Thursday, July 22, 2010

End of the Road: New Idria

My wife and I were relaxing at Mercey Hot Springs in the Panoche Hills south of Mt. Diablo. I’m not very good at vacation and was scanning the map to eek out an adventure. Thirty miles away the road enticingly ended at “New Idria.” Those words were familiar. I’d read an account of this place in a book called Up and Down California in 1860-1864, the Journal of William H Brewer. Mr. Brewer was part Josiah Whitney's California Geologic Survey. In 1861 they journeyed to New Idria quicksilver mine on horseback:

"The view is extensive and peculiar... the Panoche Plain, with the mountains beyond–chain after chain of mountains, most barren and desolate. No words can describe it...gray and dry rocks or soil, furrowed by ancient streams into innumerable canyons, now perfectly dry, without a tree, scarcely a shrub or other vegetation–none, absolutely, could be seen. It was a scene of unmixed desolation, more terrible for a stranger to be lost in than even the snows and glaciers of the alps.”

Intrigued, Arienne and I spent the afternoon driving out the neglected road, stepping back in time, enjoying the vast openness, eventually winding our way up into the stark mountains.

The road passed a number of ranches, turned to dirt and got steep before we finally we came to the Idria ghost town where the sign read:“Welcome to New Idria. Population: Me.” There were some other interesting signs as well. We had been told that despite the intimidation the road was public access and the often gun-weilding care-taker didn't have authority to run us off. (Though I don't tend to argue with flying bullets.)

This last sign was probably the greatest deterrent of them all.

There wasn’t a soul to be seen so we poked around a little bit, trying to avoid touching anything or breathing in the foul stench. There was a bad vibe in the air and it felt like something really terrible had happened here. The long bunk houses were trashed and filled with junk, windows smashed, doors kicked in, rats running around everywhere. The smell was horrendous. Arienne was smart enough to stay outside but I was fascinated by what looked like the set of a horror flick and ventured in for a moment.

Early Mexican, Chilean, Irish and Cornish migrant laborers earned just a couple dollars a day doing very dangerous jobs in the mine. Brewer wrote:

“Sulphurous acids, arsenic, vapors of mercury, etc., make a horrible atmosphere, which tells fearfully on the health of the workmen, but the wages always command men and there is no want of hands...”

The mine ceased production in 1972 and is now in a complicated state of bureaucracy between environmentalists, historians, government, and the current owner. The site has the unique distinction of being both a federal EPA Super Fund cleanup site and a California State Historical Site. The buildings are infected with the deadly hanta virus and need to be burned down, yet because of the historic status this cannot be done.
Just to add more complications, the Sierra Club has found some endangered species nearby, and the ground in the mountains is composed of asbestos, covered with poison oak, and crawling with rattlesnakes.

Rotary furnace building, built in 1917.
The website puts the situation in perspective:

"The New Idria Mercury Mine, the world's fourth largest quicksilver mine, became listed in the EPA's Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Information System (CERCLIS) database on April 16, 1996 because of the many complex environmental issues associated with this property's legacy as 115 years as a cinnabar mine and a mercury processing plant.

While there has been a good deal of study and concern about the pollution and contamination problems at New Idria, little has been done to begin remediation because the property owners lack the funds necessary for the environmental cleanup and hazard remediation. Regrettably, with several concerned environmental groups waiting in the litigation wings, it is doubtful that any well-off investor will purchase the property simply because litigation will begin the day after escrow closes."

New Idria was once a beacon of wealth and prosperity. But like other more current environmental disasters, the investors who prosper are quick to vanish leaving the aftermath for future generations. Brewer was accurate when he wrote:

“Such is New Idria and by such toils and sufferings do capitalists increase their wealth.”

-Jerry Dodrill


For more info about New Idria:

For a fascinating read about California history after the gold rush and during the civil war read:

Up and Down California in 1860-1864; The Journal of William H. Brewer

Jerry Dodrill


Patty O'Rourke said...

the new idria quicksilver slag heap squatting among the weeds there in asture, deadly beauty, oozing a rainbow of poison. great image, Jerry.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. That slag heap looks like a turd from hell seeping out its poison.

Chris Davis said...

The crooked fence post is a really strong image. It shows the diffculty of surviving in the desert both as a living object and a tool for keeping other living creatures out.

Now what are you going to do to make it up to your beautiful wife? I am thinking a warm beach somewhere.

Stefan Gutermuth said...

Wow, I love hiking at Diablo, but I've never been out to this place. Spooky and cool. Your post captures it well! Thanks, Jerry.

Richard Wong said...

This was a real fascinating story, Jerry. That abandoned house gave me the chills reading it and seeing your photos.

Anonymous said...

A 2016 government report that is available from the internet shows that several sites in New Idria are off scale for the mercury vapor concentration in the air. Never bring children to this area and do not visit unless you really want to screw up your brain and nervous system. It is not worth driving to this very remote and dangerous place for a few pictures that will look just like those already posted on the internet. Be smart and stay away. In addition, we would never eat anything from this area. Hunters beware. The asbestos hazard in the nearby CCMA may, or may not, be real, but the mercury hazard in New Idria is real. This was one of the largest mercury mines in the world for over 100 years. There are good reasons for it to be abandoned.