Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Jim Sleeper on Red Hill

I was doing research in the files of the Orange County Archives last week for an article about Tustin’s Red Hill for the Jan. 2017 County Connection employee newsletter, when I came across the most informative piece on Red Hill I've ever seen. It was an April 21, 1975 letter from historian Jim Sleeper to Orange County Historical Commission Chairman Wayne Gibson, who must have asked Jim for an overview on the subject. By Jim's standards, this was just a rough collection of notes and thoughts, but by any other standard it's an invaluable look at an important historical landmark. (To say I quoted him extensively in my own article is an understatement.) Anyway, I thought I’d share the text of it here, along with some illustrations I've added, for the benefit of my readers:

Dear Mr. Gibson:

The press of business prevents me from supplying more than a cursory sketch of Red Hill. Suffice it to say that I consider it to be the most significant natural landmark, with the singular exception of Santiago Peak, left in the county. As for community identification, Red Hill is to Tustin what the Spurgeon “clock” is to Santa Ana, or the “plaza” is to Orange.

Physical significance

Standing 347 feet in elevation, the hill itself is roughly 1,000 feet long and perhaps half that distance in width. It is well defined, both by its obvious color as well as its geologic distinctness from the nearby hills. Volcanic in origin, Red Hill houses an impressive number of minerals. Among the most significant are baryta, aluminum, barite, black sulphide of mercury, mercury, cinnabarite and tiemannite. (State Mineral Survey Bulletin 91, 1922.) In addition, the hill was long a source of petrified wood.


Known to the Gabrielinos as Katuktu, the place figured in Indian mythology as a “place of refuge” stemming from its association with early tales of the Great Flood. Data regarding Red Hill’s Indian legends was gathered by John P. Harrington, of the Smithsonian, from survivors of the Juaneno tribe in Capistrano just prior to World War I. (If memory serves me, the name Katuktu was also adopted as the chapter name of the local D.A.R.)  Indian burials and numerous artifacts have been discovered on and around the hill, but to my knowledge, only one serious “dig” (ORA-300) has been made in that area. This was in 1971.
Red Hill circa the 1950s. Photo courtesy First American Corp.
Early designations

Following its Indian name, a variety of titles were applied to the hill. During Spanish times it appears on the Grijalva Diseno of 1801 simply as Las Ranas, a designation apparently supplied by the missionaries. Red hill stood at the head of the Cinega de las Ranas (“Frog Swamp”) which ran from that place to Newport Bay – hence the name “Frog Hill.” During the Mexican period, the site appears on the José Antonio [Yorba] map of 1839 as Serrito de las Ranas. And on the Jose Sepulveda 1841 diseno as Cerrito de las Ranas. Significantly, this is the name which Sepulveda used in his first (but unsuccessful) application for a rancho grant in 1836. When finally issued a year later, the same parcel was designated as the Rancho San Joaquin. In effect, then, Cerrito de las Ranas is the first name for the bulk of what is today called the Irvine Ranch. Other names were applied to the hill with no apparent confusion. Cerro de las Ranas and ultimately Serrito or Cerro Colorado were the most common.

Following American intervention and settlement, the English equivalent of Cerro Colorado was applied in the 1870s. Just as often, it was referred to as “Rattlesnake Hill,” an appellation which persisted until after the turn of the century, and with considerable justification judging from contemporary accounts.

Survey Point

Unquestionably, Red Hill’s greatest significance during the Rancho Period was as this area’s initial survey point. It is the one point in common for the three ranchos making up the Irvine, marking as it does the eastern border of the [Rancho] Santiago de Santa Ana, and the north-south division point of the [Rancho] Lomas de Santiago and the [Rancho] San Joaquin. Apparently, the hill itself was monument enough, for nothing more than a small rock cairn at its top commemorated this all-important base point.
Survey equipment in use atop Red Hill, 2012. Photo courtesy O.C. Surveyor.

