July 07, 2018

Photo Essay: A Summer Visit to a Gold-Mining Ghost Town Destroyed By Winter

I chose to head north to Mammoth at the beginning of July because I'd heard the wildflowers had been busting out all over in June.

We'd already had a late wildflower season here in the south, with January oddly hot and May oddly cold.

But the SoCal natives rarely put on much of a show this late in the season, so I had to increase my elevation to witness the scarlet gilia (a.k.a. scarlet trumpet or "skyrocket," Ipomopsis aggregata)...

...purple larkspur, lupine, penstemon, white yarrow...

...and the western (or crimson) columbine (Aquilegia formosa), as witnessed alongside the Coldwater Creek campground in the Lakes Basin area of Mammoth.

What I didn't understand heading into my first trip there was that there are really three Mammoths: Mammoth Lakes (the current town and resort area), Mammoth Mountain, and Mammoth City (now called "Old Mammoth), the former gold mining camp.

And to understand Mammoth today, I had to go back to its mining days—as it turns out that the present-day area was not named for the great beasts of the Mammuthus genus that roamed the land during the Pleistocene epoch (more commonly found in, say, Alaska or Nebraska, save for the pygmy mammoths of Santa Rosa Island).

It wasn't even named for the monumental mountain that overlooks it (though the name is fitting) but rather the Mammoth Consolidated Mine. Although the mining boom began in Mammoth (the "Mammoth Lode") as early as 1887 in the Lakes Mining District, most of the extant structures along this particular interpretive trail at Red Mountain date back to Mammoth Consolidated's time operating there, which was only from 1927 to 1933. (That's as long as it could last during the Great Depression.)

The claim only produced about $100K worth of gold before its principle proprietor Arch Mahan switched his focus from mining to recreation, purchasing the Reds Meadow Pack Station in 1934.

Protected by both the U.S. Forest Service (as Mammoth is technically in the Inyo National Forest) and the Antiquities Act of 1906, the site is well-preserved in its state of ruin—starting with the former miners' bunkhouses (covered in tar paper, no electricity) that you can see on both sides of the loop trail.

There were at least two other operating mines in the area, with not much left to see of them—but here, at a camp that housed no more than 14 workers at any given time, there are more than a dozen sites in a state of arrested decay to explore.

From the former mine office flattened by snow... the Superintendent's House...

...remnants of daily life are strewn about...

...though many of the artifacts are hidden beneath the collapses... needles in haystacks.

It's hard to imagine that the remote mining camp didn't close with the onslaught of winter—so, those workers had to brave not only heavy snowfall but also strong wind and the ever-present threat of avalanche.

Except, of course, Arch Mahan and his wife Gladys, who wintered in SoCal and summered in their circa 1929 log cabin at camp.

The cabin itself, fabricated out of lodgepole pine tree (Pinus contorta) lumber, has held up well despite the elements.

Its porch, however, is another matter.

Looping around to the edge of the camp by the lower adit (beyond which I suspect are some closed mine shafts), I was swarmed by butterflies (including what I think was some kind of bluish-gray hairstreak, a black and off-white Sierra Nevada parnassian Parnassius behrii or swallowtail, and perhaps the orange and brown spotted hoary comma Polygonia gracilis).

Across from the early 1920s-era assay office (where the purity of the gold was tested with equipment akin to what you'd find in a mad scientist's laboratory)... the mill area for ore processing and amalgamation...

...which apparently is toxic, perhaps because of CO2 emissions from the highly concentrated soil or sulfuric gasses from the fumaroles found dotted throughout the volcanic landscape.

Just past there, I stumbled upon pieces of a Gardner-Denver air compressor, which must've tumbled down the hill...

...because the rest of the air compressor plant is 100 feet above, though the wooden structure that once covered it burned down around 1935.

Besides the main mounted air compressor (which the air-powered drills used by the miners needed)...

...and the 100 HP single-cylinder diesel engine alongside it...

...there's also a portable air compressor on a trailer, which replaced the one that was left exposed to the elements after the fire (which was rumored to be arson).

Otherwise, the old cookhouse is long gone, though a couple of outhouses (a.k.a. privies) can still be spotted along the loop. Surprisingly, some of that equipment and those structures were actually still used until 1983, after which the Mahan family donated the site to the town of Mammoth Lakes, placing it on federal parkland accessible via special use permit.

A fascinating chapter of history in a place better-known for its fishing, boating, and snow play. And you can only see it during the summer, as the access road to it is closed in winter. (And, as Mark Twain said, the only two seasons in Mammoth are the end of winter and the beginning of the next winter.)

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Bodie Ghost Town
Photo Essay: Bloodthirsty and Money-Hungry Shenanigans in the Colorado Mining District
Photo Essay: Eagle Mining Company's Underground Tunnels

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