Copper mines lost currency

April 04, 2007 12:00 am

By Cornelia de Bruin

Triplicate staff writer

Copper mining in Del Norte County had a 20-year run before the industry went belly up.

It was when seven years of rumored wealth in the hills north of Crescent City proved to be true.

In March of that year, several miners took samples of ore to be tested by D.S. Sartwell and Dr. Henry Smith. The ore tested out to have a large percentage of copper.

The news prompted geologist D. C. Gibbs to form a company to take full advantage of the vein — found to be a mile long.

The vein was opened first on a ridge east of Smith River near Peacock's Ferry. Eventually, several shafts were dug to 20 and 30 feet to enable the geologists to more accurately determine the ore's quality.

They, too, underscored the high quality of the ores.

Summer 1860 saw excitement rising here, and attention given to the find from as far south as San Francisco.

A group of Cornish miners agreed that the ore was high quality, calling it the richest they had inspected. Better yet was its accessibility.

And so the fever spread.

Locals picked up the mining lingo quickly, the streets of Crescent City were thinned of crowds, and McClelland's Livery Stable had no animals available for hire.

The first mining company, Evoca, dug its mine about a mile east of the bank of Smith River, on the plank road that led to Peacock's Ferry from the Illinois Valley.

One mile north of Evoca was the second mine, Excelsior. The Pacific was one-half mile farther north. All were on the same ridge.

Soon to join them were the Del Norte, on the east side of Myrtle Creek, the Alta California on Low Divide (on the wagon road from Crescent City to the Illinois Valley), the Union, opposite the Alta California, and other mines, including the Crescent, Bamboo, Mammoth, and the Chaplin and Bradford claims, all near Low Divide.

They sprung up during a two-month period, lasted awhile, but petered out 20 years later.

Between 1860 and 1863, about 2,000 tons of high-grade copper ore were mined. High as the value was, however, transportation and labor prices prevented the mines from turning a profit.

At the same time, "Many persons who should have known better seemed to forget that it required a large amount of capital to operate a successful copper mine (and) most of the mines soon failed," according to the Redwoods National and State Parks Website.

By 1880, only one mine was left – the Condon Copper Mine of Big Flat.

Wages dropped to $40 per month room and board, and the cost to transport ore to San Francisco to $10 per ton, in spite of the fact that the ore could fetch $50-$60 per ton there.

Bottom line was that the mine owners could not afford to run their facilities.