Despite its several minerals, cinnabar was the one most prized during the sixty-odd years that Red Hill was intermittently worked as a mine. The scarcity of “quicksilver” elsewhere in the state (non-existent elsewhere in the county) made it significant. Consequently, the promise of big profits stimulated numerous attempts. Mission records may disclose an awareness of the mineral (as mentioned in some papers), but this is unconfirmed. The earliest allusion to Red Hill’s potential occurs in Harvey Rice’s Letters from the Pacific Slope (1869). In describing the San Joaquin (Irvine) Ranch, he states that “mines of coal and quicksilver have recently been discovered.”

As to actual mining, the initial attempt seems to have been in 1884 when it was prospected for cinnabar. Until 1893 all attempts were direct operations of the ranch itself. The earliest name applied was the “Rattlesnake Hill Mercury Mine.” An analysis and description of improvement work is described in Bowers’ Tenth Annual Report of the State Mineralogist (1890). In the year or two following this report, the Irvine Co. sank a tunnel 400’ long, another 30’ and one 30’ shaft.

Fairbanks’ Eleventh Annual Report of the State Mineralogist (1893) mentions a tunnel several hundred feet which was run into the hill from the south as was another 100’ long on the north side.
Between 1896-98 the property was leased by Thomas “Shorty” Harris, who worked the mine with a crew from the Santa Clara Coal Mines. This effort resulted in several shafts about 70’ deep.

The first stock promotion of the mine occurred early in 1899 when a ten year lease was taken cut by two Santa Ana men, R. J. Kimball and J.A. Turner. In the course of the next six months they sank two shafts, one to a depth of 80’, another of 30’. Reports indicate that eight men were employed “around the clock,” and that some 50 tons of ore had been extracted. Literature boomed the mine’s assays as running “as high as 80%’ (of mercury-bearing ore), reputedly worth $250-600 per ton. The mine was heralded as exceeding even that of the Almaden in Spain, the richest in the world, which runs only 10%.” In its best veins, Red Hill’s cinnabarite ran possibly to 50%, but overall it was 5% sulphide of mercury – still high for this type of material. Appearantly production did not match the bombast of publicity, however, for correspondence indicates that the Irvine Co. had trouble collecting its $200 annual lease fee.

On Feburary 2, 1907, Red Hill passed [out of] ranch ownership after forty acres in “block 13, Irvine Subdivision” were sold to Felton P. “Frank” Browning.

During World War I, when mercury was at a premium, the mine was worked again, this time by A. W. Sheets under a lease from Browning. A “chalk mine” was also reported on the hill during this period.

In 1927 the mine was revived by a miner named McWaters who leased the property and recovered 120 flasks of mercury (then selling at $120 per flask). McWater’s method was to distill ore from previous tailings in a wood burning retort. His overall “take” was placed at $12,000. A year or two later, a prospector named Secrest took over the mines and built a larger gas retort, though is profits, if any, are unknown.

Reputedly Red Hill was reactivated for the last time during World War II, though I cannot confirm the developers or their output.
Detail of map from the miniature book, Katuktu, by Herschel C. Logan
Historical Associations

In addition to mining, Red Hill (under one name or another) figured as a landmark skirted by the Portola party (1769), the mission fathers on El Camino Real, the Stockton-Kearny expedition (1847), the Coastline Stage (1866), and the Seeley & Wright Stage Line (1869), which passed either in front or behind the hill depending on the swampy road conditions at the time. During the 1890s, Red Hill was the scene of frequent turkey shoots, and was the first rifle range of Co. L, the local militia, which also staged mock skirmishes here. In 1899 the first heliograph experiment in the county was conducted by Co. L between the top of Red Hill and Huttenlocher’s Opera House in Santa Ana. In 1909 the first flight of a manned aircraft in Orange County, a glider built by Dana Keech and piloted by Ray McTaggert, took off from the top of the hill.

Historical Recognition

On January 8, 1930, the preliminary application for Red Hill as a California landmark was filed by county historian Terry E. Stephenson. Granted, the site was registered as State Historical Landmark #203.

In 1968 the Historical Advisory Committee of the Advance Planning Division of the O.C. Planning Department designated Red Hill as a county landmark. It so appears on the historical site map of 1969 as #57.

