The Life of a Miner
In August of 1870, when Louis Redman went to pick wild grapes along a creek over the mountain from Julian, he happened upon the American Dream. Something glinted in the rust-colored leaves. He brushed them aside and found the rainbow’s end: a chunk of bluish quartz thick with gold. To mark his claim, Redman raised a small U.S. flag on a pile of stones. Someone named the mining town that sprouted on the site for the “banner.”
That’s the legend. Redman’s find may have been more mundane: he was an assayer probably looking for quartz croppings, not wild grapes. Nonetheless, it lured hundreds of miners to the dry, eastern slopes of the Cuyamacas. They inspected every inch as if trying to solve the crime of the century — and, to them, hearing how instant wealth had favored the few must have felt criminal. A poem, popular at the time, ran through their heads: “Though I’ve been a miner many a month/ I’m a miner still./ I’ve worked in river, creek, and gulch/ Coyoted many a hill./ The pick and pan and crowbar, too,/ I’ve used in dry and wet./ But here with anguish I confess/ My pile I haven’t yet.”
Always “tom turkey” poor as a prospector, Horace Fenton Wilcox declared: “A lot of mines were just holes in the ground glorified with high soundin’ names.”
Amos Weed worked one of them, the Oriflamme Mine, from 1875 to 1876. He didn’t have it as bad as some but didn’t have it all that good, either.
Weed came west with his cousin, Ephraim Morse, in 1849. After 150 days at sea, they reached San Francisco on July 5 and headed straight for the gold fields. They placer mined — scooping up loose bits of gold — on the Yuba River. After several months, exhaustion overcame both. Weed, age 21, thought he had “scurvy”; Morse, 22, chronic dysentery. (Both had the 49er malaise: fatigue and fever, caused by bad water, unsanitary conditions, and rock-hard labor.)
Somehow they made it back to San Francisco. Morse moved to San Diego, ran a store, and acquired capital. Once his health recovered, Weed followed. For a while he worked construction at “new” San Diego. But this effort resulted in another failure: due to a recession in 1851, the budding town near the harbor collapsed and became known as “Davis’s Folly.”
Weed went to Hawaii. Morse won the respect of San Diegans by learning fluent Spanish. He became a merchant, Wells Fargo express agent, beekeeper, and one of the city’s leading citizens until his death in 1906.
Early in 1875, Morse bought shares in the Young Mine. He and his partners named it the Oriflamme, after the fastest side-wheel steamer that sailed the Pacific Coast. In March, the San Diego Union predicted the mine would become “one of the richest in Southern California.”
Henry Young made the find in 1870. Roaming a creosote-thick, rocky canyon six miles southwest of Banner, he discovered a large but low-grade vein. An initial milling yielded $8.25 a ton, a second only $2.25. “The rock in the mine very spotted,” wrote a Captain Stothard in the San Diego Daily World in 1872, “some rich, some nothing.”
When a later crushing yielded $28 a ton, Morse knew the marginal mine could go dud or dreamland. On September 6, 1875, he hired Weed for a twofold task: locate the richest rock and, if there wasn’t much, put the mine in “saleable shape.” Leave glittering ledges exposed to impress possible customers.
From the start, Weed had contrary orders. Morse had hired him to inspect the property and make an assessment. Another shareholder named Pierce ordered Weed to work the mine by himself.
“I am now left alone, monarch of all I survey,” Weed wrote Pierce with a smidge of sarcasm. “There is none to dispute except the quails.” Seven days later, Weed had two requests for Morse: visit the mine soon (“see where the money expended has gone”); and send two bottles of Dr. Kennedy’s Rheumatic Dissolvent. A week of unexpected labor caused “the Sciatica so bad in my back I am afraid I shall be laid up.”
Old miners, it was said, could estimate the flecks in their pan within a few pennies. Weed, whose eyes, so used to the dark, squinted in daylight, knew pay dirt from mere “color” (all sparkle, no value). Once, when panning in Tuolumne County, he discovered an 18½-ounce gold nugget. (“I made a jab at it with my fork,” he recalled decades later, “and hauled out a nugget…worth many hundreds of dollars.”) He knew a thing or two about superintending a gold mine but was no expert. During his year at the Oriflamme, Weed wrote numerous letters to Morse. In these he wavered between restrained hope and blank disillusionment.
“I can assure you,” his first letter in September 1875 warns, ”I never have seen such inferior looking class of ore…The gold is so fine it is almost impossible to test the Claim” by mortar.
Halfway down the shaft, near a short tunnel, he cut a rock “the size of a hen’s egg.” The prospect showed promise but “was so very fine it seemed to the eye more like yellow paint than gold.” Weed warned Morse: sifted with water in a cut-down steer’s horn, the gold it might “horn out before it will horn down.”
When the partners made the purchase, the mine produced only $4000–$5000 and had an old mill in bad condition. They bought a brand new ten-stamp mill. Built for large finds, with a ten-stamper miners could break down large chunks of ore by hand, feed them into a hopper, and then ten, heavy steel battering rams, sliding up and down, crushed the ore.
On September 23, Weed wrote: the mill “is one of the best that has ever come to [Banner]. But [as for] mining and milling, I think you will find that it cannot be done for $4.50 per ton.” Worse, the long wooden chute from the mine to the machine was so old the cascading ore was grinding it into “powder.”