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April 10, 2007

Randsburg & Johannesburg

The day before we visited Little Petroglyph Canyon, our group met in Randsburg for a little tour of that old gold mining town and neighboring Johannesburg. Here's what one gleans from A Guidebook to the Mojave Desert of California, including Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Monument, and the Antelope Valley, a 1966 publication by Russ Leadabrand that was given to me by pinkiesblues:

In 1893 there was activity in an area of the El Pasos known as Goler Gulch (one of the spellings of Goller). By 1895 miners were working in a placer field just to the east of the El Pasos' bulk known as Summit Dry Diggings. The pay was poor.

Three miners in that camp that year were Charles Austin Burcham, ex-cattleman and butcher shop owner from San Bernardino. Burcham's wife was a clever woman doctor and from her medical chores and midwifing in San Bernardino she helped grubstake her gold-hunting husband.

There was John Singleton, a former carpenter and millwright.

And there was Frederick M. Mooers, who boasted of having been a newspaperman.

All three were disgusted with the hard work and results at the "poor man's camp" of Summit Dry Diggings.

Using Burcham's team and wagon the three quietly moved southwest to a spot on the edge of the unnamed Rand Mountains where Mooers had seen "colors" a short time before.

After days of discouraging prospecting Singleton hammered off a corner of rock outcropping. Bright ore looked up from the fresh break. Other tests in the area proved the same. Here was gold in quantity. The trio called the spot the Rand Mine—probably after the African mining venture. It would later be renamed the Yellow Aster, after a book that Mooers happened to be reading.

The Yellow Aster would be the big producer, a major mine in an area of many mines. It had miles of tunnels and a yawning glory hole where the ore was scooped out.

In the early days the ore was freighted to Garlock (formerly known as Cow Wells) where there was water and a mill, later several mills. But the Garlock Mills did a poor job of separation and in time the Yellow Aster would have a 130-stamp operation. The country trembled under the thunder of these behemoths. Tailings from the Yellow Aster would run down the face of the Rand Mountains to leave a thick and indelible scar.

For 47 years the Yellow Aster operated and, according to one estimate, it produced $16 million for its operators. In 1942 it shut down. It has remained idle since. Its buildings fell into disrepair. The machinery was hauled away. The tunnel timbers rotted. Water seeped into the diggings.

In 1959 there was talk of turning the gigantic mining property into a tourist attraction with a miniature train making excursions into the subterranean diggings where visitors could see where the ore bodies had been scooped out. But the optimistic plans never materialized.

Later it was held that the government was interested in Yellow Aster Mine as a repository for old records—perhaps on microfilm—but again the project never materialized. Some said it was because time had been too rough on the Yellow Aster, that the tunnel timbers were rotted and unsafe.

Today it is possible to look up the hill from Randsburg and see the scar of the Yellow Aster. Driving to the glory hole is prohibited now—there are dangers that the many tunnels under the area might cave in. The Yellow Aster, for all its colorful life, seems doomed to spend its declining years in growing anonymity.

There are many mines in the Randsburg area, mines and mills, headframes and holes in the ground. Some of the names of the mines are: King Solomon, Hector, Mountain View, Butte, Excelsior, Wedge, Kenyon, Wasp, Monkey Wrench, Wirdy, Independence, Singletone, Olympus, Rustler, War Eagle, Agnes, Big Horse, Burcham, Mooers, Security, Nancy Hanks, Baltic, Gold Coin, and others.

Randsburg is a drowsy camp today. It has a post office, a general store, a couple of bars and eating establishments, antique bottle and curio shops—some of which are open only on weekends.

Kern County has a fine small mining museum in the town which is open only on Saturdays and Sundays—but it is worth visiting, the curator is knowledgeable about Randsburg history and helpful to strangers.

It is a pity that some more concrete aspect of the actual mining for ore cannot be viewed here, such as a single tunnel or stope of a mine. This is done at the Burton Tropico operation at Rosamond and adds greatly to the public understanding of a vanishing art. People need to know what it was like to work in a mine, what it was like actually to dig a mine, often-times by hand.

Many of the store buildings and residences of Randsburg are empty and are being pulled to pieces by time and the weather. Randsburg has a strong flavor of a yesterday gold camp; as much, perhaps, as anything on the desert.

