King Midas Mine History by James E. Harris (Son of Michael J. Harris and Patricia Brown Harris) - posting date 2-20-2020
The old truck in the canyon was a Model A Ford that was abandoned at Skidoo (California) in 1949 when we had gold mined there. We got it running and drove it east to our mine in the Funeral mountains. We took out the engine, dismantled it and had a mule pack it up in pieces via the "Goat Trail". We reassembled the four-speed transmission, and the engine was used as the hoist engine.
Dad bought 4,000 feet of World War II (WWII), ¼ inch diameter surplus airplane control cable. This cable was pulled by hand up to the mine. The 4-inch diameter pipe welded towers were packed up by mule, except for the first one which we packed up ourselves. We hand-drilled holes for dynamite to blast out holes for concrete. Water and cement were either hand-carried or mule- packed, then mixed and allowed to set. At the first tower, Jim put small stones in the concrete saying "1949".
After the towers were set, then the ¼ inch cable was used to pull up a 9/16 inch galvanized cable. Dad bought 8,000 feet of this surplus cable from an oil driller in Bakersfield, California. Pulling up the 9/16 inch cable was done using the Model A engine as a hoist.
Until the tramway was operational in March 1950, everything was packed up by hand as we had hired the mule-packer only for a week to help pack the engine and help put towers in place. Then the tramway was used to haul up the Ingersoll-Rand air compressor and its' four-cylinder International engine. The air compressor and engine had been dismantled previously to save weight. We decided it was prudent to string a second 9/16 inch cable parallel to the first one. The cables have been slapping together for 70 years, making their desert song. We found, by the sag of the cables, more towers were needed. These towers were made of wood and packed up on the tramway.
All water was hauled 28 miles from Beatty, Nevada in a fifty-gallon barrel, then put in five-gallon cans to send by tramway to the mine. We would stay there 2-3 days, then go to Beatty to get cleaned up and get more grub. It was very hard work under very primitive conditions. We existed on the verge of starvation. Mom got a job washing dishes in a Beatty restaurant at $5.00 per day to keep us supplied with food.
I strung a 4,000-foot bare aluminum wire (0.156-inch diameter) and hooked it up to a 1937 Plymouth horn and relay at the mine. When the aluminum wire contacted the main cables, it would honk the horn, giving signals to the hoist operator (almost always Dad). Sometimes the loaded bucket would jump the cable track and create an awful mess.
We never experienced rain except for a few times when Dad said it was about three drops per acre. Almost monthly, there would be a big wind storm. During one of these storms, the aluminum wire parted, and it was restrung across the "big gulch" with me in the bucket! I would never do that now; I was age 20 and did not know any better.
This rock was very hard and taxed the tungsten-carbide insert rock drills. The ore averaged about 2.1 ounces/ton in gold ($35.00 /ounce!) and 1.1 ounces/ton in silver ($1.29/ounce) and 16% lead at $0.16/pound. All told, perhaps 900 tons of ore were mined and sent down the cable tramway. We bought a 1942 Dodge 1 1/2 ton dump truck that was being sold as surplus from the Nevada Highway Administration. We would overload the truck with six tons, first hauling the ore 150 miles to a mill located 12 miles south of Mojave, California where we were paid for the gold silver and lead. After a while, this was not satisfactory. We even hauled 6 tons to the American Smelting and Refinery at their smelter in Pinale, California (in the San Francisco Bay). This was about 500 miles. It was low-grade ore, and Dad got about $18.00 for the truckload of ore after paying their charges! After that, we ended up hauling ore to the copper ore smelter at McGill, Nevada, near Ely, Nevada. There, they did not pay for the lead as it went up in fumes as they smelted their copper concentrates in the mill that milled 6,000 tons of ore per day that were taken from the open pit by Ruth, Nevada (W. of Ely) by a train that hauled the low-grade copper ore. I believe this was the Kennecott Copper Company. They did pay a premium for the silicon that served as a flux in their copper smelting. This was a 306-mile haul. From Tonapah to Ely is the most barren road in America; 157 miles between towns. There is a Lockes Ranch and Warm Springs. These are not towns, but mere specks. There is one straight stretch of road, 28 miles in length on the road. I watched them pour 300-pound ingots of copper that were sent by rail to Baltimore, Maryland where later, I saw these ingots refined, extracting the gold and silver by electroplating the copper from the ingots.
A year after the Korean War started, June 25, 1950, I decided to join the navy in San Francisco, July 14, 1951, as I wanted no part of being drafted into the army. This was one of the best decisions I ever made because it got me out of the awful toil in Death Valley, and I would have the G.I. Bill to support finishing my Mechanical Engineering degree at Sacramento Jr. College and later at Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo. I was a signalman and later, a navigator in the navy. It was a great experience; I met some life-long friends in the navy. Later, I joined the US Coast Guard Reserve, stayed in for twenty years and retired as a commander.
