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.)
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.
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.”
For more info about New Idria: http://www.new-idria.org/
For a fascinating read about California history after the gold rush and during the civil war read: