Hiking Through Quicksilver and ‘The Legend of New Almaden’

Almaden Quicksilver County Park is the scene of an eerie story, told in a mural at Los Gatos High School.

Goat Trails

Story and photos by Ryan Masters

This story begins with a mysterious mural—153 square feet of bizarre suffering and eerie salvation. From the upper left corner, a demon with legs like coiled springs descends upon men in loincloths. As these men dig into a bank of crimson earth, their skin turns the color of dried blood and they proceed to suffer great agony or death. Enter a hero. Under the direction of an angel, he fires an arrow into the heart of a green mountain; a soothing flood of water gushes forth. Owls perch in the branches of twin trees; one is waving creepy little baby arms. Around the far side of the mountain, jaundiced skeletons bear witness from beneath death shrouds; their feelings on the unfolding drama are uncertain. In the concluding images, the men appear to recover from whatever nightmarish spell has bedeviled them. One man has an expression on his face that reads, “What in the hell just happened?” Our spring-loaded demon flees into the upper right-hand corner of the mural.

I studied every detail of this mural for years. It hung like a portal into another dimension in the main hall of Los Gatos High School—where I reluctantly submitted to four years of education. As a freshman, it beguiled me; by the time I was a senior, it haunted me. I spent long periods meditating on it—and by “meditating” I mean wigging on the thing super baked. It had a profound impact.

The mural is called “The Legend of New Almaden” and it was painted in 1940 by the San Francisco artist Clay Spohn as part of the New Deal’s WPA Project. In my opinion, it is a neglected masterpiece with a history nearly as fascinating as the legend it depicts.

Spohn created it specifically for Los Gatos High School, yet from the moment of its unveiling, “The Legend of New Almaden” courted controversy. Spohn’s work had recently evolved from the abstract and expressionist into a nearly illustrative style with historical themes. This piece depicts a scene from the early 19th century. The men are a band of Ohlone Indians. The red pigment on their skin is a decorative paint derived from cinnabar ore they have excavated from the Santa Cruz Mountains. The mystery illness is mercury poisoning. According to the legend, their chief is visited by a deity who instructs him to fire an arrow into the mountain, free the healing waters and wash the demonic pigment from their bodies.

Cinnabar ore is rich in mercury, which is highly toxic to humans. The Ohlone had unwittingly stumbled upon the second richest deposit in the world. Over the next 135 years, it would yield multiple fortunes to its owners and significantly change the course of American history. As for the native Ohlone, they would recover from the mercury poisoning but not live happily ever after; unfortunately, the mission system and ensuing assimilation nearly finished what the poisonous body paint had started.

Not long after its installation, conservative elements in the Los Gatos community objected to the nudity and pagan themes in Spohn’s mural. Local Catholics claimed St. Theresa was responsible for the miracle of the Ohlone’s salvation and resented Spohn’s heathen interpretation of the events. Others believed the piece simply showed too much skin for the impressionable youth of the day. It was removed in 1954. The mural disappeared from the public eye for decades before resurfacing in a Los Gatos bar in the 1970s. After a brief exhibition at Santa Clara University’s de Saisset Museum, it returned to Los Gatos High School in 1976—just in time for a few generations of “meditative” kids such as myself to appreciate it.

On an unusually foggy January morning in Silicon Valley, I drive 12 miles south of San Jose to hike around Almaden Quicksilver County Park. The 4,000-acre park contains 33 miles of trail through hills riddled like Swiss cheese with mine shafts and tunnels. At the height of the mine’s production, 1,800 miners and their families lived, worked and played here. And before them, the Native Americans. It is here that the Ohlone set into motion the events illustrated by Clay Spohn in “The Legend of New Almaden.”

I hike past the Reduction Works, a rusted collection of mining equipment that marks the beginning of a 6.5-mile historic loop through the park. The surrounding hills are quiet and shrouded in the morning’s thick fog. Between 1845 and 1976, these hills produced nearly 84 million pounds of liquid mercury—or quicksilver. During the first three decades of its existence, this mine was arguably the most important resource in the country. It was instrumental to amalgamating gold during the California Gold Rush and vital in the production of explosives for the Civil War.

