MAKING HISTORY: Preserving Mineral King's mining history
For all the fame and notoriety that Mineral King has achieved since it was first discovered by deer hunter Harry “Parole” O’Farrell supplying the Hockett Trail crew in 1864, it was the mining era from 1872 to 1881 when the whole world started watching and, by far, the most people came to this magical place. Magic, because as the name implies, nearly every precious mineral is known to exist here but it was silver that caused the local excitement.
The backstory of the Mineral King mining rush was of course the California Gold Rush when ca. 1850, nuggets of free gold could be found in nearly every nook and cranny of the part of California that today we call the Gold Country or the Mother Lode.
Thanks to the discovery of fabulous silver deposits in the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859, and the fortunes that were made there in the next two decades, the former gold seekers became silverized.
The galena ore containing silver is present in abundance in Mineral King, since 1978 a part of Sequoia National Park. It was the recovery and processing of this silver that proved too problematic.
Fortunately for us, but not good fortune for Mineral King’s miners, the dozens of mining claims filed never amounted to anything of importance. So for those who visit and recreate in this part of Sequoia National Park, its pristine valley was not deeply scarred and altered like so many other mining landscapes.
Yet what remains are distinct traces — roads, tunnels, tailings, building sites, and artifacts, mostly from two important mining ventures. As time, nature, and the uninformed curious who relocate artifacts take their toll, these traces and the story they can tell are rapidly disappearing.
In 1873, the first year of the Mineral King mining rush, 65 claims were filed by 93 prospectors. The most important of these claims was the “Discovery Claim,” filed in 1873 by James Crabtree of Porterville.
Crabtree, a spiritualist of some renown, called his claim the White Chief, telling all who would listen that the ghostly spirit of a deceased Indian chief had revealed in a dream the location of a fabulously rich mineral deposit.
That locale later became the White Chief Mine where tunnels were excavated that are extant today, revealing the marbleized limestone that was believed to have contained some fabulously rich veins of silver and gold ore.
Almost simultaneously, Harry O’Farrell, the hunter who is credited with discovering the remote Mineral King valley, and his partner J.A. Samstag, filed on the Empire lode. That claim, although it was not as intensively worked as the Empire Mine until 1879, was destined to become “the big development” of Mineral King’s mining era.
Crabtree, Beldon, Ford, and Loop, partners in the White Chief claims, officially recorded their claims on September 12, 1873. Six days later, a public notice of the district resolution and bylaws was published in the Visalia Delta, and the Mineral King Mining District was officially created.
The name “Mineral King” was stated in the first section of the “Resolution and By-laws.” It eulogized the expectations and potential for rich strikes in a number of the district’s ores.
In 1874, there were 166 more claims filed. The highlight of the season was the surprisingly high assay values received from Mineral King ore samples that were sent to San Francisco.
Many samples assayed over $100 a ton in silver and gold. The assays and a little publicity were all that was needed, and hundreds of prospectors and all the supporting merchants, workers, and the intrigued began arriving in the district to join in the mining rush.
From 1879 to 1881, the most capital and industrial development was expended in the development of the Mineral King’s Empire Mine. There are dozens of sites related to this work that are concentrated in several areas on Empire Mountain.
Because of all the uncertainty swirling around the dispensation of the Mineral King cabins (1978-2004), the study and preservation of historical resources associated with the mining era have largely been ignored. Currently, the National Park Service realizes that there are significant cultural resources that are threatened and it’s time to address their proper documentation before more are lost.
It is imperative that hikers who encounter these cultural resources refrain from disturbing the context of the sites and do not remove any artifacts, from rusted machinery to the tiniest piece of glass. The removal of artifacts or the desecration of any of the Mineral King sites is expressly forbidden by federal law. It also immediately deletes a chapter in the story of what occurred in Mineral King nearly 150 years ago.
What is so unique is that Mineral King exhibits the trappings of other mining districts when the world rushed in, but without the serious environmental damage. Mineral King is arguably one of the most beautiful places on the planet and is also an important chapter in Tulare County, California, and United States history.