Visit Yosemite's mining history

March 25, 2014 

Let's travel back in time and visit the areas around Tioga Pass Road. From the 1860s, more than 350 active mining claims were recorded, which introduced the gold boom of 1880. This new activity lasted until 1884 which generated more than $300,000 in gold and silver from the Great Sierra Mines.

West of Tioga Pass Road, there are two old forgotten mining towns. One is called Dana City (Great Sierra Mines) which is a three-mile trek in and above the upper Gaylor Lake. The second area is called the town of Bennettsville and the mine is only one-half mile from Tioga Pass Road.

On a brisk October morning, Clem Bingham, Fred Cochran and I entered the trailhead west of Yosemite's east gate at 9,970 feet. This well-established trail rises in elevation 500 feet through a series of switch backs lined by Western Juniper Pine, Lodge Pole Pine and Western Hemlock Trees.

Once at the crest or saddle, to our right is Gaylor Peak and directly below us is the middle Gaylor Lake. We'll drop in elevation 300 feet to this middle lake and locate the trail that follows directly north toward the upper Gaylor Lake. From this location, once again, look upward to the north and a portion of a stone cabin comes into view along the mountainside. This is the introduction to Dana City at 10,840 feet.

All that remains today of this historic town are deteriorated stone structures with their two-foot-wide walls. Stones are layered without concrete at this width to keep out the extreme cold temperatures of winter. One structure still displays its fireplace and support beams. Although the roof has collapsed, one can almost imagine its appearance during the 1880s.

Throughout this plateau are isolated areas displaying veins of white and gray quartz. The mountain sides today still display old mounds of tailings surrounding those working shafts from the late 1800s. One open shaft (filled with water) also shares its history with the crumbling cabin rock walls. I was surprised to find a brass government surveyor's marker with its identification marking still legible dated 1929.

With a few more hours of daylight remaining today, it is time to start our three-mile trek back to the trailhead and drive to the second mining town of Bennettsville. Drive east on Tioga Pass Road roughly one quarter mile descending beyond the east entrance gate. This trailhead is an old wagon road at 9,935 feet, which was used to bring the ore and equipment to and from the mine.

Within 30 minutes we were standing at the mine entrance. All that remains today are a few artifacts displayed at its entrance. A rusted mechanical steam pump with pulley still attached. A fresh-air compressor pump, steam pressure tanks and an ancient hand-held compressed-air drilling tool. Even the ore car tracks still extend from the mine entrance. Below the tailings are the remains of an ore car, with only the wheels and parts of its chassis remaining.

Bennettsville was a non-productive mine with only a few thousand dollars in gold and silver removed. After its failure in 1884, it remained closed until it reopened once again in 1933. But the following year it closed, because of the lack of production. The mine was a major disappointment to its owners.

Below the mine is the town of Bennettsville. The wooden structures have deteriorated and all that remains today are a couple of reconstructed buildings. Hopefully this progress of restoration will continue, so our past is not forgotten.

If this history of our mining pioneers creates an interest for you, but your quality time is filled, I will present a slide show Saturday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. in the main lobby of the Yosemite Southgate Lodge in Oakhurst. I'll even slip in a few mountain peaks that surround the eastern area of Yosemite National Park. Hope to see you then.

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