La Veta Madre. The Mother Lode.
This term is used to describe the rich veins of gold coursing through the Gold Country. Originally the term covered a limited area — about 120 miles from Bear Valley to Auburn. However, “Mother Lode” quickly came to describe the entire gold bearing regions along the Highway 49 corridor.
According to most sources, the term “Mother Lode” was first used near Nashville in El Dorado County in 1848. Nashville was
one of the first quartz mining locales in the area.
California’s Mother Lode was extraordinarily productive. Statistics from the California Department of Conservation, Divisions of Mines and Geology, indicate that from 1848 to 1967, California was the source of more than 106 million troy ounces of gold — by far the most of any state in the union. Mineral extraction was through placer mining (or finding readily available nuggets in sand, gravel or on the surface); hydraulic mining (washing away hillsides to sever the golden glint); or hard rock mining (burrowing underground to follow the veins of gold usually locked in a quartz matrix). The placer deposits in the Mother Lode are rich and of particularly high quality. In the earliest days of the Gold Rush the yield of surface riches was high — estimates of $81 million in 1852 alone.
Just three miles north of Sutter Creek lies Amador City, the home of the famous Keystone mine, once one of the most profitable along the Mother Lode. Today Amador City resembles the main street of a TV western and claims the distinction of being the smallest incorporated city in California, population 202. But time was when this lusty camp boasted 5000 residents and a booming local economy that was fed by the town’s main industry — gold mining.
In 1848 Amador and a group of friendly Indians established a camp on the banks of the creek which bears his name near what is now Amador City. In 1854 the name Amador was applied to the county as well.
During the fall of 1849 Amador City became the home of four ministers whose zeal for the gospel was second only to their zest for gold. However, one must live and it is to their credit that even after the long backbreaking days spent working their claims they devoted their evenings to preaching “soul saving” sermons throughout the surrounding communities.
It was one of these ministers, a Baptist by name of Davidson, who is credited with the discovery of quartz gold in a gully which thereafter was called Minister’s Gulch. That was in 1851 and it was truly a significant find as it marked the original discovery of gold-bearing quartz in Amador County. Samuel Hill, a resident of Buckeye, was later taken in as backer and the company was organized as the Spring Hill Company. About the same time Thomas Rickey and his son James located a vein on the north side of the creek which later became known as the Original Amador. None of these men had ever seen quartz mining before. In fact, up to that time there was none in the world that could compare with what was soon to become common in the Mother Lode country.
In the enthusiasm to extract gold, the first stamp mill to be used in the area was brought in and set up. It worked with wooden-stemmed stamps about eight feet long actuated by a wooden camshaft. Mr. Hill of the Spring Hill Company went to Sacramento and bought a steam engine to power the mill. It was badly used and ancient in style and was first thought to be a failure as it took enormous quantities of wood to keep up a head of steam in the boiler; however, it was later rebuilt and some of the mistakes were corrected.
The mill on the north side was started about the same time (September 5, 1851) with somewhat better machinery although it was soon found that much of the gold was lost, being too fine to settle into the ordinary riffles.
It was about this time that a German, who had mined in Peru, arrived in the area and since the stamp mill was not the complete success it could have been, he worked out a system of crushing in an arrastra. Although the speed and efficiency of this ancient method leaves much to be desired, by crushing and amalgamating with mercury he was able to extract about 74 ounces of gold a week. This was quite enough to establish the Minister’s Claim as the first successful quartz mining operation in Amador County.
Even though the early outlook for quartz mining appeared good, expenses multiplied in an unprecedented manner when underground mining was attempted. Heavy swelling ground was encountered and in some cases development proved so costly that the operations were abandoned early in the game. Numerous other troubles, both mechanical and metallurgical, caused the owners of many of the mines to become heavily involved in debt.
That mining was a touch- and-go business is illustrated by the story of the management of the Spring Hill mine. Being a little short of money at the time, they failed to pay for a quantity of hay purchased from a rancher near Campo Seco. After waiting a considerable time for his money the rancher employed the sheriff to watch the mill and take payment in amalgam at cleanup time. However, the superintendent, seeing the lawman in the vicinity, deduced his mission and took the amalgam down into the mine and hid it. The sheriff wasn’t one to be outwitted by such an obvious trick and he went below to search for it. Seeing it was now his move, the superintendent stopped the pumps with a view to flooding the workings and saving the gold. The sheriff, however, managed to find the cache before the water had a chance to rise and quickly appeared at the collar of the shaft with the amalgam. The result was a happy farmer, but a light day at the mill.