I had three mishaps driving the 1 ½ ton Dodge dump truck with 6 tons of ore. The first mishap was when I was starting down the Red Rock Canyon grade, (highway 395 in California) where I had to gear the truck down to use engine compression vs. brakes to slow down the truck. As I started braking to make one lower gear shift, the brake pedal was mushy, but I made the shift. When I needed to shift again to a lower gear, - no brakes! What to do to avoid being a runaway truck? I used the parking brake to make another shift -done OK. I needed to shift another time and did the same. I could see that the brake band was red hot! I descended OK after three shifts to get to the bottom of the grade. I was 20 miles north of Mohave with 6 tons of ore and no brakes. What to do? I drove the 20 miles to Mohave very gingerly. There, I was able to buy a new hydraulic hose for the left front brakes as it had ruptured. Then I installed it, bled the brakes and took the load to the ore mill 12 mill south.
Then a second mishap occurred. I was going up the Slate Ridge grade out from Trona, California late at night. The fan belt broke. This meant no generator, radiator fan or water pump action. I drove upgrade until the engine became Hot, stopped and let it cool off, put it in reverse to restart the engine and continued. There was nearly a full moon and almost no traffic so I could drive without lights and save the battery for the necessary ignition. I continued this stop/start process until I reached the summit. Then, by driving very gingerly, I was able to make it into Trona and parked in front of a service station. I waited until the station opened the next morning and bought a new fan belt. I installed the fan belt and started the engine. The engine barely started as the battery was low. Then I drove to the mill and dumped the ore. I picked up a load of baled hay for a neighbor in Beatty for his horse.
The third mishap occurred on Jan. 2, 1951. I needed to spend the night washing dishes at a Beatty restaurant since the rest of the town was sleeping or boozing it up in the new year, 1951. After washing dishes, I drove out to our mine and picked up 6 tons of ore to haul 306 miles to the smelter at McGill, I got there late at night, and no one was available to switch the "Dinky Car" under the transfer shoot so I had to shovel all six tons by hand. It was about midnight and was cole, but the labor rejuvenated me so I felt pretty good. Dad said I should get a $5.00 room in Ely, but I felt OK and decided to drive the 157 miles to Tonapah which I did. It was about 80 more miles to get to Beatty. I got within 28 miles of home going along a 16 mile straight away by Scotty's Castle junction when I dozed off going about 50 miles per hour. I drifted to the left of the roadway and awoke with a start as I was headed for a concrete abutment that was part of a road drain. I swerved suddenly to the right to miss it and hit a small embankment on the right side of the road. The jolt knocked the front axel loose. I saw a car about eight miles down the road. It was about 5:00 a. m. I tried to thumb a ride, and he went by about 80 miles per hour. Then I used the shovel to cut some sagebrush and poured a tad of gasoline from the near-empty 50-gallon gas barrel we carried to make a round trip. I started a fire to keep warm as it was cold. The sagebrush burned so fast, I was kept busy chopping it with a shovel. After a while, a second car picked me up and took me to Beatty. There I got Ralph Lyle to go get the truck with his tow truck. He charged $28.00. It took Dad and me and $103.00 to repair the truck - all because I did not spend the money for a $5.00 hotel room in Ely. I was 20 years old, and it was a series of stupid moves on my part. All told, driving the truck was the easiest part of all the gold mining experience.
After I joined the navy and spent 12 weeks in Boot Camp at San Diego Naval Training Center, they gave me a thirty-day leave. I went back to Death Valley, and at the bottom of the tramway, I helped build a pitiful one-room shack of scraps, with a dirt floor, that Mom and Dad lived in from 1951 to 1954. He worked the mine by himself with Mom as his helper. I got a sound-powered telephone from an army surplus store. It was the kind used by the navy. Mom and Dad could communicate shack to mine with this telephone. She sent his lunches up on the tramway bucket.
The last 6 tons of ore shipped was the best as it ran a tad over 3 ounces per ton ($105.00 then, $4500.00 now).
I should clarify the name of that small mine. It first was known as the Keane Wonder Extension as it was about one mile east of the Keane Wonder Mine. Later it was called the Diamond Jim Mine and finally the King Midas Mine.
I had many vivid experiences at that mine. It reminds me of a navy poster showing touching a hot stove with the caption, "Vivid experience enhances learning"! Did I Learn? Yes. I learned that if you needed help, then rely on yourself only. Often, it was twenty miles to the nearest human.
One day when working on the tramway construction, I made five trips up and down the goat trail in addition to working. Now at age 89 and maybe the last surviving gold miner from Death Vally, I would be hard-pressed to make one trip there.
This mine was worked in the 1930s. It was hard drilling and hard handwork. The ore was packed down the mule trail with each mule carrying about 200 pounds of ore. They also had mules carry water and all supplies to the mine. They made the mule trail for that purpose. After much hard work, these hard rock miners gave up the mine as it was very hard work, and the pay earned was not sufficient. The mine was abandoned. Today, mining is not permitted in the Death Valley National Monument.
I was at the mine last in December 2007 and was accompanied by Death Valley Park Ranger. Greg Cox and two others, including one woman. The address is Death Valley National Monument, P.O. Box 579, Death Valley (Furnace Creek Ranch), CA 92328. Telephone 760-786-3258.
I hope to secure more written and photographic history from Jim and Anna once they return home where they have more records available. I've been reaching out to NPS staff in Death Valley for assistance in the curation of this project but so far have not heard back.
Life begins in Death Valley