As a result, it was also at the center of the most famous U.S. land grant case in history. In 1863, President Lincoln briefly seized control of the New Almaden mine, precipitating violent riots and threats to secede from the Union among mining communities throughout California and Nevada. Lincoln quickly rescinded his order, barely evading a new Western front in the ongoing Civil War.

The trail gains elevation and I hike past a large pile of mine tailings from an abandoned shaft, one of more than 100 such mine entrances in the park. While much of the area is now overgrown with chaparral and live oak, there are still signs of the once-bustling mining center and the workers it employed. Random hunks of machinery and foundations peek out from beneath the foliage; unnatural flat spots and fading roads are impressed like old memories across the landscape; and the red earth itself feels…deeply disturbed.

Cinnabar, the vermillion ore that the Ohlone ground up and mixed with tallow to create their toxic pigment, is found in a handful of places around the world, but has been mined as far back as the Neolithic Age. Long recognized as deadly, cinnabar was also highly prized for its color and medicinal properties. The Persians called it “dragon’s blood”; the Mayans decorated their royal burial chambers with it; and slaves and convicts died in droves excavating it from the Spanish mines of the original Almadén.

Its vivid red can be found in Ancient Roman art and within illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. It graced the pallets of Renaissance painters and is commonly found in the lacquer ware of China. And thanks to the Ohlone, it decorated the walls of the Santa Clara Mission. That’s where Don Andres Castillero, a Captain in the Mexican Cavalry, recognized it as cinnabar while passing by on El Camino Real in 1845. After discovering where the Ohlone had dug it up, he immediately laid claim to the deposit, but sold his shares to an interest called Barron-Forbes just two years later.

To produce liquid mercury, cinnabar ore is excavated, crushed and roasted in rotary furnaces. Pure mercury separates from sulfur in this process and easily evaporates. A condensing column is used to collect the liquid metal, which is most often shipped in iron flasks. By 1851, Barron-Forbes employed 200 men and 13 furnaces to produce a steady stream of quicksilver. But their good fortune was short-lived. Besieged by the federal lawsuits that precipitated President Lincoln’s disastrous decision to seize the mine in 1863, Barron-Forbes eventually sold their interest in the mine to the Quicksilver Mining Company of New York. Yet in the 14 short years that Barron-Forbes operated New Almaden, it produced over 340,000 flasks of liquid mercury worth $18,000,000.

As I continue to hike up the historic trail, I pass English Camp, developed for the English-speaking laborers—mostly Cornish miners. Illustrator and author Mary H. Foote, who was also the subject of Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Angle of Repose, lived here in the 1870s. Today the fog drifts through the remaining ramshackle structures; it blankets the ruins of an old schoolhouse and Methodist church; it swirls like the voices of the Welshmen who sang Cornish songs on their way down, down…hundreds of feet down into the earth.

I continue up the hill to what was once Spanish Town. This hillside was home to the mine’s many Mexican workers. At Easter, they would perform a Burning of Judas ritual by stuffing an effigy of Christ’s betrayer with fireworks and a live cat. The ensuing explosion of gunpowder and burning fur would symbolize the release of the Biblical scapegoat’s soul. Below the hill, among a stand of cypress trees, is an unmarked graveyard where the Mexicans buried their dead.

As I continue further into the park, the fog burns off. Mt. Umunhum’s mausoleum-like radar station and Loma Prieta’s crown of communications towers emerge on the ridge overhead. I hike downhill past a massive rotary furnace to the ominous-looking Hanging Tree, the site of 19th century frontier justice. Descendants of those who witnessed a hanging here allegedly still throw stones at it when they pass. I chuck a rock at it just to be safe…and miss.

In the early days of the mine, this was a lawless place populated by men like the infamous bandit-poet Tiburcio Vásquez, quick draw card sharps and wasp-waisted Victorian whores. In 1870, James Butterworth Randol took over as mine manager. A no-nonsense Methodist, Randol kicked out the gamblers, prostitutes and thieves and erected a toll gate so they couldn’t get back in. In the process, he created a far more wholesome community and even enacted an early form of healthcare for the families of the mineworkers.