In 1857 the Spring Hill mine was consolidated with the Granite State and Walnut Hill mines, which had previously been consolidated with the Keystone mine, and the new combination became known as the Consolidated Keystone mine.
As we have seen, the mere ownership of a gold mine, or in this case several gold mines, is not always the key to instant riches. The properties involved in this transaction were heavily in debt. A mortgage on the properties had been foreclosed, but a prior judgment in favor of A. H. Rose and Phillip Crusart took precedence. Rose, who at that time was State Senator from Amador County, eventually became the sole owner of what then was as unpromising an aggregation the little Keystone mill had produced over $40,000 in gold and month after month thereafter that rate of return was maintained until the Keystone came to be recognized as one of the most profitable gold mines in the world.
When the Keystone broke into bonanza early in 1866, so soon after A. H. Rose had disposed of the property, it naturally caused him some regret. After brooding over the matter for nearly three years, he finally came up with a remarkable plan by which he hoped to recover the mine for virtually nothing. It is doubtful that a wilder scheme for regaining possession of property legally sold to honest men could have been devised. It’s truly remarkable that the Senator could have had the audacity to try such a plan, but apparently nerve was not lacking in Senator Rose’s make-up and he lost no time in executing his maneuver, without giving the slightest thought to possible failure or ultimate detection.
The method Rose intended to use consisted of no less a crime than bribing a United States Deputy Mineral Surveyor into returning a falsified survey plat to the land office at San Francisco.
In those days, prior to the official government survey, property owners had no accurate knowledge of their actual boundaries. Both mineral and agricultural land was bought and sold with the understanding that the actual lines would be established when the government survey was completed. Thus it was based on such informal knowledge, that the Keystone Consolidated, the Original Amador and the Bunker Hill mines as well as the Amador City townsite were commonly supposed to be on the west half of Section 36.
Now it also happened that Senator Rose owned a vineyard just east of Amador City adjoining the Keystone mine. When the official survey was duly made in 1869 and G. Mather, government surveyor, filed a plat with the land office in San Francisco, it showed the mines to be situated, just as everyone had supposed, on the west half of Section 36 and the Rose ranch on the east half.
No one thought it strange then, when application for a patent to the east half of Section 36 was presented showing that a Mr. Henry Casey had purchased some property in Section 36 for $400 with Senator Rose acting as his agent. However, when the patent was issued by the State Mr. Casey promptly disappeared and Rose came forward to present deeds to the entire east half of Section 36 claiming it also included the Keystone Consolidated, the Original Amador and Bunker Hill mines and the entire townsite of Amador City!
Needless to say Rose’s demands were promptly refused although there remained great concern on the part of property owners. The resulting confusion necessitated a new land survey which, when made, established beyond all doubt that the mines and townsite were indeed situated in the east half of Section 36. It also brought to light the highly interesting fact that Bose’s vineyard and other properties were neither on the east or west half of Section 36, but actually in Section 31 adjoining! But this was no setback for the redoubtable Senator Rose. He insisted that since he had received a patent from the State of California for the east half of Section 36, as originally understood, albeit in error, he should be entitled to it. By this time fraud was clearly apparent, but Rose fought desperately and just as though right was on his side. He even maintained a lobby in Washington at great expense and brought every conceivable pressure, political and otherwise, to bear on the Secretary of the Interior, but without avail. How any man could be so completely exposed and yet continue to pursue his case is truly remarkable. The fact that the various governmental agencies selected to ignore his fraudulent claim is perhaps the only reason he avoided going to jail.
Rose’s bad temper must have grown ever worse with each passing year as the fortunes of the Keystone Consolidated continued to prosper. In 1868 the vein varied from 12 inches to 10 feet in width and two shafts, each with its steam hoisting works, kept a steady stream of ore flowing to the twenty-stamp mill. By 1870 the twenty-stamp mill had been increased to forty stamps and the Keystone was now such a proven producer that its production figures no longer made news. This fact finally prompted the Mining and Scientific Press to publish this paragraph in their May 5th issue of 1877: “Notwithstanding that this is undeniably the prince of mines in Amador County it figures but seldom in our mining reports owing to the fact that its yield of bullion month after month shows little variation. It adds close to $40,000 every thirty days to the gold circulation. Disbursements amount to $12,000 monthly, the paying out of this large sum chiefly to miners and other laboring men, makes Amador City the liveliest mining town of its size in the State.”
And so it went, month after month, year after year, this fantastic enterprise paid off in Midas-like giant jackpots. So great was their fortune during this period of high-grade ore that the owners declared dividends as high as $550 per share per month.
