Friday, October 19, 2007

Low Country Adventure - Mining

Welcome to the Keane Wonder Mill, the next stop on our Death Valley adventure! After leaving Rhyolite, we continued west and about 5 miles later entered Death Valley. The Keane Wonder Mill is probably 2 or 3 miles up a gravel road off highway 190. The gravel road takes you almost to the base of the mill site, which served, wait for it, the Keane Wonder Mine. The mine itself is somewhere higher up in the hills, but we didn't make the climb while we were there.

In 1903 or 1904, depending on the source, a prospector named Jack Keane discovered a substantial ledge of gold in the Funeral Mountains. The ore was of high enough quality that the claim sold quickly, and as seems to be the case with many mines in the area, proceeded to pass through a series of ownership arrangements until the early 1940s. Unlike many mines in the area, especially gold mines, this one made a profit. Not only was this a rich strike, the Keane Wonder Springs were relatively close by, providing water in an area where there just isn't much. A tramway was constructed to move ore from the mine head to the mill site and a pipeline brought water from the spring, allowing the ore to be processed on site. This reduced transportation costs, since hauling unprocessed ore cost the same as hauling just the gold. This fortunate combination of factors meant that recovering and moving the ore out of the area was a worthwhile proposition, which simply wasn't the case for most of the mines in this area. Miners don't seem to have spent much time working out the ROI before they started digging.

Yes, tourist signs make lousy pictures, but I have a reason, stick with me here. The road in the lower left part of this picture is the same road you drive in on today. Ok, got the basics?

Here's a close up, showing the mill back in it's working days. The text on the sign says the picture was taken in 1907. Notice the white or gray building on the right side of the picture?

Here's what's left of that building today. Although you can't really tell from the pictures, a big wash now runs through the middle of what would have been the mill site. Below, there's a substantial debris trail that gives you a pretty good idea of where the rest of the building went. It was a graphic display of what the occasional rain storm can do in this area. Death Valley doesn't get much rain, but when it does, look out below.

Another picture of the mill site, you can see the wash a little better here.

In the "You Are Here" picture above, if you look just left of the arrow and follow the pipe line a bit down and to the left you can see a trail. Right where the trail goes over a hill and out of view, there was a building of some kind. Interestingly, you can't see it in the picture, but the mine was worked off and on into the 1940s, so the building possibly came later. At any rate, here's what is left of it today. This first picture is looking north, up the valley towards the Racetrack. You can also just barely see sand dunes in this picture. Must have been a heck of a view from whatever windows they had.

And here is the same building, this time looking south down the valley towards Badwater. The lighter areas you can see on the ground in this one are salt flats.

House is gone, but the bathroom still stands! Mr. Wakeandahalf says it looks like he's using it, but he's not, I promise. Why it's sitting in the middle of the trail is a bit of a mystery, though.

Here is a picture of the base of the tramway. This was a bit of an engineering feat at the time, with (if you believe the National Park Service, which owns the claim today) 13 towers, a vertical drop of 1500 feet and a span of up to 1200 feet between towers. If, however, you believe the sign at the site (which presumably the NPS installed) the tramway consisted of 11 towers, covering a distance of one mile and a vertical drop of 1300 feet. The NPS seems to agree with itself that tramway used good old fashioned gravity to operate; the weight of the full buckets dropping down from the mine pulled empty buckets up.

Here's another picture of the tramway, somewhere up over that hill is the mine head. If you look back at the "You Are Here" picture again (see, I told you it would come in handy!) the tank visible in this picture is one of the two you can see standing together in the middle of the picture towards the top.

After wandering around the mill for awhile, we walked about a mile north to the Keane Wonder Springs. I have some pictures of the springs for my next post. In the meantime, while I was looking for links to post here, I came across this site with some really fantastic pictures of Death Valley. Pop on over there if you want to have a look at some of the things we hope to get to see in the near future.

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