The walls of Louis Spaulding’s tunnel are a hundred million years old, and they glitter. Patches of quartz shine like milky glass, near scratchy outcroppings of a form of felspar called cleavelandite. Spaulding points out the spots that remain of the stones that have supported him for the last five years.
His Little Three mine produces tourmaline and garnet, along with topaz and lepidolite. Spaulding’s father, Louis, Sr., worked the Little Three for twenty years, then when he died in 1973, his son sold the general store he owned in Boulevard and took over the mining operation. Louis, Jr. toils at this mine every weekday, weather and machinery permitting. It is a business for a gambler. Over the last five years, Spaulding has removed enough gem material to grace the rings on hundreds of fingers, but he hasn’t found anything in the last twelve months.
They say that miners are solitary types, and Spaulding is no exception. He’s a reserved, cautious man of fifty-two whose speech is as spare as his lanky frame. He warned me that he avoids publicity and he was stingy with what he would share of his life. You have to understand that Spaulding isn’t some weekend rockhound who squeezes in a quest for the shiny stones in the interstices of a secure life in the factory or the office or the shop, nor is he employed by this county’s one big gem mining operation, Pala Properties, whose payroll supports nine men who dig through the Himalaya mine and the Stewart Lithia mine.
Spaulding is out there alone every day on his forty acres, scratching his head and trying to sniff out where the gems lie under all that brush and gravel and rock. And if he’s a quiet man, when he unlocks the rusting door to his tunnel, his mountain is eloquent. It gives off a thick and heady smell of dark, warm earth; of living roots; of mineralized, rough-cut rock and dripping rainwater. The aroma holds an age-old promise: treasure from the bowels of the earth.
Spaulding lives in Ramona in the house where he grew up, a place where he once knew all his neighbors well enough to walk into their homes without knocking. But now, new, strange dwellings are crowding in all around him. The mine lies just about eight miles from his house, down one winding country road and up a rutted dirt path, on the far side of two metal gates and past at least four signs that glower, “No Trespassing.” To the untrained eye, the Little Three looks like any other stretch of undeveloped backcountry, wild and brushy, swollen with the rise of several rocky hills. I met Spaulding at its gate one recent morning, and from there we could see his pimento red bulldozer, tiny in the distance. We piled into the miner’s dusty Ford pickup and jounced down the path to a cluster of big machines — the dozer, a front-end loader, an air compressor, a gasoline generator — the modern tools of this ancient profession.
Ramona has a few other mines besides the Little Three: the ABC, the Hercules, the Surprise. All of them actually lie off an invisible line that slices through San Diego County, along which gleam most of the local deposits of gems and minerals. That line runs straight as a scepter along the Elsinore fault. The southern tip cuts into Mexico, where there is spodumene, some garnets, possibly beryl. From there it runs northwest, through beryl deposits near Mt. Tule and tungsten south of Mount Laguna, through the gold mines of Julian being resuscitated today. The sparkling hilt, however, is the section of mountains running from Mesa Grande (about ten miles northwest of Julian) up through Rincon and Palomar Mountain to Pala at the far northwest end of the area that lies within San Diego County. The Mesa Grande area contains the Himalaya mine, which has produced more pink tourmaline than the rest of the mines in the world put together. It’s this northwestern mountain cluster that has earned San Diego its status as having one of the richest concentrations of gems in the world.
Spaulding says gems and earthquake fault lines go together all over the globe. “There had to be a weak place in the earth’s crust for these minerals to work up from below,” he explains. The miner says that when the gargantuan forces inside the earth were pushing up San Diego’s backcountry mountains, streams of combined gases and liquids shot up from deep within the magma. As these substances cooled, they hardened into what’s known today as the “gem ledges,” very hard granite formations which look like layers of yellow cake sandwiched into the surrounding pebbly chocolate rock. Although gem ledges can be found all over San Diego and Riverside counties, not all of them conceal jackpots. “The supposition is that as the solutions came up from somewhere deep below these ledges, they leached material out. This is why you’ll have miles of gem ledges available but there may only be a few hundred feet that are productive. Most of ’em are barren. Take Pala: If the ledges at Pala were laid end to end, I would imagine there’d be hundreds of miles of them. But there are just a very few hundred feet that contain gems,” Spaulding says. Imagine tilting a tabletop, he suggests, then running water down it. “And somewhere up at the top you drop a little blueing on it. The dye is just going to make a little trickle. Well, that’s the way the gem deposits are formed.” As they cooled and air pockets formed in them, only a few select areas contained the necessary ingredients to grow the precious crystals. Of course, that account doesn’t explain why the gems concentrated here rather than in Los Angeles County. I asked Spaulding, but he only shrugged his shoulders and grinned. “It’s hard to say.” He cares about getting them out, not how they got there.