Naturally with such riches known to be available robbery was always a possibility and in the days when gold was freely bought and sold there was little risk in disposing of it. It was somewhere around the late 1870s that a group of Austrians who had been working in the mines were overcome by the temptation to acquire quick wealth. Their plan was not to rob the bullion shipment, that was much too risky, but to rob the Keystone mill. So they waited for the day when a large clean-up had been made. From a distance they watched the amalgam being taken to the brick building near the mill where it was placed in the retort. For several hours the fires were kept vigorously burning while the quicksilver was being vaporized. Finally when the process was completed there was left in the retort a sponge of gold worth over $50,000.
As the retort was still hot and the hour was getting late, the superintendent decided to return in the morning to open the iron container, and left the watchman in charge . . . an ideal situation for the robbers as now they had only to dispose of the watchman. This they attempted to do by boring a small hole in the window frame through which they introduced a quantity of chloroform. As might be expected this had little or no effect on the watchman; so next one of the Austrians boldly entered the retort room, quickly surprised the guard and before he could make any outcry, hit him over the head with a hammer. With the watchman permanently silenced, the would-be thieves, now murderers, turned their attention to the retort, but after opening the iron furnace door found the crucible still too hot to handle. Adding to their difficulties was their lack of knowledge of how to remove the key which would release the heavy cast iron cover to the retort. After fumbling with the problem they became frightened and fled the scene.
The crime was soon discovered and a posse sent out to apprehend the robbers. In a short time several of the culprits were captured while the others were killed during pursuit. One way or another the criminals were all accounted for and received speedy justice western style.
An interesting thumbnail sketch of the Keystone mine as it appeared during its heyday is contained in this write-up that appeared in the Annual Mining Review end Stock Ledger published in San Francisco in 1876:
“The Keystone, at Amador City, is unquestionably the leading mine of the county, and ranks among the first in the State. It has maintained its reputation throughout the years. The ore body is immense, some sixty or seventy feet in width, and remarkably uniform in its yield of gold. This is one of the oldest quartz mines in the State, and yet its depth is only between 700 and 800 feet. The ledge being so vast, it requires a greater length of time to sink a foot than in mines where the
rock is smaller in quantity. The mine is controlled by a private corporation, and it is consequently difficult to obtain reliable information concerning its gold production. The yield may be set down at $40,000 a month. Month after month the gold approximates to those figures with very little variation. A new shaft is being sunk to the north of the elder one, which has struck rich ore. A peculiarity worthy of mention in connection with this shaft is that the
hoisting is done by water power by means of Knight’s patent reversible water wheel and power gates. The machinery was fitted up by the inventor, (Samuel) Knight, of Knight & Company’s Foundry, Sutter Creek, and works to perfection. lt is the only instance where water power has been applied for hoisting purposes in mines, but the invention needs only to be brought into notice to be extensively adopted. All who have witnessed the hoisting works pronounce them the finest they have ever seen, while the expense is less than one-half of that of steam.”
The system later became quite common and for some years water powered hoisting machinery was in use at many locations throughout the California mining belt. However, the shaft mentioned was an auxiliary one north of the main or Patton shaft. As far as is known the Patton hoist ran on steam until 1902 when it was changed over to compressed air. In later years it was, of course, converted to electric power.
During the early 1900s things began to slow down a bit at the Keystone with the mill running on low-grade ore most of the time interspersed with a spectacular strike only now and then. In 1906 it was rumored that the mine was to be sold to the Bagdad-Chase Mining Company of New York for one million dollars. Bagdad-Chase was at that time operating the Soulsby mine at Soulsbyville in Tuolumne County. The transfer was never made and in 1906 a company of Philadelphia promoters took steps to acquire the mine. Their deal didn’t finalize either and in June 1909 James McDonald, who had been the principal owner and operator of the Keystone for 43 years (since 1865) completed a sale to the California Consolidated Mines Company, the company which was at that time operating the Wildman, Lincoln and Mahoney mines at Sutter Creek.
Up to this time the Keystone had produced a total of $17,000,000, mostly during McDonald’s ownership. California Consolidated saw no reason why they shouldn’t assume there was more where that came from and immediately set about to upgrade the facilities. They installed two new cables on the hoisting drums which would enable the company to sink 600 feet deeper. The work force was increased and the installation of heavier machinery was planned.
Unfortunately the ambitious plans of the California Consolidated Mines Company were thwarted by the performance of the mine itself. The Keystone, which had been a continuous producer for almost sixty years, was now no longer paying its way. Even the latest equipment could not recover gold that wasn’t there. Two years passed while the bills piled up and every blast held the hope of a new bonanza that never came. Finally the miners, who had not been paid for several months, brought suit to recover their wages and the property was soon scheduled to be sold by the sheriff. At the last minute the California Consolidated Mines Company secured a short extension of the time required to redeem the miners’ liens on the Keystone as well as their Wildman, Lincoln and Mahoney mines, which apparently were also in trouble.
