Many Calaveras County residents enjoy family picnics, playing games and perusing the farmer’s market at Utica Park, but few know the park was built on the remnants of the partial collapse of the storied Utica Mine.
The mine’s story begins hundreds of millions of years ago with the deposition of gold-bearing pyrite and its copper, arsenic, lead and zinc sulphide “cousin minerals” in deep seas. The gold concentration within these minerals was so low, it’s barely worth mentioning (maybe $1.25 per ton at current prices). But, over immense time under heat and pressures within the Earth, the sulphide minerals were concentrated in veins and pods that waited for discovery.
In the summer of 1854, John Selkirk, a discouraged placer miner who was down on his luck and ready to go back to Massachusetts, tied his mule up in a gulch north of what is now downtown Angels Camp. There, he made camp for the night and readied himself for his trip home when, according legend, a noisy blue jay disturbed him. He picked up a rock to throw at the pesky bird and saw that it was shot full of gold.
Hoping his luck had finally changed, he started digging and uncovered a vein with visible gold, pyrite, arsenopyrite, chalcopyrite, galena and sphalerite and filed a claim. He worked the polymetallic vein for several months with a shallow shaft and arrastra (primitive mill for grinding and pulverizing gold or silver ore) but was discouraged at the difficulty of finding enough free-milling gold ore (yielding gold or silver that can be reduced by crushing and amalgamation without roasting or chemical treatment) to make his expenses and pay workers. He really needed capital to develop the mine and was discouraged further after taking samples of his best gold ore to potential investors in Sacramento and Benicia and coming back empty handed. Now, being really discouraged, he went back to his hole in the ground and his arrastra and tried to high grade the vein for the free-milling gold ore that would have a value of more than $20 per ton and get him enough gold for traveling money back home.
Several weeks passed with limited success and finally, a party of prospectors visited his camp. They asked about his prospect and he proclaimed it the best in the Mother Lode, but he might be enticed to part with it for $200 in gold. They offered him $50 if he threw in the mule. He took the gold and rode off on the mule into history.
The new owners had more business sense and got the capital to build a 20-stamp mill and open up the mine with new workings on the gold-rich portions of the vein.
Soon, the mine was in intermittent production, but the spotty nature of the free-milling gold mineralization and the association with the other sulphide minerals and iron oxides made recovery of the gold difficult. Also, the very rock, brittle schist, made for difficult and dangerous mining.
Eventually, after some thousands of tons of ore were mined and processed, the mining operation ceased as the gold-bearing ore was just too low a grade (about $4 per ton in recovered gold when gold was $12-$15 per troy ounce and miner’s wages were $2 per day). The operation ground to a halt and the owners abandoned the property.
Several years passed, and the overgrown workings filled with water. The time had come for a mining man with vision to discover the value of John Selkirk’s prospect. Such a man was the young James G. Fair. He was knowledgeable of polymetallic veins and immediately saw the potential of the prospect if the proper milling of the ore could produce gold and silver from the sulphide ores.
Fair drained out the workings, opened them up and gave them a name: the Utica. He made the mine a going proposition with a modern chlorination mill that would extract the gold and silver from all of the sulphide ores. As a result, the stream of gold and silver bars that were produced made Jim Fair a rich man. This was not without a cost, as the efficient working of the mine and mill complex required that the mining be done in the same brittle schist that caused the previous operators to go broke. Fair was a competent miner who knew that the only way to mine such bad ground was to timber it, and timber it he did. Massive amounts of acid-resistant timber were cut in the surrounding area and went into what were eventually 125 miles of underground workings. This timbering allowed for the mining of many areas that had low grades of free-milling gold but “auriferous” “argentiferous” sulphide ores that could be successfully treated by newly discovered technologies and processes.
With his new wealth from the efficient and successful operation of the Utica, Fair set his sights on the wealth of the newly discovered Comstock Lode in Nevada. As mining, milling and timbering costs rose at the Utica, profits shrank. Fair was looking for new pastures and challenges. In the Comstock, he invested his sizable fortune gained from the Utica and invested it in major silver and gold mines that made him millions, and he gladly joined the ranks of the Comstock Bonanza silver kings – Flood, Mackay and O’Brien over the next several years.
During this period, the Utica plodded on with minor gold production until it was finally abandoned by Fair and the mill dismantled. The workings became flooded, and the local people thought they had seen the last days of John Selkirk’s old mine.
This was not to be the case. The most bizarre chapter in the history of the old Utica was to come with the aid of a mysterious San Francisco spirit medium (not madam) named Mrs. Robinson.
In 1880, Charles D. Lane bought the moribund Utica for $10,000 and promptly began to de-water the old workings, against the advice of other mining experts who said that if Jim Fair couldn’t make a go of it, no one could.
This didn’t deter Charlie Lane, and he persisted in his development of the property with every cent of his own money and $15,000 in borrowed capital. He was sure high-grade gold pockets were still there that could be profitably mined.
How was he sure? He was a firm believer in the ability of the spirits to direct his efforts. Charlie had been taking samples of ore to Robinson who advised him, for a price, to keep on seeking the high grade that would make him rich. After this revelation, even his wife thought he should abandon the venture. At this point, maybe the spirits intervened in the presence of Alvinza Hayward, a knowledgeable mining man and also a believer in the spirit world. Charlie convinced Alvinza to take a sample of the ore to another San Francisco spirit medium and confirm what he said. That he did, and he came back to Charlie convinced along with another investor, W.S. Hobart. Together, they formed a corporation that supplied the money for the continuous development of the property with the production of more than $7 million in gold prior to its being shut down in 1942 under government orders.
This wealth came at a tremendous cost in human life when in July of 1895, fire and explosions wracked the mine and 20 miners lost their lives. Other disastrous fires, floods and the collapse of several of the underground workings over the years caused more injuries, took more lives and left the depression that is now Utica Park. The spirits Mrs. Robinson called up may well reside in the now-flooded workings of John Selkirk’s ill-starred diggings.
Rumor has it Mrs. Robinson was paid $1,000 in gold for every successful advice and not a penny if the advice didn’t “pan out.” Accordingly, she is thought to have been paid on the books of Utica Mining & Power Co. over $80,000 – not bad for looking, occasionally, at a few rocks. Most geologists or mining engineers of the day could only dream of such wages.
References used for this story were: U.S. Geological Survey MILS, MAS and CRIB files and publications, the U.S. Bureau of Mines Publications, California Division of Conservation Mines & Geology Files,“The Extraordinary Story of the Utica Mine” by Bailey Millard and “Everybody’s Magazine,” Vol. V, pp. 97-112, November 1901.
For more information, contact Richard Lundin at firstname.lastname@example.org.