California Chrome, A Different Take

Johnny reviews his maps
American Pharoah ran stunning victories to achieve horse-racing’s Triple Crown during 2015. It had been 37 years since Affirmed had last won all three races, a California-sized drought, you might say. You may recall that in 2014 a horse named California Chrome almost made it, winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but unable to finish first in the longer Belmont Stakes. Well, I just waited more than 15 years to finally find my California chrome.

Those who know of my passion for Maryland chromite and the Tyson family’s mining history might be aware that about twenty years ago in my research I first saw mention of chromite mines in California in published reports. As the eastern U.S. sources of chromite became depleted after the Civil War, the Tysons turned to California ores for a decade or two to supply their Baltimore Chrome Works. By 1900 they were obtaining most of their ores from Turkey, but California had been an important domestic source. I read of some chrome mines in Northern California in the Klamath Mountains. I did a little research here and there in USGS publications and started a small file on the subject.

In the late 1990s while conducting research in Vermont on various Tyson mining interests such as the Elizabeth Copper Mine, I found several letters from the 1880s about the Tyson chrome dealings in California, then more correspondence from the 1920s and 1930s as they were trying to dispose of some assets or obtain royalties from them. I contacted the Del Norte County Historical Society by mail in 1999 and was put in touch with a retired lady named Carol Cleveland who served as a local researcher for me. For a small fee she was very helpful in finding and copying for me everything in their files related to the chrome mines, most of it being about the French Hill mine. We had an enjoyable exchange of information and several contacts by email, and she even got me copies of several land records and an ore specimen from the mine through a friend. Now I had a decent file of material that I would review from time-to-time, hoping someday for an opportunity to visit California. This year was that opportunity.

Following the 25th Annual Mining History Association Conference being held in Virginia City, Nevada, home of the famous Bonanza known as the Comstock Lode, a rich silver and gold mining district, I flew with my wife and daughter to Portland, Oregon to visit the coast and explore the Columbia River Gorge before seeing all the major volcanic peaks in Oregon. After Crater Lake we headed to Crescent City, California for the weekend, a nice-sized tsunami-prone community on some flats by the Pacific Ocean, backing up against the redwood-forested slopes of the Coastal Range and Klamath Mountains. I had tried to make some advance local contacts, but either people were deceased or I received no response, so I was on my own in trying to find any chrome mines.

Through published reports as late as the 1940s and Google Earth, I had a pretty good idea of the location of the mines I wanted to see, but was unsure of the road quality or ruggedness of the terrain we might have to traverse to reach them. Well, like California Chrome vying for the Triple Crown, we ended up going only two for three, but I was very pleased with the results.

Eastern open cut at the French Hill mine
After a 5 or 6 mile drive up steep National Forest roads in the mountains above Smith River, the road narrowed and roughened and we reached a stopping point where we could go no further in our Chevy Impala rental car. It was about a ¾-mile hike in from where we parked down to the French Hill chrome mine. This mine was reportedly opened about 1886 and was a good supplier of chrome ore for the Tyson Mining Company.

According to mining-ephemera dealer Fred Holabird who researched a college geology thesis on this mine, the serpentinite here is overlain by gravels, and in washing away the gravels with a hydraulic monitor to recover gold, the chromite deposit in the serpentine was consequently uncovered and discovered. Geologically, the serpentinites that help form the Klamath Mountains in northern California are part of the Josephine Ophiolite, “one of the largest and most spectacular slabs of old oceanic crust in North America” (Alt & Hyndman, p. 99). A complete section of oceanic crust and upper mantle from pillow basalt and sheeted basalt dikes through layered gabbro and peridotite is found in this Jurassic belt. Blocks of older material dip east, stacked upon blocks of progressively younger material by thrust faults.

It is the serpentinite that has been metamorphosed from dense peridotite by seawater and heat that contains potential chromite deposits. Serpentine became California’s state rock in 1965, the first state to do so. It was almost removed from its position in 2010 due to public fears of chrysotile asbestos found within it. Interesting how things can transform from being a source of pride to becoming one of disdain.

Atop places like Gasquet Mountain, small chromite grains have weathered from serpentinite source rocks in a concentration up to 2%. Fine beach sands containing up to 7% chromite have also been found and mined along the long arcing shoreline just south of Crescent City (Alt & Hyndman, p. 100). I tried my hand with a gold-pan on this beach and recovered a nice black sand concentrate of unknown quality, but I would like to think it contains a reasonable percentage of chromite. It is much finer and more difficult to pan than the coarse chromite sands of Maryland. The ultra-mafic rocks are also sometimes a source of platinum, which miners sometimes found along with the gold in the local gravel placers.

