HI HO SILVER
KEARSARGE, Inyo Co., CA
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
I put my feet up and smiled.
High Ho Silver, indeed.
· 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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