During this interim Mr. William J. McGee of San Francisco acted as trustee representing the holders of liens on the properties of the California Consolidated Mining Company. Unfortunately the company was unable to make good its obligations in the time allotted and defaulted. Quickly a new company called The Keystone Mining Company, consisting largely of local and San Francisco creditors, was organized to take over the property.
R. C. Downs, superintendent under McDonald for a number of years before he sold to California
Consolidated and had continued with that company, was kept in charge. By April of 1912 the shaft had been unwatered and repaired to the 1400 foot level and a pump installed to further drain the workings preparatory to sinking the shaft still deeper in the hope of locating a downward ex tension of the vein.
Sink they did! Down and down they went, hitting the 1500—foot level by June. The 1800-foot level was passed in September and by the spring of 1913 the miners had reached the 2600, having sunk the last one thousand feet in ten months’ time.
In August of 1913 the west crosscut on the 2500-foot level cut through a body of well-mineralized quartz. This looked so encouraging that Superintendent Downs gave the order to drift farther west as he believed the main fissures had not yet been opened.
Since so many local people were now concerned with the financial success of the mine, the Keystone Mining Company issued a circular in December of 1913 in which Superintendent Downs stated the position of the mine in some detail. The language was miners, talk and fairly technical, but in a mining community that was not in appropriate. Most of the report concerned development and while it sounded as if the miners were busy as bees down in the Keystone, no mention was made of any ore being taken out.
The pamphlet concluded with a statement by the secretary, C. L. Culbert, stating that the receipts, June 10 to December 10, 1913, were $36,- 372.00 with cash on hand, as of the latter date, in the amount of $3,829.00. Not a very substantial reserve for a business with some 80 to 100 men on the payroll. Yet the mine kept going and somehow or other managed to pay expenses:
1914 -“. . . ore body at 2600 feet developing satisfactorily?
1915 -“. . . 40 stamps crushing ore at the Keystone?
1916 – “. . . some good ore opened at the 1200 foot level.”
1917 – “. . . $1500 profit in July.”
But then in 1919 what little luck the Company had left ran out. The mine could no longer carry itself and after the collection of two assessments from the stockholders, operations were suspended. For eight years, 1911 to 1919, the locally owned Keystone Mining Company had done its level best to make a go of it but the mining business is fickle to say the least and what riches remained locked in the Keystone were not to be theirs.
For a time the owners planned to keep the mine dry with the hope of trying again at some future time; however, this proved to be too great an expense and the workings were allowed to fill with water.
In 1920 the Keystone Mining Company gained control of the South Spring Hill mine which adjoins the property to the east; however, very little was done until l933 when the Keystone was re-opened by the Keystone Mines Syndicate. After two years of rehabilitation and development work production was under way in 1935 and continued until the fall of 1942, when the Keystone, as all other gold mines, was closed down by government order. During this final seven years of operation about one million dollars in gold was produced.
With the exception of a small amount of work done in 1952 in the neighboring Wonder mine just east of the main shaft nothing has been done at the Keystone since the beginning of World War II.
There are still relics of the Keystone to be seen at Amador City. One of these is the Mine House located on the west side of Highway 49 where gold was weighed and shipped and the corporate affairs of the Company were managed. Now a quaint hotel, this brick structure built over 100 years ago was once the office building of the Key- stone Consolidated Mining Company. It contains a number of functional rooms with such imposing names as the Retort Room, the Assay Room, the Grinding room, the Stores Room, the Bookkeeping Room, the Vault Room, the Directors Room and the Keystone Room.
Directly across the highway from the Mine House are the foundations of the Keystone Mill and high overhead and red with rust is the head- frame of the mine. Engineered to stand at an unusual angle to conform to the 52-degree slant of the Patton shaft it once served it is still a dominant and symbolic structure as it rises above the town, a sizable monument to Amador City’s golden era.
Other than that little else remains. The surface works have been junked. The shaft has caved. The famous old Keystone is now just another abandoned mine.
- Taken from Gold Mines of California, by Jack R Wagner (1970)
taken in its entirety from Chapter nine, pgs. 141-151.
Founded in 1851 from many claims.
One of the most profitable and longest running mines.
Joining with South Spring Hill Mine working till 1942.
East shaft worked until 1952. Reached a depth of 2680?.
Employed 100 men and produced $24,000,000 in gold.