Possibly more telling of the hill’s community identification is the fact that a dozen commercial houses in the Tustin area have incorporated “Red Hill” as part of their business name, not to mention its use as a street name, as well as that of a school, a church and even a volunteer fire station.
An illustration of the retort from Logan's 1979 miniature book, Katuktu.

In my estimation, Red Hill is an important site – geologically, geographically and historically – not only to its immediate community, but to the county as a whole.

Sincerely yours,

James D. Sleeper

Recent photo of Red Hill's peak. Photo by Chris Jepsen.


Anonymous said...

Has anyone recently investigated whether the mine tunnels and other workings still exist?

Flashes of Sunlight said...

"In 1899 the first heliograph experiment in the county was conducted by Co. L between the top of Red Hill and Huttenlocher’s Opera House in Santa Ana."

I'm interested in the history of heliographs - is there a reference you can point me to for that? I did a quick search in the California Digital Newspaper Collection at and found material on "Red Hill" and "Huttenlocher", but not together in any one article.

Chris Jepsen said...

Flasher: I assume Jim got his information from early local newspapers like the Santa Ana Blade (of which there are few to none at the CDNC), from Charlie Swanner's book about Company L, or from some other source of Co. L records.

Anonymous: I suspect it's all out there somewhere. State Bureau of Mines? Anyway, I suspect that the mines are closed up tight for insurance reasons, unless they've already been purposely collapsed (for the same reason).

Unknown said...

When we were teenagers back in the 80s we would go back into the mine from the La Colina entrance. The mine is up a residential driveway and entrance was literally hidden behind the home owners trash cans. The mine was partially collapsed.

Jeff Mckahan said...

Old mine and a couple of shafts are still accessible. Most have been sealed off...but it is located on private property and posted no trespassing. There is a large steel boiler that has fallen down into the main part of the original mine. We used to hangout up there occasionally when I was in High school.

Anonymous said...

Off of Browning, a home was built that backed up to one of the mine entrances. In the 1960s, in "the saddle" between Red Hill and the adjoining hill, there was an abandoned cement water cistern - a home is there now - but under some of the rocks there, there was a type of small salamander - presumably now extinct - but maybe it exists in some old abandoned irrigation pipes.

Anonymous said...

03-05-2019. I just drove around red Hill. I drove down every private driveway and there is no way to get on top of the hill. On the east side there are two gates. One gate has erosion underneath it so you could crawl underneath it. There are no trust passing signs all over the gate I just drove around red Hill. I drove down every private driveway and there is no way to get on top of the hill. On the east side there are two gates. One gate has erosion underneath it so one could crawl underneath it. There are no trespassing signs all over the gates. Sad. On the west side of the hill there are some chain-link fences. It appears to be where is the mine was. You get the best view of the hill from Lemona Ln. or Ranchview Dr.

Unknown said...

It is possible to enter some shafts as of around 2016 (I have done so personally)

I know I'm late to this thread, but I thought I could help. I have been on the hill many times, but have only managed to find 2 mine entrances out of the supposed 5 (I cannot confirm the actual number). Both of them were sealed by a mixture of concrete and rubble, however, I have gotten into one in the past. It was bizarre and a truly weird experience; a small, long tunnel that slowly descends downwards with wall bracings on either side. I did not go in very far, as I was younger at the time and had heard doing so was dangerous.

Technically, going onto the hill is illegal (because it is private property), and it is trespassing. That being said, one of the easiest ways to get in is through the broken fence on the very east of the hill (just be sure not to go into any backyards). You can get there by climbing up from McClean Drive. Just be careful, as the hole in the fence is about 3ft tall by 4ft wide, after a 2ft step up, and surrounded by barbed wire. If you go with a friend, it is much easier.

If you live in the area and are relatively young, I highly recommend going at least once, as it is a cool piece of this town's history.

Keith Haney said...

I'm sure I was there with you Jeff. I remember the boiler/tank pushed in and a few shafts that went in about 50 feet. Tried to go there in the last 10 years and was told to go away by the homeowner under the mines

RustinInTustin said...

Dude! Why didn’t you take me there when we ditched zero period, bro?!? 😂😂😂
~ Chad