The hills of Spaulding’s forty-acre mine contain seven of these gem ledges, and, put most simply, the challenge of mining is to expose them, then to probe the interior of the slablike formations. Since the ledges worm their way through the land, a miner has to remove part of that land to get to them, and where the ledges run near the surface, he can work in the open air. Spaulding just recently began digging out a section of one ledge near the highest point on his property. The day of my visit, we climbed into the truck and bucked up the steeply inclined dirt path. At the top, where the wind howled, Spaulding surveyed the mark of his labor. Before us lay a small cut in the mountainside, dug out by Spaulding's bulldozer. Next he planned to use his front-end loader, a large dozer-like machine capable of biting much more closely into the dirt burying the ledge. Once exposed, that ledge, which, like most, slopes at an angle of nearly thirty degrees, will reveal a crack called the “pocket zone’’ running through it lengthwise, separating an upper and lower layer of rock. A miner working outdoors blasts away at the upper layer to check the pocket zone, while in a tunnel he has no choice but to take the bottom.
There’s almost a touch of jealousy in the way he guards his knowledge of this business. It’s a family legacy; a fascination with mining seems built into the Ramona resident’s genes. One great-grandfather trooped all over the West in 1850 trying to win fortune with a pickax and a sluice box. He failed, but the mining compulsion was to burn for more than half a century in Spaulding’s father, even though the senior Spaulding's infancy had hardly augured a gritty outdoor life. His mother and grandmother, in fact, had emigrated from New York State to San Diego only after doctors warned that the child’s life depended on a warmer, drier climate. In 1895 they settled in a house on Vermont Street in Hillcrest. Spaulding says his father was working a paper route in Mission Hills when he met Heman Cooke, the person who introduced him to mining. Cooke published an enthusiastic little journal called The News, which contained a special mining section. “At that time, the main interest was the stories of the old lost Spanish gold mines in San Diego County,” the son says today. The stories about those mines captivated the elder Spaulding, who passed them on to his offspring. The son says, “Today a lot of people will pooh-pooh those stories, but my dad told me enough, and I’ve read some of the stuff that Mr. Cooke wrote, and there was no fantasy to it. The Spaniards definitely had good mines in the San Diego area back in the mission days.
"My dad said Mr. Cooke took him out one time into Mission Gorge and right there at Santee, just above the Padre Dam on the south side, was an old slag pile where an old smelter had been. And they had found rich pieces of gold ore.”
The second-generation miner obviously enjoys relating these nuggets of local gold lore, and, without prompting, he continues. “You know, the Spaniards hid all their workings,” he says. “The theory goes that these miners they sent over were probably ripping off the Spanish government, which they were supposed to be working for.” He shakes his head. “It’s almost unbelievable how fast runners could come from the Gulf of Mexico with messages. When they saw an armada of ships coming down and they knew the ships were heading around the horn, they still had three or four months before the armada would get here. And they hid everything!”
The stories so fired Spaulding’s father’s imagination that he signed onto the crew building the San Diego Arizona and Eastern Railway, and prospected in his spare time. In the early 1920s, he worked his way through the Laguna Mountains, and even had a lease on a gold mine east of Cuyamaca which he struggled to develop and sell. Then the state park system took over a vast tract of land to form the Anza Borrego park, a move that threw Spaulding’s and other miners' claims into turmoil. By then, however, the senior Spaulding’s interest had shifted to gems. With the then-publisher of the Ramona Sentinel, he staked a claim on the ABC mine and went after spessartite garnets. By 1927 he married the publisher’s daughter, and that same year the couple produced Louis, Jr. As the Depression deepened, the father tried to cling to a mining living, for a while rerunning the gold tailings (reprocessing waste material) at Mesa Grande. But he finally had to quit and switched to an almost twenty-year career raising turkeys and farming in Ramona.
Louis, Jr. says his father never fully excised mining from his life, even in that period. Today the son recalls childhood expeditions to the Himalaya mine in Mesa Grande, closed in the early part of this century, and fiercely guarded by a caretaker named Herb Hill. “Back in the late thirties, my folks and I used to go up there. There wasn’t much more than a handful of people in the country that the caretaker would let in, but we were among them. After a good rainstorm, you could always come home with a nice handful of gem material. That’s probably where my interest first started.” Upon graduation from Ramona High School, Spaulding helped his father farm until 1949, the beginning of the drought which only ended two years ago. The son fought in Korea and after his discharge he began a new venture with his father — mining tungsten in the Laguna Mountains “until the Korean War ended, and the price fell so low you couldn’t give tungsten away.”