At French Hill I explored the mine-site while my wife, Dawn, and daughter, Karin, sought shade from the hot sun and looked at wildflowers. I was in my element trying to interpret the site relative to mining reports and maps from the 1940s, where open cut mining had occurred at least up into the 1950s. I’m not sure I fully understood it, but the most obvious western workings with some evidence of shafts and adits were actually newer, and the large eastern open cut had gone through the older underground workings.

Hundreds of tons of ore had been mined by the Tyson Mining Company in the 1880s, after which the American Exploration & Construction Company leased the mine from the Tysons during World War I and mined more ore. During World War II a new, unrelated company called Tyson Chrome Mines, Ltd. Of San Francisco leased the site from Letitia Nimick (a daughter of James W. Tyson, Sr.) of Bayhead, New Jersey and mined some 25,000 tons of ore by 1946, making French Hill one of the largest suppliers of wartime chromite.

On the ground there was chromite to be found all about (in fact, Karin had found the first piece on the old mine road as soon as we got out of the car), including an old steel box or truck bed containing some 20 tons of high-grade chrome ore. Since we needed to carry anything out uphill in the heat and fly it home with luggage-weight restrictions, we probably only gathered about 50 pounds of specimens, but there were some 100+ pounders I coveted.

For me French Hill was the Kentucky Derby. On the way out of the mountains we stopped and waded in the cool waters of Smith River to refresh our feet. The Tysons had two other chromite mines in Northern California: Copper Creek (aka Low Divide or Rowdy Creek) dating to 1886, and Mountain View (aka High Divide). These were located much farther north in a large serpentine barrens, closer to the town of Smith River than Crescent City.

Pitcher plants at the Low Divide
After hiking in redwood forests and exploring coastal tidal pools near Crescent City, we decided to hunt for more Tyson chrome sites. Roads were better into this area and we made it to the vicinity of Low Divide, but could not see or reach the Copper Creek chromite mine, deep in the incised valley and out of view from any vantage point we had. This was pretty rugged, mountainous terrain. That was my Belmont; too long, and I missed a win. Our consolation was that along the forest road between Low Divide and High Divide Dawn and Karin found clusters of insectivorous pitcher plants growing in a seeping roadcut.

Fortunately my Preakness was finding the Mountain View mine, right on the 2,500-foot ridge by the road, overlooking the fog-engulfed Pacific Ocean some 10 miles to the west. This site made much more sense according to my maps and I was able to locate shafts and foundational features from prior operations. Dawn and Karin found some very interesting wildflowers in these serpentine barrens.

The Mountain View chrome mine dates apparently to 1868, when chromite was discovered and mining claims were staked in the familiar names of several faithful Tyson Mining Company lieutenants and business partners from Maryland. Each individual then sold his interest in these claims to the Tyson Mining Company for $20 each (a month’s miner’s wages at the time). Names like Ephraim Triplett (from Soldiers Delight), Thomas and Owen Reisler (from the Liberty Mine in Frederick County), were among some 20 others to appear in the land transfer records in California. I doubt all of these gentlemen traveled the arduous journey to the West Coast, but Owen Reisler certainly did and I suspect he located mineral claims in the names of the others for later transfer. The Mountain View mine yielded hundreds of tons of chromite ore that was shipped by wagon to nearby coastal ports, then made the long voyage around Cape Horn to the Baltimore Chrome Works in Baltimore. There it was used to make chromium chemicals and yellow paint pigments.

Panning for chromite at the beach
The Tysons dominated the chrome business in California and elsewhere by purchasing all available ores through agents such as Lewin Wethered and working with merchants like Kruse & Euler in San Francisco. The chromite was bought at prices based upon shipping cost and location in order to control a steady supply and a profitable margin for the company. The Mountain View mine not only operated between 1868 and 1880 at a minimum, but became active again during both World Wars when chromite was needed for the war efforts. We found a number of ore specimens on the ground before having to head down the coast. Nevertheless, you can bet I enjoyed my weekend foray into potential Triple Crown territory, winning two of three and finally finding my California chrome.


Selected Sources:
David Alt & Donald W. Hyndman, Roadside Geology of
Northern and Central California, Mountain Press Publishing
Company, Missoula, Montana, 2000
Francis Wells, Fred Cater, Jr., & Garn Rynearson. Chromite
Deposits of Del Norte County, California, in Geological
Investigations of Chromite in California, California Division
of Mines Bulletin 134, Part I-Klamath Mountains, Chapter
1, November 1946.
Del Norte County Land Records, Book “D”, pages 145-
147, 1868. Also, mining notice filed May 6, 1870.


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