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.”
“One of the most dangerous pieces of construction” Weed ever saw, the chute was so dilapidated, one hand could push over the most ramshackle sections. Bracing the foundation would cost at least $200. At present, Weed “would not dare go out on it.”
Weather added a worry. “Some days the wind blows a hurricane up the canion [sic]. The winder frames have shrunk so much the winders will not stay in without pieceing [sic].”
In the same letter, Weed asked for candles, extra grub — he’d run out — and “a man to help me get out some ore.”
Days later, Weed again wrote Morse for help. But of the hundreds of miners in the Julian/Banner area, Weed could only recommend a couple, and they would demand more than standard pay. The best, a Swede who superintended the Helvetia Mine, left for Northern California. Another, Thomas Taylor, had just hired on at the Redman. Wrote Weed: “I do not know any one else in Julian that I could get who are experienced hands.”
Sometimes on Sundays, Weed waved good-bye to his chickens and hiked over the mountain to Julian City — five hours each way, by his reckoning. He could, he says, find a worker in town, but “it would be some one who owed a bill to some one” and “they would try to palm it off on me.”
By the end of his first month in the job, still alone and strained from what he felt was a completed task, Weed wrote: “I think the claim is in as good condition to sell now as it can be.”
By mid-December, Weed still labored alone. “I had an understanding with you for forty dollars per month to take charge of the property,” he told Morse. ”But I did not agree to do anything more.” Pierce had doubled his duties. “Now for the amount of work I have been doing…I ought to have $2 per day. Should this not meet with the views of your people, you will please let me know immediately so I can commence work elsewhere.”
Morse raised Weed’s wages. He also hired a “good miner” named Toohey for $2 a day. Toohey thought the claim showed promise but found a problem: whoever had dug the north tunnel hadn’t a clue about mining. They’d veered it away from the richest vein. “A great deal of the rock that has been crushed never came from the proper ledge.” Weed and Toohey checked samples in the tottering wooden chute and found no resemblance to the rich ore. For the Oriflamme’s first five years, they’d been mining dirt.
Toohey’s find, and his help, energized Weed. They braced the two chutes near the bottoms, and plugged the cracks with thin sheets of tin. Some they caulked with rope.
By New Year’s Day, 1876, they had cleaned out the tunnel, stripped the ledge near an air shaft, and “worked faithfully and steadily.” The ledge turned out to be two: an east and a west, joined at separate points. The richest was the east, but its best rock was the most decomposed.
Since they’d only just begun exploring the real mine, Weed perked up: “I should not be in a hurry about pressing a sale for this claim if I was in your place until I found out something more about it. I think by holding on you may make it in the end.”
Working in weather so cold it froze the water bucket, by mid-February Weed and Toohey had dug a 47-foot tunnel back along the ledge. They had 45 tons of quartz on the “dump” next to the stamp mill, ready for crushing, and another 20 near the top of the chute. What they’d hand-mortared thus far averaged $10 per ton. “We are getting along fine,” wrote Weed. “We work in the tunnel when it storms, and in the shaft” in good weather.
“You seem…as though you had some doubts,” Weed wrote on February 6. “But when you come up again, that doubt will soon explode. We are at work for a profit to you now and not to prospect.”
“We are now ready for visitors!” Weed boasted a month later, after they’d sunk a second shaft to the ledge. The Oriflamme had quality rock on the dump and “all good ore” exposed in the mine.
On March 29, Weed and Toohey quit work under clear skies. After supper, the wind began to blow. Gusts rattled the windows. Around eight, as snow began to fall, the gale became “so terrific that we were frightened the house would go.”
In the morning, under a big blue sky, Weed looked up: the storm had blown the lower chute 150 feet down the hill. Most timbers still stood erect, but the planking was mangled except where Weed had braced it. “If I could have had any more lumber at that time I could have secured the whole chute.”
More grief. Weed and Toohey had been digging a new tunnel. Seventy-five feet in, they still couldn’t find the ledge. They took new markings and sunk a shaft straight down, about 12 feet ahead of the tunnel. No go. The ledge “frinched out.”
Weed and Toohey “salted” the tunnel. They filled it in back to where the ledge lay exposed “so it will appear to be the end of the tunnel with a big pile of nice rock within.” They also left “good quality” rock in the air shaft for “the parties who might come to look at the mine.”
Toohey talked of leaving. The Golden Chariot Mine, second richest in the area, was coming out of hibernation — the muddy road to Banner was drying up — and would pay him more than $2 a day.
Weed also talked of leaving. He wanted to celebrate the Fourth of July — the nation’s centennial — with family back in Amesbury, Massachusetts.
On April 22, Toohey left the Oriflamme. Morse paid him $164 for 82 days’ work. Together, Weed and Toohey had loaded 150 tons of “good ore” on the dump (worth, Weed estimated, $25,000). They’d sunk a 100-foot shaft and run countless feet of tunnels back to and around the ledge. They’d repaired the broken chute.
Alone again, on April 22, Weed wrote: “I have been looking for some of your folks here for the last day or two bearing the news of the sale of the mine.” He concluded: “I hope you will send some one here this week in my place as I want to go east” sometime in May.
Two weeks later: “I am completely tired and wore out and I do not feel like working any longer alone.”
At the bottom of a letter written around this time, Weed circled a statement: “Confidential: Don’t you retain an interest in the mine.”
On May 18, in his final letter, Weed wanted to head east so much he’d even take third class, known for having tough customers, on the train. “As far as safety is concerned, I think I have encountered everything in the shape of danger within the last 27 years.”
In a postscript: “My eyes will be turned towards the top of the hill from this [time] on for someone to relieve me.”
A Mr. Farley replaced Weed on May 25. For his year at the Oriflamme, Weed earned $403.49.
Weed died April 29, 1918. He was 90.
The Oriflamme died much sooner. According to mining records, it was one of 16 mines in the region that produced less than $25,000. ■
— Jeff Smith
- J. Wesley Jones: “You see the miners, picking among the crevices in the rocks with their pick-axes and iron spoons. No light and easy task.”
- Horace Fenton Wilcox: “I staked out a lot of claims myself, but the more mines I owned, the poorer I got.”
- Mary C. Morse (wife of Ephraim): “[The mine] seemed to me a gloomy place to work.”
Ellsberg, Helen, Mines of Julian, Glendale, 1972.
Egenhoff, Elisabeth L., The Elephant as They Saw It, San Francisco, 1949.
Fetzer, Leland, A Good Camp: Gold Mines of Julian and the Cuyamacas, San Diego, 200.
Hill, Mary, Gold: The California Story, Berkeley, 1999.
Sheldon, Gale, “Life at the Oriflamme Mine, 1875–1876,” Journal of San Diego History, October 1957, vol. 3, no. 4.
Morse, Mary C., “A Trip to the Mines,” Journal of San Diego History, January 1967, vol 8, no. 1.
Weed, Amos, letters of Amos Weed to Ephraim Morse, mss. at San Diego History Center.
Wilcox, Horace Fenton, “Memories of the Gold Stampede in Julian,” Touring Topics, February 1932.
Articles in the San Diego Union and the San Diego Daily World.