“The traveller in San Francisco, asking the question Englishmen invariably ask, What’s to be seen? would be thus answered. The Big Trees, Eusamity Valley, Napa and the Quicksilver Mines.”
— Charles Dickens, All the Year Round, 424-28
Almaden Quicksilver Park is a county park, 16 miles south of San Jose in the Capitancillos Range of the Coastal Mountains. The 4,157 acre park includes hiking trails, remnants of the old mining camp, and Casa Grande, an 1854 Hacienda, now the Quicksilver mining museum.
Mercury (also called quicksilver) was “discovered” in the California Coastal Mountains in 1845. Andres Castillero, an observant Mexican soldier and mining engineer, noticed red paint on the bodies of the local Ohlone Indians and on the walls of the Santa Clara Mission. He inquired about the source of the paint and was guided to some cinnabar ore in a nearby cave. Cinnabar is a combination of mercury and sulfur in rock. Understanding the significance of this ore, Castillero made a claim on the property and began a small scale mining operation, the first in California.
The unique properties of mercury allow it to combine with most other metals to form an amalgam. The amalgamation process permits mercury to attract even small particles of metal and offers miners a way to collect metal efficiently. When the mercury is heated and vaporized, only the metal remains. Castillero had worked in the silver mines of Mexico where mercury was imported from the Almaden Mine in Spain, owned and controlled by a cartel of the Rothschild family
In 1847 Castillero, lacking capital to develop the mine and embroiled in title disputes, sold it to Barron & Forbes, a British trading company.
Barron & Forbes named the mine “Nuevo Almaden” (after its predecessor in Spain) and began the capital intensive work of hard rock mining. They hired skilled Mexican and Chilean miners (later English and Chinese as well). They developed the infrastructure to crush cinnabar, heat it, collect the mercury, store it in iron flasks, and ship it to San Francisco and beyond. In 1863 they sold the mine to Quicksilver Mining Corporation, an American Company.
From the 1850’s to the 1890’s the Nuevo Almaden Mine was a center of commerce and residential life. Over 1800 miners and their families lived in three camps on the site: English camp, Spanish camp, and Hacienda camp. The miners processed 300 tons of cinnabar ore per day, reduced it to mercury and placed the mercury in flasks for transport. Their product supplied more than half the mercury production in the world. Eventually the mine would transport over 1 million flasks of 76 pounds each, yielding $75 million for its beneficiaries.
By the late 19th century there were over 500 mercury mines from Oregon to Santa Barbara. The mercury mines of the California Coastal range supplied the mercury needed for the gold rush and the silver rush. Had it not been for the discovery of mercury in California, the story of the Gold rush might have been one of dependence on European interests.
In the 20th century the output from the New Almaden Mine declined as cinnabar became scarcer and more difficult to extract. New methods for processing metals included using cyanide instead of mercury. In 1975 the mine ceased operations. Between 1973-1976 Santa Clara County bought properties around the mine and established the Almaden Quicksilver Park in 1976.
If you visit:
- Mining Museum and Casa Grande are free of charge
Hours of Operation:
- Monday, Tuesday, Friday 12-4
- Saturday, Sunday 10-4
Fun Facts about the Mine and its surroundings:
- Henry Halleck was superintendent of the mine from 1850 to 1863
- In 1863 Federal officials (with a writ from Abraham Lincoln) tried to seize the mine, prompting armed resistance from the miners and their allies. Lincoln and the military backed down when they realized the risk of California seceding from the Union was too great
- Andres Castillero’s claim of 1845 was finally heard by the Supreme Court and denied in 1863
- John McLaren did much of the landscaping for the camp
- Wallace Stegner used Mary Foote’s account of life at New Almaden in his novel “Angle of Repose”
- In 1867 F.S. Pioche leased 2.5 acres of the Hacienda property for 10 years to bottle the carbonated mineral water from Los Alamitos Creek. He sold it for $4 per bottle as Vichy water (the cure-all for every known affliction)
- In 1893 the first Dry Ice (a by-product of the mine) was liquified, bottled, and marketed