Searching for the Lost Mines of Antimony Peak
Hikers who hike Antimony Peak (west of Frazier Park) on the old, eroded jeep road down to the low saddle and then up to the peak may wonder why the old road was constructed. We have the answer.
The peak is well named. Extensive deposits of the silvery, brittle metallic element antimony are found very close to the summit on the north slopes. The road to the peak was build to access, survey, and mine these deposits. In particular in June 1970 the Tenneco Mining Corp commissioned a four-man survey crew from Glendale to file mining claims and dig a trench. The survey crew was occasionally joined by a geologist and several other Tenneco employees. Curiously, and fortunately, long-time Sierra Club and HPS member Bill Stewart was one member of this crew. But first here's some background.
Antimony is a strategic metal. Because it expands on solidifying (a rare characteristic that it shares with water), it has found important uses as an alloy of tin and lead in metal castings, ammunition, machine bearings, batteries, and lead-based pigments. Only a small amount of antimony is needed to add hardness and expansion properties to the alloy.
Mining for antimony near the peak has been going on for at least the past 150 years, making the mining area one of the oldest in Kern County. Nationally renowned pictographs on sandstone formations about ten miles north of the peak in the Windwolves Preserve of the Wildlands Conservancy show that early Native Americans used antimony as pigments. There is also some indication that padres during the missionary period may have used forced Native American labor to dig mining tunnels. In 1853 an examination of the ore deposits at the peak showed the remains of old smelting works, perhaps originating in the missionary period.
Claims were staked in 1873 and a concentrating plant and ore smelter were erected in San Emigdio Canyon, two miles north and 3000 feet below the deposits. Several tunnels ranging from 20 to 600 feet in length were dug and the antimony ore carried out by pack animals to furnaces - now long gone - in San Emigdio Canyon. The metallic antimony was then hauled from the smelter in wagons to Bakersfield. Intermittent mining continued until 1892 when the Kern County Land Company purchased the property. Since that time active mining has only occurred at two brief intervals during the First and Second World Wars. It is estimated that no more than 600 tons of metallic antimony were ever produced.
In 1940 major exploratory drilling and trenching work was performed by the U.S. Bureau of Mines pursuant to a Congressional mandate to determine whether the area was suitable as an emergency antimony reserve. For seven months, from November 1940 through May 1941, a crew headed by two mining engineers camped in a meadow just north of the peak. During that period they built over 2 1/2 miles of roads and trails and dug 80 trenches.
The 1970 Tenneco crew, which included Bill Stewart, went to the same area. Bill recalls camping in the meadow that the Bureau of Mines had used 30 years before. Instead of hiking the road as we do now, the Tenneco team drove down to the low saddle from the present parking area in a Ford Bronco, which was then strapped to the back of a Caterpillar backhoe tractor. The tractor dug out and improved the old road as it ascended the narrow, steep, twisting half-mile road to the high saddle a hundred yards west of the summit, then continued down the road on the north side of the peak to the camping area in the meadow.
During their month-long stay Bill saw the entrance of a mine that dated back to at least 1876. There was an ore cart at the mine's entrance which was removed by the tractor. The survey crew also found an 1873 mineral claim marker attached to a tree trunk.
On November 1 the writers journeyed to the area for their own survey, along with new HPS member Christopher Davis. On both sides of the low saddle below the parking area we saw evidence of a faint trail which may be the oddly named Tail Hold Trail shown on old maps covering the region. Perhaps the name derives from holding on to the tail of a pack animal as one climbed the steep trail.
After signing in at the summit we continued on the old jeep road (presumably constructed in 1940) to the area just north of the peak. After about a quarter of a mile we reached the main meadow. Just before the meadow there is a 110-ft long trench dug out by the 1970 crew. An old kitchen stove which Bill Stewart recalls being there in 1970 is still standing, a decrepit legacy of the earlier expeditions. The meadow has many old boards and other cabin remnants from 1940. The old road runs through the meadow and then heads west in a horseshoe fashion, following the track of the deposits, and trenches can be found throughout its length.
Finally the road ends after 3/4 mile. About 50 feet below the road on the north side we found a mine, but alas it was not the 1876 mine seen by Bill but was obviously much more recent, probably drilled soon after the 1940 expedition during World War II, based upon the nature of its construction materials. It was at the foot of a gully, with wooden framing and an ore-loading platform. Cables are still evident, reaching from the landing platform up to the road and then above the road to anchor points. Unfortunately the mine itself was blocked inside with heavy rock debris from the gully.
This was certainly not the 1876 mine that Bill had described. So the search goes on to uncover the lost mines of Antimony Peak.