The trail passes through Bull Run, once a vast field of wildflowers where miners and their families would gather for holiday picnics, baseball games and celebrations. Today it is choked with impenetrably thick brush. A half-mile below Bull Run lies San Cristobal Mine, the only tunnel in the park that is safe to enter for any amount of distance. Just 50 feet inside the gloomy passage, the air is uncomfortably dense and moist. Some shafts sank over 1,000 feet into the earth and miners would labor for 10 hours at a time by candlelight. No thanks.

I emerge from the tunnel and continue down the slope, taking in the sweeping views of Silicon Valley. In 1845, San Jose was nothing but a small pueblo dwarfed by the thriving Mission Santa Clara just up the road. Today, the engines of a 787 roar overhead as it gains elevation from the sprawling gleam of the city.
The trail passes a restored powder house and a rickety tunnel trestle before descending back down towards the parking lot. On a hill above the parking lot, the immense Almaden Quicksilver Chimney looms like an ancient sentry. The giant stack once released a steady stream of dangerous sulfuric gases from the reduction works high into the air. This part of the South Bay was plagued by acid rain for years.

Unfortunately, acid rain is only a small part of the mine’s poisonous legacy. Fish in the surrounding streams and nearby Guadalupe Reservoir still contain dangerous levels of mercury. And up in the Sierra Nevada, where New Almaden’s quicksilver was liberally run through sluice boxes to bind the gold for collection, many watersheds still run toxic—more than 100 years after the last prospector went home.

“Mercury is the hottest, the coldest, a true healer, a wicked murderer, a deadly poison, a friend that can flatter and lie,” wrote John Woodwall in The Surgeon’s Mate on Military and Domestic Surgery in 1639. It is named after a Roman god who represented financial gain, poetry and luck—as well as trickery and theft. Many forget that Mercury was also the guide of souls to the underworld.

I drive back through the community of New Almaden, a collection of historically registered houses and structures. At its heart stands Casa Grande. Built in 1854, this treasure of California architecture is now home to the Quicksilver Mining Museum. The neighborhood is a sharp contrast to the thriving tech community of Silicon Valley next door—its earliest adobe homes date from the 1840s—and careful stewardship has conserved its authentic 19th century roots.
In Casa Grande, I wander through the museum’s extraordinarily articulate view of 19th century life and mine operations. I read a newspaper account from 1929 which already described the New Almaden mine as an abandoned ghost town of the Old West. After the Gold Rush and the Civil War ended, the demand for mercury dropped precipitously, but the mine remained profitable for a few more decades. Quicksilver Mining Company ended its operation in 1912 and a new corporation leased the property, but was bankrupt by 1926.

In 1940, a new venture was attempted, but cheap labor was difficult to come by during World War II—the shipyards paid 40 more cents an hour. One final corporation was formed in 1968 to mine quicksilver from New Almaden and they met with reasonable success. The land still contains large amounts of cinnabar ore, but by the 1970s, the price of mercury had fallen far too low to justify the effort. When Santa Clara County bought the property in 1976, New Almaden’s mining days were gone for good.

At the museum, I chat with Kitty Monahan—a former Catholic nun who is now the preeminent expert on all things New Almaden Quicksilver. She tells me about the local Hacienda Cemetery, which is rife with grim tales such as that of the disembodied arm. Thirteen-year-old Richard Bertram Barrett lost an appendage in an 1898 hunting accident. The custom in those days was to bury the arm beneath a tombstone that read, “His arm lies here. May it rest in peace.” It did not rest in peace. On dark nights, the arm allegedly claws its way down the road to Oak Hill Cemetery—where the rest of Barrett was buried in 1959.

Even the houses are haunted. Over the decades, residents lost track of the cemetery’s original boundaries. Consequently, a number of New Almaden’s houses are built on top of graves. According to Monahan, the wording of the deeds to these homes include formal notice of potentially troublesome spirits.

Despite her encyclopedic knowledge of the quicksilver mine’s history and culture, Monahan is stumped when I ask her about “The Legend of New Almaden.” Although she is aware of its existence and the legend it depicts, she has never actually seen the mural.

In 2005, it was part of an exhibit on New Deal art projects at the Los Gatos History Museum at Forbes Mill. After that, it disappeared from the public eye again before finally returning to the high school— where it will hopefully continue to spark the curiosity of dreamy kids like myself for many generations to come.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.


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