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LAKE COUNTY HISTORY CHAPTER 44: QUICKSILVER

Quicksilver is a horse of another color entirely. It has nothing to do with Silver. However, if you have broken a thermometer and see how the silver-colored, heavy liquid inside runs around so fast, then you know why they call mercury Quicksilver.

Finding ways of getting the valuable quicksilver out of the ore is a process worth telling about. Cinnabar ore is a five to one mix of mercury and sulfur; a sulfide of mercury. The ore is shoveled into carts, the carts are brought to the furnace, segregated with screens to fine and coarse. The ore is placed in the top of the furnace and a fire is kindled at the bottom of the furnace. As the ore heats, it drops from shelf to shelf until it collects at the bottom as slag.

When the miners at Sulfur Bank first saw the sulfur, they cheered. They cheered because they all knew it was a sure thing there would be quicksilver. Why? Because Sulfur and Mercury go together.

The Mercury sludge from the cinnabar mines, the bad stuff left over, turned out to be bad news for Clear Lake and the Native Americans. It got into the fish. Those who depended on the lake for fish, clams and mussels suffered all sorts of illnesses from the Mercury in the fish.

In the 1800s, the discovery of mercury was big news. The Northern Edition of the Pacific Coast Miner devoted a page to quicksilver mining. They wrote: ‘The Sulfur Bank mine, Lake County’s greatest producer, is located on the bank of the northeastern fork of Clear Lake. The output is about a thousand flasks (a container of mercury that weighs sixty pounds) per month. Most of the mining at Sulfur Bank is at about fifty feet down, level with the waters of Clear Lake.’

The depth of the vein was a special problem. Not only did water seep into the mine, but anywhere, a few feet beneath the surface, it got hotter. Sometimes the heat was hotter than Hades.

There was lots of it and it was easy to mine. It only took a few mines to produce enormous amounts of mercury. The Baker Mine, five miles east of Lower Lake, while never high-grade ore, had plenty of cinnabar. The pay-rock was good enough to keep them in operation for several years. The Uncle Sam Mine, on the east side of Mt. Konocti, was one of the smaller mercury mines in Lake County. The Great Western was the largest of the Lake County mines. A mile northwest of where Napa, Sonoma, and Lake counties join, the Great Western was huge.

Great Western Mine’s tunnels and passages below ground spread in nearly every direction, like an enormous man-made ant-hill. The mine went deeper, down to two hundred feet and lower, cutting first through Serpentine and then into the much harder Quartzite. That mine was a city in itself, a place of darkness and danger (Claustrophobes keep out).

The main shaft went 700 feet into the bowels of Lake County with tunnels shooting out at the 500-foot level. A 3000-foot drain tunnel tapped the constant flow of water and men kept pumping water continuously. Where did the water come from? A guess was the mine had tapped the underground lake beneath Mt. Konocti.

Two miles east of the Great Western mine, at the foot of Mt. St. Helena there were two more mines; the Bullion and the Mirabelle. Both were owned by the Standard Quicksilver Mining Company. With much high-grade ore, they were big payers for the owners.

Those miners figured prominently in another matter; one of the worst murders in Lake County. Miners, working the two mines, included men who participated in the White Cap Murders of 1890 (Chapter 38, White Cap Murders).  

There were other mines with exotic names; The Helen, the Chicago, the Thorn, and the Big Injun; all of which were mined. Little is known how long they lasted, or when the ore gave out, or whether they paid off.

Next Episode: If there is a market for Lava, Lake County has more than its share.

Lake County History. $32. (includes. Tax & Shipping)

Pal Publishing, PO Box 6, Upper Lake, Ca 95485

e-mail: genepaleno@gmail.com

Website: genepaleno.com

Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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