camping trip in 21 years.  Camping gear, fishing poles, and my White's Spectrum XLT were unloaded as we were about to begin a much-needed week of R & R at Mammoth Lakes, in California's Eastern Sierra.  I could just hear Lake Mary's rainbow trout calling..."Gary, Gary..."

 

36 hours and four frozen fish later, snow ran us off, and we found ourselves 95 miles south, pitching our tent in Lower Grays Meadows, west of Independence.  Within a few minutes of drowning a couple worms in the tumbling whitewater of Independence Creek, the smell of pan-fried trout permeated the campground nestled in the trees 5.6 miles west Independence and US 395.

 

The next morning we drove up to cloud-covered Onion Valley (el. 9200'), to attempt a high-country hike to the Kearsarge Mine, and the first site of the Kearsarge mining camp, located just below the naked granite spire of 12,621' high Kearsarge Peak.  After parking near the trailhead we traveled only about 200 feet when it started snowing.  Within a few minutes we couldn't see the van, much less our goal.  Not smart.

 

We returned to camp, and I pulled out a couple of my books, and did some in-camp research.  Hmmm.  Less than a half-mile from our camp was the remains of the Rex Montis Mill.

 

We walked up to the supposed site and looked.  And looked.  And looked.

 

Oh well.  

 

Later that afternoon, the clouds pulled back, and the mountains to the west were bathed in warm sunlight.  We headed back up the hill, and 2.0 miles from the campground gate I spotted the sheet metal remains of a building off the side of the road.  We stopped and explored the old mill building, which housed an arrastra.  Nearby was a level pad where an old cabin once sat.  This small, unnamed mining operation dated to 1936, according to a date scratched into some concrete.   

 

We were soon headed back up to Onion Valley, chasing the clouds back over the crest.  We parked again, and headed towards the old mine.  One half mile to the north, the path crossed below a waterfall, and a half hour later we sat on a big rock above it, overlooking Onion Valley.  I was chuffing for non-existent oxygen.  Behind us, the late afternoon sun was dimmed by returning gray clouds, while below, on the talus pile, were huge rusty pieces of unidentifiable metal, square timbers, and other debris that has tumbled down from unseen mining operations higher on the slopes above us.

 

Sitting here and looking up, I could easily imagine the horrible conditions that greeted the miners here 130 years ago.  It was here that rich silver and gold ore was discovered on the side of the then unnamed mountain in the fall of 1864 by five woodcutters.  (What they were doing so high above timberline is beyond me.)

 

Anyway, they staked the Kearsarge, Silver Sprout, and Virginia claims.  The Kearsarge was named after the Union man-of-war U.S.S. Kearsarge, which had recently sunk the Confederate ship, C.S.S. Alabama, off the coast of France.  They dug and shipped four tons of ore to a mill in Nevada, receiving $900 a ton.  The location of their mine didn't remain a secret long, and once word leaked out, a mining camp sprouted up somewhere above where we sat. 

 

The Kearsarge Mine camp attracted several mine investors, who purchased the three main silver claims.  They formed the Kearsarge Mining Company, and by August 1865 they had driven a 50' tunnel into the southeast side of the mountain, hitting $650+ per ton ore. 

 

Nearby, the Rex Montis Mine (owned by a different company), was located 12000' up on the north side of Kearsarge Peak.  It operated from 1864-1866, and 1875-1883.  There was another attempt to reopen the mine in 1935, but the interior of the abandoned tunnels were so crusted with ice, the operation halted after some 250' of ice was removed.  It never reopened. 

 

The Kearsarge Mine was worked between 1864 and 1883, and again in the 1920s when a collection of cabins were erected at the mine.  Those buildings were later moved to Independence.

 

There was plenty of water and wood available, the ore was rich and easy milling, but extraction was difficult due to the extremely high altitude.  Even so the camp kept growing.  It sprawled along a level spot at the bottom of a canyon below the peak.  A stream flowed through the center of the camp, and it was a real "nice place to live". 

 

By October 1865, the 1500 folks living here clamored for the county seat to be established here when Inyo County was to be formed later in the year.  In January 1866, the election was held, but Independence, down on the valley floor, acquired the county-seat honors.

 

During the bitter winter of 1866-1867, Kearsarge was almost empty, except for enough crews to work the Kearsarge Mine, which operated 24 hours a day.  By the end of February folks trickled back to the camp, and the other mines cleaned up and readied themselves for the upcoming mining season.  Several new mills were erected in the district, but continued heavy snowfalls hampered operations.

 

On the afternoon of March 1, 1867 an avalanche slammed into the small camp, burying and destroying buildings, injuring several people, and killing the wife of mine foreman C.W. Mills.  The survivors packed up and relocated down in Onion Valley.  Despite the avalanche, the mines continued to pour forth their silver treasure.

           

Litigation plagued the mines, and the Kearsarge Company found themselves about $15,000 in debt.  When creditors demanded payment, ore was stockpiled to avoid payment.  In 1867 ownership of the mine changed hands and the entire operation slowed down.  People began to leave.  Even though the mine produced steadily for several more years, it never got out of debt, and the only residents of the old camp were the mine operators and workers. 

           

In 1869, the mines were sold again, with no better results, and by the mid 1870s the newest owner ceased operations rather than going bankrupt.  The mines closed, and Kearsarge was nearly abandoned.  By 1882 only one registered voter remained in camp.

           

Several attempts were made to reopen the mines, but due to the isolated location, they failed.  During WW I the machinery in the mines was scrapped.  Other than a small revival in the 1920s and in 1935, the mines have remained quiet. 

           

Onion Valley has nearly reclaimed Kearsarge, and only thorough investigation in the greenery will reveal the remains of the town's second location.  The original site above where we stopped is nearly impossible to find.

           

After a short visit with the ghosts of Kearsarge, we hiked back down the hill, and reached the van.  I wanted to find the ruins of the Kearsarge Mill, especially since it is supposedly still visible. 

           

We slowly descended the switchback hill, and midway between Onion Valley and our campground we spotted what looked like a man-made rock pile.  We stopped at a turnout.  Below the road and nestled just above a big switchback was the stone foundation of the Kearsarge Mill. 

           

After an hour of clambering among the ruins and taking lots of pictures, daylight was gone, and a cold wind rolled down the steep valley towards Owens Valley far below us.  With the smell of snow in the air, two satiated and very tired ghost towners hit the road, and in a few minutes we pulled up camp chairs in front of a toasty cracking fire.

           

I put my feet up and smiled. 

           

High Ho Silver, indeed.

 

MINES:

·        NW¼ Sec 30, T13S, R34E, Mount Diablo Meridian

·        Latitude: 36.7813227 / 36° 46’ 53” N

·        Longitude: -118.3234303 / 118° 19’ 24” W

 

This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for May 2001.

 

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FIRST POSTED:  May 01, 2001

LAST UPDATED: September 21, 2009

 

 

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