By then Spaulding’s father had still another mining outlet, the Little Three mine, which he and his son bought in 1952. The older man then sensed the beginnings of a dramatic change in the market for semi-precious stones. Today the junior Spaulding explains that gem mining in San Diego had boomed one previous time, in the late 1800s, in response to a peculiar source of demand. In that period, the major consumer of tourmaline in the world was the empress of China, who cultivated a passion for carvings made from the clear pink stone. Aping the monarch, ladies throughout the Chinese court eagerly bought tourmaline, and a thriving industry sprang up in San Diego’s northern mountains to feed the Oriental fashion fad. When the empress’s dynasty fell in about 1912, so did the local gem-mining industry, virtually overnight. "Gems were then all but forgotten in this country,” Spaulding says. “People didn’t have the money. Of course you've got to understand that what ended the Depression was World War II. Then after that there were four or five years of reconstruction.” So when Spaulding and his father bought the Ramona property, it had remained dormant for almost forty years.
Spaulding says the Little Three was born in May of 1903, when a Ramona matron by the name of McIntosh took a walk along the Hatfield Creek one day. She spotted some crystals in the water, took them home, and showed them to a local authority who identified them as tourmaline. In no time, her son Dan and two partners bought the property, modestly naming it after themselves, the little three. They took topaz, tourmaline, and garnets from it, and Spaulding says, “When they sold it it was like so many partnerships. They found some garnets on the surface and they thought they had a pretty good showing, so they ran a tunnel underneath it and found more garnets. They put a door on the tunnel, locked it up, and decided, ‘This is a good showing, so we’ll sell the property at a fancy profit.’ But the partners all had keys and one by one they went in and wiped the pocket out. When they got through, they sold that forty acres for the same amount of money they paid for it!” Forty years later the Spaulding father and son paid the same amount of money the original property owner got for it, and the senior Spaulding started mining full time.
The older man followed such a rigid schedule that neighbors set their clocks by him. Every afternoon at one he would drive to the mine. Since he served as a volunteer weather observer, he would invariably return in time to take the 4:30 p.m. weather readings. “He used to tell people, if I can’t make a living at it in three hours, I’m not going to do it,’ ” his son remembers. And the old man did so, even though the stones in the beginning did not command very good prices. Says the son, “He sold many carats of fine garnet gem material at fifty cents a carat. Today I start small ones at five dollars a carat. ” The old man toiled on the property until the age of eighty; he worked to within a month of his death. Up until then, Louis, Jr. had been concentrating on his general store, but with.his father’s passing, the urges stirred once again.
Now Spaulding stands outside the tunnel door, which is framed by thick slabs of steel-reinforced concrete, and unlocks the imposing metal barrier. He says his father never deigned to tunnel at the Little Three, because it was too much work. But about two years ago the son was working a section of gem ledge full of both specimens and further promise when he reached a point where the ledge dove into the mountainside. Since working outdoors would have required him to dig out half the mountain, Spaulding broke out the dynamite and cautiously blasted a passage next to the gem ledge. The first sixty-five feet or so rewarded him handsomely. But branching off from the productive section stretches an equal amount of barren tunnel, the only remnant of Spaulding’s last twelve fruitless months. That’s why today he’s shifted his labors to the virgin ledge overlooking Ramona; it’s a fresh start, a chance for the mountain to relent and stop defying him.
As soon as Spaulding starts up the generator outside the tunnel, lighting up the fat lightbulbs inside, the passageways seem as cozy as some hobbit hole. But Spaulding describes the mining process as a back-breaking, mucky one. When he blasted out the passageway, he first had to cart out the dirt rubble, then haul in the jackhammer and don the rubber suit he always wears for attacking the granite gem ledge. With the booming noise and the rock crumbling and mixing with the water simultaneously sprayed out by the jack hammer, it’s like being caught in the midst of some savage mud storm. As he works, the miner must eye the changing rock textures for the clues that announce the proximity of a gem pocket. What clues? “That’s something I would rather not see in print,” he mutters.
“It’s really tough going,” he says, “especially by yourself. With a three- or maybe a four-man crew, they figure if they make three or four feet a day, they’re making good headway. Myself, I don’t give a hoot. I don’t care whether I make a foot a day or an inch a day. If it looks like it might have something in it, I slow down.” The object of the miner’s quest hardly fits the stereotype of gleaming jewelry material. Although the gem crystals once grew into the air pockets and hung down from the pocket walls, Spaulding says millions of years of geologic trauma, including countless earthquake jolts, shook all but the smallest fraction of specimens into a pile of rubble. So when a miner approaches a pocket, he discards the jackhammer and takes up hand tools, then chips away delicately until he comes upon that rubble. Complains Spaulding, “It’s horrible stuff. It’s sharp. I mean, you’ve got quartz, you’ve got tourmaline, you’ve got whatever the pocket might have contained. And ninety-five percent of it is just like it was made in a rock crusher — it’s ground up. And then there’s the most horrible clay mixed in with it that you can imagine. It’s like a combination of chewing gum and glue.”