The Johannesburg area. Just over the hill two miles from Randsburg is Johannesburg. Born later, doomed from the start to be a less boisterous town—although it was sometimes known for its rough characters—Joburg, as it is called, has always stood in the shadow of the primary camp here.

Joburg was a family town, from the beginning. It had water. And—it had the railroad.

In 1897 J. M. Beckley, Albert Smith and A. A. Daugherty founded the Randsburg Railway, decided that it should run from Kramer north along the relatively flat plain toward the mining country.

The construction started on October 2, 1897, with a 200-man work crew and, aside from one period when it was difficult to get rails and ties, work progressed smoothly. By November it was possible for a passenger to ride from Kramer IIVi miles to St. Elmo. From here it was six miles by stage on to Johannesburg.

By Christmas of that year the line had reached Johannesburg. And there were big plans. The Randsburg Railway might run on over into the Amargosa sink, the Death Valley country; possibly on up to Keeler, to join the Carson and Colorado narrow gauge.

But 28½ miles was as far as the railroad went. It stopped forever at Johannesburg.

David F. Myrick, railroad historian, writes: "Due to difficult grades and other considerations, the line never did reach around the hill to Randsburg . . ."

The first train made the run from Kramer to Joburg on January 5, 1898. At first there was one trip daily, but it made poor connections at Kramer and so another trip was added.

In June, 1898, the Yellow Aster people stopped using the mills at Garlock and sent their ore via the railroad down to Barstow to the 50-stamp Beckley mill. But the romance with the railroad was short lived. In February, 1899, the Yellow Aster fired up her own 130-stamp mill. "The Randsburg Railway had lost its biggest and best customer."

Still there were plans for a grander operation here. There was still talk about driving the line north to Ballarat and into the Panamint country.

Santa Fe purchased the line in April 1903 and in 1919 came the big silver boom at Red Mountain. The railroad was abandoned on December 30, 1933, and the following year the tracks were taken up. The old right of way can be followed still and at some of the old end-of-track camps (they can be found by some on-the-spot detective work), antique bottle collectors have found some fine old sun-purpled bottles.

Johannesburg served, too, as a stage station for people and freight going to the mining areas to the east: Ballarat (earlier known as Post Office Springs), Skidoo in the Panamints, the Death Valley camps, Searles Lake and the mines in the Slate Range.

Joburg had a hotel, social clubs, a golf club, saloons and a gay life. There were mines on its flanks, but they never measured up to the boom production of the Yellow Aster and fellow Randsburg mines.

Today Joburg has little local industry. Menfolk who live here work in China Lake and Boron and sites such as this. But there is the rich history that no one can diminish.

The Yellow Aster mine was re-opened in the 1990s by the Glamis Gold Corporation who used gold cyanidation to leach gold from the rocks.

Here's a geological map of the Rand mining area.

My complete set of photos can be seen here. Here are a few samples:

Randsburg (6309)Baltic 5-Stamp Mill (6295)Not A Cultivator (6313)

And here's one I especially want to draw your attention to:

Johannesburg Train Station (6323)

That house used to be the upper floors of the Johannesburg train station. After the Randsburg Railway closed down, the lower floor of the station was removed and taken a couple hundred feet away.

Randsburg is an interesting spot. It's become a bit touristy, but not nearly so bad as most places. There are antique and junk stores, restaurants and bars, but they are genuinely rundown and ramshackle. As you approach the town on the single paved road leading through it you'll notice (amongst the plentiful remains of gold mines) multiple signs warning that OHVs must stay off the paved road and that there is no legal access for OHVs into the town itself. Nonetheless, when I got into town there about 20 OHVs for every street legal vehicle. They drove on the paved road, and they parked along both sides and in parking lots restricted to OHVs. I never saw any dangerous driving in town—that is, if you don't consider it dangerous for a 6-year old to drive an internal combustion engine right down the main road of town.

The word was that the county Sheriff had an informal arrangement for Randsburg that allowed the illegal vehicles to use the road, so long as there was no trouble whatsoever. Even so, I noticed that whenever the Sheriff's deputy drove through town, the paved road would be suddenly free of OHVs.

Apparently, some big OHV run was planned for that weekend. I had seen a truckload of BLM employees out in the countryside yellow-taping every open pit mine they knew of—and that's a lot. If no little boy or big man dropped himself into an old mine that weekend, I'd be surprised.

Filed under California,Photography | permalink | April 10, 2007 at 08:24 PM

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