Western Trips

Western Trips

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

California Mining / The Argonaut Disaster

Vacationing in northern California offers you the opportunity to visit some of the historic landmarks that comprised much of the California Gold Rush region. Jackson California, the county seat of Amador county was an active California mining center right into the 20th century. Where is Jackson California? It's located about 45 miles east of Stockton and Sacramento in the beautiful foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains at an elevation of between 1,200 and 1,600 feet. The foothills include the  picturesque old gold mining towns of Angels Camp, Murphys, Sonora and Sutters Fort. There are also great places to stay during your extended vacation or perhaps just a weekend getaway to explore California mining history. Great B and B's and some very unique restaurants. Amador County is an excellent addition for your trip to California.
(Downtown Jackson photo courtesy of Bobak Ha'Eri. Creative Commons 3.0)

The Argonaut Gold Mine was discovered in Jackson California in 1850  back in the heyday of the California Gold Rush. The gold craze was on and miners and prospectors were flooding into the region by the thousands. Jackson was one of those many settlements that grew from a simple mining camp to a full fledged town in next to no time. Working in the mine was popular for recently arrived immigrants. Jackson's growth however was a bit different than some other mining camps. A group of miners in Jackson determined that there was money to be made by selling supplies and mining tools to the prospectors passing through the camp heading to the gold fields further south. Their idea was correct and Jackson California became known as a good place to stock up on just about anything a miner would need.The California mining boom made towns out of small camps. This same type of ultra-rapid growth occurred with many mining strikes such as in Virginia City Nevada in later years.


California mining was on a roll and gold panning was popular but after the easy gold pickings dried up by the 1860's, Jackson's mines were engaged in hard rock mining. The easy method involved gold panning. That was where the prospector gathered river silt in a pan and through a method of swishing water through the silt often gold nuggets large and sometimes very small would be left in the pan. It was time consuming but proved successful particularly during the early years. Hard rock mining was something totally different. It involved digging and blasting underground tunnels. Not only was this very hard work but it was also very dangerous. As tunnels were bored underground, sturdy timber would have to be placed inside the tunnels to prevent the earth from caving back in. The passageways would have to be constantly shored up. Blasting more rock away was also inherently dangerous and certain precautions would have to be in place before any detonation. In hard rock mining there would be drifts (levels) created from the main shaft that would be dug following veins of ore. Often horizontal shafts would also be dug between the drifts so that workers could move from one drift to another.


The Argonaut's main shafts were tunneled horizontally making use of a tram on tracks to bring the ore to the surface. The work conditions were harsh in as much as the temperature would rise one degree for every 100 feet in depth. The miners were mostly European immigrants from Italy, Spain, Serbia and the Baltic countries. Like most immigrants of the day, much of their earnings were sent back to relatives in Europe to help pay for their eventual travel to America. Pay for this type of work was not terrific..about $4.00 per day nevertheless jobs in the mine were coveted.

There were procedures in place in many mines which were meant to stop the theft of ore by working miners. Basically the men had to strip naked in one room and redress in another room so that ore could not be hidden in clothing. Another California mining rule in place was that lunch pails were left above ground and then brought down to the miners at mealtime. After lunch the pails were collected and brought back above and reclaimed by the workers after their shift ended. It was thought that ore could be hidden in pails or in their false bottoms. This procedure was suppose to stop that. Generally 75 men worked 8 hour shifts and the mines operated 24 hours, 7 days per week.

Mining gold was lucrative for mine owners. The two largest mines in the Jackson California area were the Kennedy Mine and the Argonaut Mine. They were located about a mile outside town and as you can expect there was much competition between the two. The Argonaut Mine was owned by a group of absentee investors and was located a bit uphill from the Kennedy. The competition was intense. Conflicts erupted where one mine was accused of tunneling into the property of the other. This was not uncommon when you had operating mines in such close proximity.


On Sunday evening August 27, 1922 one of the worst mining disasters in California history took place at the Argonaut Mine. On a very warm night some 47 miners were trapped almost one mile underground when a fire erupted. Toxic gas and smoke filled the mine. Probably the first knowledge the miners had that something was wrong was when they noticed that their lunch buckets hadn't been picked up. Rats were usually scurrying around the empty lunch buckets but on this Sunday night there were none. Another indication that something wasn't right. One of the miners called to the surface on the mine telephone and learned that there was a fire. They were also told that no plans were in place for a rescue so they needed to protect themselves. In other words they were on their own. They tried to move to the Muldoon shaft. The abandoned Muldoon mine was used as a ventilation shaft complete with a fan. The Muldoon shaft was also to serve as a second escape route which was mandated by state and federal mine regulations. The Muldoon shaft however was already contaminated with smoke and gas. The trapped men eventually did make it up to the 4,350 foot level and made a stand there. They built one bulkhead then another.


Argonaut Mine management then made a series of decisions that would prove to be controversial. The primary question was...do we put out the fire or rescue the miners? Would it be possible to bore a hole from the lower Kennedy Mine into one of the Argonaut's shafts? After much debate the decision was made to try put out the fire. On the morning of August 28th the public was informed of the fire and of the trapped men. The press including newsreel cameras flooded Jackson and the trapped miners families and friends converged on the mine to learn the latest news and hold vigil.


Finally a committee decided on a two pronged effort. While work was being done to put out the Argonaut fire another group began digging from the Kennedy Mine, whose management offered to help in any way, through to the Argonaut. The Argonaut was being flooded with water to fight the fire which was the universal method used. The fire was put out in about 2 1/2 days. The miners digging from the Kennedy were told that their rescue effort was probably going to take three weeks at those deep levels. These rescue miners finally did reach to Argonaut shaft but it did take them 21 days. When the rescue workers reached the 4,350 foot drift they could immediately tell that there were no survivors. Breaking through the bulkheads they found 46 dead bodies most naked because they removed their clothes due to the heat. They did find writing on the wall from one of the victims that indicated that they probably died from the gas and lack of oxygen. In some ways this brought a degree of comfort to the victim's families for it seemed to show that the end came quickly and their loved ones didn't suffer for long. One missing victim, the 47th miner, was not found among the others. Forty-seven caskets were interred on Friday September 22nd. One casket was empty and was in tribute to William Fessel the unaccounted for miner.


Pictured at left is the clock tower memorial erected to honor those victims of the 1922 disaster. As with all disasters of this sort an investigation was begun. While the mine owners were found to be guilty of ignoring some safety regulations, ignoring safety regulations was not unique to the Argonaut as the same was accused of many mining operations around the country such as with a coal mine in Ludlow Colorado which resulted in warfare. In the end nothing substantive resulted from the investigation. The exact cause was never determined. Some thought the I.W.W. union was involved. Others thought the fire may have resulted from the many legal fights between the Kennedy and Argonaut mines. The most likely story was that it resulted from a spark from the electrical wires in the mine which could have ignited supporting timbers.

Along with the clock tower memorial there are three sites in Jackson that are on the National Register of Historic Places. You will be very pleased by adding Jackson CA to your California trip planner. Another must stop if you already haven't experienced it is nearby Yosemite National Park. The story of John Muir and Yosemite may be of interest to you.

Map of Jackson California.



1 comment:

  1. This shows that without formal training of the miners especially on health and safety and without thorough inspection of the mines by the authorities, searching for gold and other precious minerals can be risky and disastrous. I hope many of them will learn from this tragedy though it's been a long time ago.

    Buck Arunachalam

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