He stands next to the biggest pocket in the tunnel, an airy shelf naturally ballooned into the rock wall. Here the wall is spattered with shiny, subtle shades of pastel pinks, oranges, and tans. As the miner talks, daddy longlegs spiders, two inches in diameter, scurry across the colors, their legs as thin as the wispy threads that hang down from the rock ceiling. The threads are roots from the brush above, Spaulding grunts; in his tungsten mine he saw them as far as sixty feet below the surface, hardy tunnelers which snake down through tiny cracks in the ground. Spaulding brushes one aside. He seems worried that outsiders will think mining is some get-rich-quick scheme, so he stresses how meager the pickings can be even after all those futile months. He says even when you finally hit a pocket, and finally sort out all that nasty rubble, that even then you probably get a hundred pieces of junk for every good specimen or piece of gem material. “Nature was very rough with this material, ” he says wryly. “You would think that she didn’t want anyone to have any of it.” And yet he confesses he can’t ever conceive of giving up mining. “There’s loo many likely spots around here to work,” he says. Of the Little Three’s seven known gem ledges, only four have been seriously worked on. He could never exhaust all the possibilities in his lifetime, even if he lived longer than his father. Despite the current dry spell, he’s confident the gems are there, and these days, there’s no shortage of buyers.
Spaulding says he rarely sells to jewelers; they mostly buy from South American and African outfits which have cheaper labor costs and greater volumes. Instead, Spaulding's major customers are collectors, individuals fascinated by the beauty forged from the molten earth. When he hits a good pocket, he normally contacts a few reliable consumers like Josie Scripps, who watched over the Little Three after Spaulding’s dad died. There’s another private collector in Fallbrook who Spaulding also says has been very good about buying from him. He says he never has to hustle buyers. “You talk about an Indian tribe having a grapevine,” he says with evident pleasure. “I’ve told people many times, if I hit something and have a bunch of material for sale, all I have to do is make one phone call.’ Within a week I’ll get so many inquiries I don’t know what to do about it.” He recalls one discovery a couple of years ago that was so bountiful and required so much time to excavate that he waited nearly six months after his find before he sent out word that he had a few things to sell. Just fielding the ensuing calls kept him busy for weeks.
The miner says the gem market’s hunger for material has continued at a ravenous strength even though good stones have become scarcer and scarcer. ‘ ‘The way I look at it, the miners in the early 1900s got the cream of the material. Of the known deposits, they got the easy stuff. After all, most of ’em drilled by hand; they didn’t have jackhammers. Very few operators had air compressors in those days. Then along came the next generation like Ralph Potter and like my dad, and they went a little deeper and they got material that was fairly readily available that the old-timers had missed.” Now the few San Diego County mining operations often face the imperative of tunneling. Spaulding says miners at Mesa Grande and Pala have gone down several hundred feet. As the prices of fuel, blasting supplies, and machinery have climbed, the gem prices have kept pace. Recently they’ve taken still a further jump. Spaulding says now, “If you get a wonderful specimen or a fine piece of gem material, you can really command a premium price for it, because worldwide there is a shortage. Of course, you can open a magazine like the Lapidary Journal and see page after page of ads for gem material. But the average material isn’t choice. There are stones being sold as fine stones now that you couldn’t give away back in the early days.” Fine stones do appear now and then, however. Spaulding once sold an exquisite piece of tourmaline to an East Coast museum for $15,000 and hopes to get $10,000 for a rare ten-carat garnet now being shown to a collector in Arizona.
Even if gem prices were to take off like those of gold and silver, Spaulding can’t envision large numbers of San Diegans joining him in his lonely profession. “There just aren’t that many deposits available,” he asserts. “Any deposit that amounted to anything in the early days has been bought.” Even though the concentration of gems in those areas may be rich, only a handful of such areas exist, Spaulding contends. “If there were thousands of productive ledges scattered all over the county, or all over Southern California, there’d probably be hundreds of people working. There just aren’t that many.” In fact, Spaulding thinks he’s the only San Diego resident now working full time at mining, except for the handful employed by the Pala Properties consortium. “There’s just a few of us mining here in San Diego county, and we don’t do too badly because between all of us we seem to come up with a pretty good find about once a year.”
