CLC 2019 Ride 2: New Almaden

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A short ride back in time today. The ride was short but the time was longer than I’ve been alive. I rode to New Almaden, a small quicksilver mining village now subsumed by San Jose that is almost like going back to the 1800s if you squint well enough. Fans of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose will be familiar with New Almaden. It’s where the protagonists start their life together when he gets his first job as a mining engineer. That used to be one of my favorite books set in the American West. I read it years ago and it took me until last month to finally get to the county park that is now where the Almaden Quicksilver Company mines were. I did a hike up there and had a grand time learning about the history. One thing I didn’t do is take it slow through the village. To rectify that today I rode from another park a few miles away along a bike path to avoid suburban traffic, then on to the more suburbural road into New Almaden. I just made up “suburbural” this minute.

Starting out on the Los Alamitos Creek Trail with runs through the Almaden Valley of San Jose. Look – water in the creek!
Once you get away from all the housing developments in Almaden, you start getting into the more ranchy kind of spreads.
Feeling sheepish.
Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1847.

The town of New Almaden is on the national register of historic places. The first thing you come to is Casa Grande, which was the mine manager’s home/office initially and many other things in the decades since the mine closed. Now it’s a county park museum and ranger offices. I spent some time in the museum; a small donation was my contribution to the local economy. I also mentioned to the ranger in the museum shop that the county might consider putting in some bike parking. She said they don’t get as much bike traffic in Casa Grande as you’d think considering that so many weekend warriors ride the hilly loop that runs through New Almaden. But I did hear her telling her boss later that “that lady over there” requested bike parking; the boss said she’d add to the list of things that need doing. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no.

The remains of the rest of the town consists mostly of about 15 or so cabins and a few other buildings like the old fire station. One of the things you can do on a trike is ride slowly from building to building while reading a guide that the county wrote about the town.

Casa Grande, home and offices for the manager of the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Company. Quicksilver is mercury. Cinnabar was mined from the hills around here, then cooked so the mercury was vaporized then condensed into liquid form. Very important for refining gold ore. Any guesses where a lot of the quicksilver went after, oh, say, 1849?
I toured Casa Grande which is now a museum with period furniture and mine artifacts. I feel, however, that there is an anachronism here.
Casa Grande in the olden days.
One of the mine shafts.

The old fire house.
This is the oldest cabin. Built in the 1850s. I know you Euros will laugh at how young that is, but we upstart western Americans take what we can get.
Pokey enjoyed looking at these cabins as much as I did. Also note the brick walkways. The bricks were used as ballast in the ships that came to San Francisco, and came from all over the world. They didn’t need the ballast for the return trip since the ships were loaded with quicksilver.
Pokey is checking out some of the old mining equipment used back in the day. The rest of the area we’re at is a large field. The field used to be the location of the reduction works for cooking the cinnabar and condensing the quicksilver. Up that hill is a chimney where the sulfuric fumes from the reduction works were released. The idea was to have the wind disperse the noxious fumes. The result was decades of acid rain in this area before we knew what acid rain was. And there are signs along Alamitos Creek and its reservoirs saying  it’s not safe to eat anything caught there due to mercury.
More of the mining equipment.
Part of the field where the reduction works used to be. Seeing about a sixth of the area. Looking back towards the village.
What this bucolic area used to look like.
From my hike in the county park a few weeks earlier: The mine office and map house in English Camp is back there. The rest of this area was housing for the Cornish miners and other English-speaking workers. There was a Spanish Camp too a mile or so away. The miners lived closer to the mines on the hill.

tricycle tricycle tricycle I want to ride my tricycle tricycle tricycle I want to ride my tricycle I want to ride my trike I want to ride my tricycle I want to ride it where I like (And I like to ride my bicycle too)

12 response to "CLC 2019 Ride 2: New Almaden"

  1. By: Suzanne Posted: March 26, 2019

    Thanks, loved the ride into the past. Interesting detail about the bricks.

    • By: Kathleen Jones Posted: March 27, 2019

      Thanks, Suzanne. Never knew I’d find this interesting. I mean, I like history but not usually into this type.

      • By: Suzanne Posted: March 27, 2019

        It wasn’t until I started cycling to places, that history started meaning anything to me.

  2. By: gregblood Posted: March 27, 2019

    “Suburbural” is a fine word and you are a fine wordsmith. Speaking of words, I’m not sure what an “anachronism” is, but what struck me about that picture is that the hockey player seemed strangely out of place–as if it came from a different period of time.

    • By: Kathleen Jones Posted: March 27, 2019

      Thank you for appreciating my wordsmithing. I didn’t notice the hockey player bobblehead until you mentioned it. Thanks for point that out.

  3. By: Rich-Illinois Posted: March 27, 2019

    What a great ride and tour! Thank You!
    Interesting to read more about cinnabar and its role in history. Thanks for sparking that interest too.
    Im guessing after 1849 a lot of the New Almaden mercury stayed right there in California supplying the Gold Rush?

    • By: Kathleen Jones Posted: March 27, 2019

      You’re right, Rich, the mercury went to the California gold fields. New Almaden was named after the Spanish city of Almaden, which has been mining cinnabar for millenia. New Almaden was the first real rival of Almaden’s monopoly.

  4. By: Lednar De Nalloh Posted: March 28, 2019

    Mercury..now that’s a nasty chemical to deal with. I read they still use that process to recover gold from rock in Africa and South America with much pollution. We have some towns contaminated with lead and asbestos too. Some nice countryside just down the road for you to ride in.

  5. By: The Navigator Posted: March 30, 2019

    Thank you for the tour. I am big fan of Stegner and Angle of Repose is one of my fav books of all time. Suprisingly, the New Almaden in my imagination all these years was really not too different from your photos – steep hills, scrubby brush, narrow valleys and lots of industrial works. I love the story of the bricks. I get a very deja vu feeling when I’m in mining towns – almost creepy sometimes. I’m certain in my last life I must have been a mining town prostitute!

    • By: Kathleen Jones Posted: April 22, 2019

      Of course you were a wanton hussy! We worked the same houses together. Don’t you remember?

      It was really cool to finally check out English Camp after recently rereading up to that point in Angle of Repose. The schoolhouse was still there, but just as a pile of bricks and boards and even the roof, slowly rotting. No houses or anything because it was cleared for other uses, such as WWI training camp (I think) and a CCC camp. But still….

    • By: Kathleen Jones Posted: April 22, 2019

      Yes, Stegner did some good things while he lived in Los Altos Hills and taught at Stanford. He lived off Page Mill Road. Someone bought his old property about 10 years ago and wanted to raze the outbuilding where he did his writing. There was an little fuss about it, but the new owner was of a different culture so had never heard of Stegner. I don’t remember if it was saved or not.

Leave a Reply