Posted by: James Wapotich | July 23, 2016

Trail Quest: The Trails of Jose Moraga, Part 1

Along the Santa Ynez River, near Gibraltar Reservoir, one can find the remains of several quicksilver mines that are part of Santa Barbara’s mining history.

Jose Moraga was the first to locate quicksilver in Santa Barbara County and see its potential for mining. In 1860, he discovered a large exposed outcropping of serpentine rock along the Santa Ynez River, just north of where Gibraltar Dam is now. The outcropping is part of a narrow three-mile long belt that stretches through the canyon.

The orange to rust-colored rock contains cinnabar or mercury sulfide. When the rocks are crushed and heated, it causes the mercury to separate from the sulphur and evaporate, which can then be cooled and condensed.

Gibraltar Reservoir los prietos quicksilver mercury mine Santa Ynez River hike trail Jose Moraga Los Padres national forest

Gibraltar Reservoir frames a view of the tailings from Los Prietos Mine

While mercury, or quicksilver, has many uses and properties, of particular interest to miners and prospectors at that time was its interaction with gold and silver. Quicksilver was widely used in hydraulic mining. When added to the flowing water-gravel mixture it would fuse to and dissolve gold or silver creating an amalgam that would then sink in the sluice boxes, making it easy to recover.

When this amalgam was heated, the quicksilver could be expelled and the gold or silver collected.

Because of the promise of great wealth gold and silver mining offered and the role quicksilver played in its extraction, quicksilver became just as valuable a commodity and prospectors began to search for it with equal fervor.

Following his discovery, Moraga filed several claims along the Santa Ynez River and others followed suit. Moraga’s claim became known as Los Prietos Mine.

Furnace foundation los prietos quicksilver mercury mine Santa Ynez River hike trail Jose Moraga Los Padres national forest

The foundation of Los Prietos Mine’s furnace site is seen along Gibraltar Trail

The mine, however, was not extensively worked until 1874, when the price of quicksilver rose and activity at the mine increased dramatically. In 1875, a 4,000 pound boiler was brought over the mountains by wagon and a furnace was constructed downstream from the mine with roughly 140,000 bricks made at the site.

The ore from the mine was not that rich, containing on average only 0.25 percent cinnabar, with occasional pockets containing as much as 13 percent cinnabar. And so a considerable amount of ore needed to be processed. The large furnace at Los Prietos could hold 70 tons of rock, with three tons added and removed at a time. As many as 400 men were involved in the operation. However, by 1877, mining operations ceased as the price of quicksilver fell and litigation over the title of the mines continued.

The mines were part of the Los Prietos and Najalayegua land grant. J. S. Cassell of San Francisco had leased the grant, including mineral rights, but there was much contention over the actual boundaries of the grant. Eventually, the various groups worked out their differences. Later two companies were formed around the different claims. Cassell and others organized Santa Ynez Mining Company, which included the now more famous Sunbird Quicksilver Mine, located on the south side of the river. And Los Prietos Mining Company was organized around the claims staked by Moraga and his associates; the company later absorbed Santa Ynez Mining Company.

Between the decline in quicksilver prices; the relative remoteness of the sites; and the discovery of more quicksilver mines in Northern California, the Los Prietos and Santa Ynez Mines fell into disuse and ruin. It wasn’t until War World I when the price of quicksilver rose that new operations began. The mines were worked from 1916-1918; on and off during the 1930s; and likely during World War II.

In Jose Moraga’s day, the principal route to the mines followed the stage coach road from Santa Barbara over San Marcos Pass. Where the road met the Santa Ynez River a road had been constructed that continued 10 miles upstream towards the mining operation. During the winter, when the river ran high, the mines were accessible only by pack trail over the mountains. The pack trail that was likely followed lead through Mission Canyon to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains and then down along Arroyo Burro Trail to the river.

While little remains of the original Los Prietos Mine, the site can be visited as part of an off-trail hike along the Santa Ynez River. Starting from Red Rock Trailhead it’s about a mile along Gibraltar Trail and then another 1.5 miles along the now overgrown road that led to the mine.

los prietos quicksilver mercury mine Santa Ynez River hike trail Jose Moraga Los Padres national forest

The Santa Ynez River is seen from the old road leading up to Los Prietos Mine

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take State 154, over San Marcos Pass, to Paradise Road. Turn right on to Paradise Road. The road ends at the Red Rock Trailhead parking area. An adventure pass is required to park in this part of the National Forest.

From the trailhead, Gibraltar Trail follows the Santa Ynez River upstream. For the first half-mile along both sides of the canyon one can see tan-colored Monterey shale on the hillsides. The trail then crosses the river and the prominent spire of Red Rock comes into view. Here, the rock type transitions from younger Monterey shale into older serpentine rock, passing through grayish blue-green serpentine and then orange to rust-colored serpentine rock.

As the trail continues upstream, the north side of the canyon stretching up to Camuesa Peak is composed of olive-green Espada formation rock.

Past the Red Rock swimming hole, the trail crosses the river a second time, and continues along the south side of the canyon a short way before arriving at the site where the furnace was located. Here, one can still find bricks from the furnace and part of the foundation running parallel to the canyon. It’s also from this site, looking east that one can see the low saddle, near where the mine itself was located.

At the eastern end of the brick foundation is a very small side wash. Here, one can find a steep and rarely used social trail that leads up to a cement-lined cistern. Just past that, still standing, is a brick chimney.

To reach the mine, continue past the furnace site upstream along Gibraltar Trail to where both the trail and river turn dramatically. Just across the river is the beginning of the old road cut that continues up the side canyon. The overgrown road follows a series of switchbacks up to the saddle. The road is washed out in several places and does require at times pushing through, ducking under and weaving around brush, but enough evidence of the road remains to make the route itself generally discernible.

los prietos quicksilver mercury mine Santa Ynez River hike trail Jose Moraga Los Padres national forest

Exposed outcropping of cinnabar bearing rock at the mine site

As the trail nears the saddle, it arrives at a side road on the right that leads past the rusted remains of an old refrigerator. The road leads up to the mine site, however it quickly becomes overgrown and washed out and requires pushing through brush and poison oak.

At the saddle, a second road cut appears on the right, that also leads up to the mine site and is in similar condition. At the mine site one can find exposed outcroppings of serpentine rock where the mine once was. Little remains at the site.

Continuing a short ways past the saddle, down the backside, the main road arrives at a large heap of pink and salmon-colored tailings from the mine. Here, the view opens up and extends out across Gibraltar Reservoir and with keen eyes one can spot the remains of the Sunbird Quicksilver Mine on the other side.

From here, the road continues another half-mile down towards an earthen dam near the mouth of a side canyon. The dam across the creek forms a catch basin to prevent silt from entering the reservoir. The road is just as overgrown and washed out in places as it is along the hike up to the saddle.

Regardless of how far you go you’ll have a chance to see part of Santa Barbara’s quicksilver mining history.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 20th, 2016 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press.


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