If the geographic distribution of the local mineral deposits is one immutable limit on the scope of local mining, Spaulding says a man-made development has further restricted it: the proliferation of environmental protection laws. The miner is a prudent man; he’s never had any trouble with the local bureaucrats and he wants to keep it that way. So he declined even to talk about his relationship with the environmental regulators. But his irritation is almost tangible when he describes state and national trends. He mentions how all hydraulic mining was banned before the turn of the century from the northern California gold fields. “The farmers downstream had gotten up in arms; their water courses were filling up with silt. . . . But you see, the United States as we know it today was formed because of the gold that was mined in California in 1849. That’s what financed this country and put it where it is today. And they say that the gold that was washed out of there in the early days wasn’t a drop in the bucket to what’s still there. But there’s no way a person could mine it today. You can’t disturb the trees; you can’t disturb the brush.”
Closer to home and Spaulding’s heart, he says today’s laws would abort any attempts to develop new deposits of gems that might be discovered. Claims still can be staked, he says, but a costly environmental impact report must accompany each new claim. I've heard stories in the past and I've even seen material from one area of San Diego County that has never been mined. It’s in the national forest and I just can’t get interested in it. By the time you filed your environmental impact reports and all, there'd have to be a fortune in there before a person could afford to pay all the costs.”
The threat of one change in mining law almost makes him shiver visibly — a total end to mining claims. “People on the outside think that claims are all wrong. They ask, ‘Why should a person have the right to go out and stake a claim on a piece of government property and reap the profits from it?’ But these same people don’t stop to realize that the small individual in his own small way may spend thousands of dollars in there developing something before he ever realizes anything. It’s not unheard of for a large mining company to stake two, three, four hundred claims. They’ll have thousands of acres, but this same company may spend up to a hundred million dollars developing something. It would be a horrible blow to mining in this country if they were to change the laws and make a person lease the federal ground.” New safety laws have also complicated mining, but Spaulding seems to shrug off the profession’s dangers, even though he himself once narrowly escaped dying in one cave-in. It occurred about four years ago in a tunnel near the top of Spaulding’s property. “I was back about sixty-five feet,” he says, “and I could see some strange events taking place. Some little rocks were working out of the side of the tunnel that I didn't think should be doing so. Then I could hear some cracking. Boy, that’s when I grabbed my stuff and away I went!” He whisked out the door of the tunnel just as the mass of rock collapsed — twenty-eight feet of the side of the wall right where the miner had been standing. But Spaulding says, “I feel safer here than I would walking across El Cajon Boulevard. I’m a realist. I figure when your time is up, it’s up. Of course, there’s no sense asking for trouble.”
On the day I visited the Little Three, he introduced me to Charlie Reynolds, a retired miner who tagged along with us for the visit to the mine. The old man walks with a limp today, the result of another cave-in eighteen years ago which almost took his life. Reynolds had been going for kunzite with three other men at Reynolds’ San Pedro claim at Pala. “The others had found some quartz crystals underneath a boulder at the far end of one cut. They wanted me to look at them. I was the first one in,” the old man remembered. “And then this stuff started trickling down on us and somebody hollered, and I was the last one out.” Almost. The rocks covered him up to his neck. He said it took four men forty minutes to free him. “My leg was smashed right flat. I used to work it with my hands to get it round again. I never been able to walk straight ever since.”
Reynolds is almost seventy-seven, but he has baby pink and white skin, startling in a man obviously so at home out-of-doors. That day he wore grimy mustard-colored pants and boots and a beat-up blue sweat shirt. Long white hair straggled out from under his broad-brimmed hat; his hearing often fails him. He was almost sixty before he developed any interest in mining. “I had all the opportunities in the world,” he said. “I used to come up here with old man Mallish fifty years ago and roam around these claims. There was nobody around any of them. He was just trying to get me interested in it and he was interested in it. I never got much interested. Looked to me like an awful lot of hard work.” His words dried up when I asked him what changed for him, why he started mining twenty-one years ago and didn’t retire until 1977. He had no explanation. But now he hates retirement. “I got mining in my blood,” he muttered. “I don’t know if I ’ll ever do anything with it. I been thinkin' about it. I can’t get it out of my blood. But I don’t know where I’d go”
Near the tunnel, Spaulding showed off his handiwork to Reynolds. “1 got about 160 feet of gopherin’ around inside there, Charlie. And the last hundred feet of it didn’t pay me.” The older man stared and moved his jaw. “What price glory!” he exclaimed. “What price glory?” Spaulding just smiled, not replying, as if the answer was his happy secret. The old man’s eyes were full of envy.