The miners experienced a variation of Borthwick’s “disagreeable consciousness.” Gold lay beneath them, possibly a major strike. They knew that, but couldn’t afford the equipment to dig it out.
On the plus side, even with mere hand tools, each made between $4 and $5 a day. And they worked for themselves, not the company store.
Picking, sledge-hammering, and hand-crushing — all took too much effort. So the men began packing the most promising ore on burros down to Banner. Never more than 15 feet wide, a nonstop zigzag down 1000 feet, the route was perilous. People who said the road from Julian to Banner was “the worst mule trail in the world” hadn’t descended from the Golden Chariot with ore-laden jackasses.
“It is a perfect spider performance,” wrote a Union reporter: the cliffs were so steep, “one stumble…and kingdom come would be a present reality. You have to keep ‘juking’ your head to retain it on your shoulders.”
Banner had two two-stamp mills. Steam-driven, the devices had 800-pound crushers, able to make over 100 strokes per minute. The mill, which made a noise “like 50 horses” and “shook the earth for miles around,” could mash 28 tons of ore a day into pieces smaller than three inches.
The Golden Chariot’s first five tons earned $6000, enough to hire workers and buy better equipment, including their own stamp mill.
By October 1871, the Golden Chariot produced what seemed like endless bullion. Deeming themselves as blessed as Midas, the owners made a bet: they would pay $50 to “anyone who could pick a piece of ore off the dump [the pile of uncrushed rock] that did not show free gold.”
The terrain quickened the digging. The soft ground of Julian required pickaxes. Around Banner, the ground was so hard it called for dynamite. Miners used to say: “Where there are trees, the ground is soft; where no trees, we have to blast.” One result, writes Dan Forrest Taylor, was that “the mines in Banner did not usually have to be timbered, as did those in Julian.”
In August, 1872, the Golden Chariot had sunk three inclined shafts along a southeast-northeast axis — five-feet-square and 100 to 125 feet deep — and averaged around $9000 per week in shipments. John Roberts, a mining engineer from San Francisco, inspected the Golden Chariot and declared that it had no “true ledge” of gold; it was at best a “pocket” mine — a false alarm. Like most of the deposits in the area, said Roberts, the gold comes from “shallow underground workings”: the deeper the dig, the smaller the return. Roberts warned Bay Area capitalists to stop investing in the Julian-Banner mines, especially the Golden Chariot, which wasn’t “worth more than $10,000.”
Perhaps because of the negative report, but more likely that he wanted a less stressful life, early in 1873 George King sold his share to his partners for $25,000, even though they had 400 tons of uncrushed ore on the dump. This wasn’t the first time, writes Leland Fetzer, “that a discoverer sold out for cash rather than face the formidable problems, presumably, that working a mine with partners presented.”
Roberts’s report also scared away Bay Area investors. Near the end of 1873, a soft-spoken, bearded man dressed like a “vag” — a vagrant — in tattered overalls, asked for work at the Golden Chariot. The partners, now employing 25 men, said they were full up. Before dawn the next day, the bearded man made the three-mile uphill trek and asked again. And the next. Finally they gave him a job as a “mucker,” an unskilled laborer who did heavy lifting.
A week later, the man gathered the partners together and offered to buy the mine.
“Sure,” they said, astonished at the pauper’s audacity. “It’s yours for $100,000.”
The man didn’t blink. He handed the men a sack of gold worth $2000: a one-month option on the property, he said. He’d bring the rest within 30 days. He waved adios and headed down the mountain.
Two weeks later, a letter arrived: the bearded man had the money and would pay them in San Diego.
At the meeting, the owners didn’t recognize the man. Clean-shaven in a three-piece suit, he made a confession: he was only able to raise $96,000. Would they still sell the Golden Chariot?
Of course! Unfazed by Roberts’s report — a ploy to discourage other investors? — new owners Mark McDonald and W.A. Whitney were San Franciscans. They immediately made improvements, including a ten-stamp mill in Banner. They paid Joe Swycaffer $1790 to carve a safer road down the mountainside. Twenty Indians did the work.
In its first two years, according to various assessments, the Golden Chariot produced $500,000 in gold. The new owners hired another 25 men. They sunk more shafts and cross-cut the mine with tunnels. While digging an air shaft, they discovered a rich, two-foot-wide ledge they called “Little Joker.”
But the deeper they probed, as Roberts had predicted, the less the mine produced. “The strange thing about these diggings,” writes Horace Fenton Wilcox, “the pay dirt was all in the pipes and chimneys [vertical deposits]. When they got down to the bottom of the pipes that was the end of them.”
Although the new owners profited from their investment, by 1876 the Golden Chariot had tapped out. Where once it cleared $1000 a day, it produced a mere pittance. The mine closed in 1877. It reopened in the 1880s, in 1913, and 1924, but each time closed within a year.
In 1922, a geological report by A.B. Dodd claimed that the mine could still “produce several times the amount already taken out.” In 1934, heeding Dodd’s words, investors sought new deposits but shut down within three years. Thieves stole the ten-stamp mill and other machines. They camouflaged and hauled them to San Diego. Caught in the act, the men were tried and convicted. The machinery rusted on a dock in San Diego.
State Mining Bureau reports estimate that the Golden Chariot yielded $700,000 and had “the richest gold in the state.” The figure places the mine second in the region behind the Stonewall, which had the deepest diggings (up to 600 feet) and earned $2,000,000.