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Eastern Sierra History / Cerro Gordo Silver Mine
« on: June 14, 2012, 12:51:28 PM »
Silver was discovered in the Inyo Range east of Owens Lake by Pablo Flores in 1865. For several years, Flores and other miners from Mexico quietly worked shallow deposits on the claims they filed, smelting the ore they recovered in simple vaso furnaces. The Lone Pine Mining District, which included Cerro Gordo, was formed on April 5, 1866. However, it was a little more than a full year later that word of the riches at Cerro Gordo attracted miners’ and the public’s attention. Mortimer W. Belshaw was one of the first to arrive after word of Cerro Gordo spread. In May 1868, Belshaw obtained a one-third interest in the Union Mine by promising Joaquin Almada, the mine’s owner, a one-fifth interest in the smelter he planned to build on ”Fat Hill.”

Within a few months, Belshaw had graded the steep eight-mile-long Yellow Grade Road from the base of the Inyos and began hauling machinery for a smelter that would eventually produce five tons of silver-lead bullion per day. In 1870, Victor Beaudry built a blast furnace similar to Belshaw’s - and Cerro Gordo’s output of bullion increased to nine tons per day. By that time, well over 900 claims had been filed, and a sizable mining camp with stage service to Independence had sprung up at the top of the Yellow Grade Road. Between 1872 and 1874, all of the Cerro Gordo mines became indebted to the furnaces owned by Belshaw and Beaudry, which left the two men in control of the entire hill.

In December 1868, a contract was awarded to freighter Remi Nadeau and regular ore shipments to San Francisco via Los Angeles began immediately thereafter. The haul from Cerro Gordo to Los Angeles by freight team took from three to four weeks, with the trip to San Francisco by steamer from the wharf at San Pedro adding an additional three more days to the journey. Nadeau kept perfecting his freighting operation, and in 1870 was able to deliver a total of 700 tons of bullion to the wharf at San Pedro by keeping 32 teams in constant motion. Nadeau’s teams delivered wagonloads of bullion worth $50,000 nearly every day of the year, and hauled machinery, grain, wine and brandy, and other goods purchased in the Los Angeles area on the return trip. This trade caused Los Angeles to grow from a small pueblo into a bustling supply and shipping center that served the mines of Inyo County.

Nadeau’s freighting contract ended in December 1871, and a new contract was awarded to James Brady. Brady had already built a smelter at the town of Swansea near the foot of the Yellow Grade Road, and he now set about building a small 85-foot steamer to transport bullion to the west side of Owens Lake. The Bessie Brady began plying the waters of Owens Lake in 1872, carrying as much as 70 tons of bullion per day and saving freight wagons between three and five days of travel over roads through deep sand. However, this only transferred the problem from one side of the lake to the other, and stacks of bullion that had once accumulated at Swansea - because freight wagons were unable to keep pace with Cerro Gordo’s output - now began to pile up at Cartago.

Heavy rains in the fall of 1872 made roads virtually impassable, and an outbreak of epizootic in March 1873 caused even greater freighting complications. The number of ingots of bullion awaiting shipment to Los Angeles had grown to 30,000 by May. In desperation, Beaudry and Belshaw met with Nadeau and cut a deal. By June 1873, Nadeau was once again hauling Cerro Gordo’s bullion to Los Angeles, now under the auspices of the newly formed Cerro Gordo Freighting Company. As part of the deal struck with Nadeau, Beaudry and Belshaw agreed to spend $150,000 to establish a line of freight stations between the foot of the Yellow Grade Road and Los Angeles. The stations were spaced at 13- to 20-mile intervals, equal to a day’s haul. Nadeau’s teams hauled away the backlog of bullion while Belshaw upgraded Cerro Gordo’s furnaces and mills. When production resumed, Cerro Gordo’s output doubled from that of 1871; but the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company’s teams, which now numbered 80, were up to the task. Around 50 of the teams, each hauling a set of three high-sided wagons with a total capacity of 10 tons, made trips back and forth between two of the stations. Ingots of silver-lead bullion were carried on the southbound lap, and merchandise was hauled north on the return lap. The rest of the teams supplied the stations with barley and hay for the freight teams.

By 1876, time was starting to run out for Cerro Gordo, and in December of that year Belshaw’s furnace shut down. Beaudry kept his furnace in operation for several more years, but it finally shut down in November 1879 and Nadeau soon hauled away the last of Cerro Gordo’s bullion. Cerro Gordo was reactivated circa 1905, and in 1909 a six-mile-long gravity powered tram was built to carry ore to the bottom of the grade. The tram was plagued by frequent breakdowns, during which time teamsters were hired to transport ore to the Four Metals Mining Company smelter at the foot of Yellow Grade Road.

In 1911, zinc deposits were developed and the tram built in 1909 was replaced with a 29,560 foot-long Leschen aerial tramway. This system was capable of transporting 16-20 tons of ore per hour to the railroad terminus at Keeler. Cerro Gordo became one of the major producers of high-grade zinc ore in the United States during this second boom period. The mines were worked steadily for zinc until 1915 and then intermittently until 1933.

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