Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Silverado Days

Silverado Canyon. Photo by Clara Mason Fox courtesy O.C. Archives.
I’ve been looking a bit at the story of the brief silver boom that launched Silverado. The canyon had earlier been known as Canada de la Madera (Canyon of the Timber) or simply Madera Canyon. This small silver rush in the Santa Ana Mountains in the late 1870s and early 1880s may not have been that tremendously significant to the development of Orange County, but it has lived for over 140 years as a key element of our folklore and “local color.” The boom itself went bust in 1882 when miners learned the hard truth: The Santa Ana Mountains contain almost any mineral you can name, but not in large enough quantities to make mining profitable.

If the topic interests you, I suggest starting with Phil Brigandi’s recent article about Silverado, which is posted to his O.C. Historyland website. The page also links to a bunch of primary source material from contemporary newspapers, which is pretty remarkable.) But I’ve got some additional information handy, so I might as well share it here.

What follows are some interesting excerpts about Silverado from Jim Sleeper’s A Boys’ Book of Bear Stories (Not For Boys): A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains and from an article entitled “Silverado Days” by Robert S. Farrar, which appeared in Orange County Illustrated in Feb. 1965. Admittedly, the Illustrated article as highly derivative of pages 49-59 of Terry E. Stephenson’s much superior Shadows of Old Saddleback. But I’m not retyping ten more pages for you.


…In the summer of 1877, a chance discovery of silver-bearing ore in Pine Canyon unleashed the greatest mining flurry the Santa Anas have ever known. The strike, and several others that followed within the next four years, changed not only the face but the disposition of the hills…
If repetition of story counts, the Henry Smith and Bill Curry get the credit for touching off Silverado’s explosion. An oft-quoted passage from [Terry E.] Stephenson’s Shadows [of Old Saddleback] has done much to perpetuate their names and what now appears to be a dubious fact of history.

“Thus it was, a quiet canyon with hardly a half-dozen mountain homes in it, when one day in the fall of 1877 Hank Smith and William Curry, both of Santa Ana, hunting in the upper mountains, came upon some rock that looked to them like silver ore. An assay was reported as showing the rock to be a blue and white quartz carrying silver to about $60 a ton. These two men staked a claim that they called the Southern Belle and soon ran in a tunnel some fifty feet.”

Since then, the myths that have turned up regarding Silverado’s first mine would fill a book,... Suffice it to say that the Mexicans prospected Madera Canyon long before any gringo swung a pick there, and records show that the Southern Belle was really discovered on August 12, 1877, by H.C. Purcell and G.F. “Goldie” Slankerd. A week after their discovery, the Santa Rosa Mining District (named for that mountain) was organized.

Though a half dozen claims were staked that summer, the mineral wealth of Pine Canyon was little publicized until almost the end of the year. Even then, there was no rush into the Madera until after the spring rains subsided. Once the human flood tide began, however, every bored farm boy and village slicker who could borrow a shovel and steal the time poured into the hills. Most couldn’t find their way across creek without a compass, and their knowledge about mining ranked right alongside that of a duck. Among those so qualifying was W.F. Heathman, a pioneer Santa Ana resident and for years its city attorney. Recalling the silver stampede of ’78, Heathman wrote:

“…like all other mining excitements, many strove to reach the mountains and stake off a claim, and with others I went also. In a brief period of time there camped on the site of what was known as ‘Silverado’ over six hundred persons intent on making their fortunes . . . I secured a claim which a mining expert declared to be worth one hundred thousand dollars. I fully believed him and wrote to my brother in the east that I had surely made my fortune. The mine petered out and I was sorry I had made the statement.”

At the apex of the excitement, a portly Anaheim product named Pharez Allen Clark, who ran a toy shop and lending library when not hustling real estate, acquired the flat at the end of Madera Canyon. There he platted a townsite which he called “Silverado City.” City proving a bit sanguine, “camp” was generally substituted and describes it much better. Nonetheless, according to H.S. Knapp, four or five hundred prospectors came upon the place and staked half again that many claims.

“…a post office was here established that fall, and in a very short time the new town of Silverado boasted of three hotels, three stores, seven saloons, two blacksmith shops, two meat markets, a select school, and all the other industries of a first-class mining camp. Town lots sold as high as seventy-five dollars each, yet nearly all the dwellings were canvas tents, and the occupants of board shanties were looked upon as ‘bloated aristocracy.”

…One mine was the “Grizzly,” just off Pine Canyon. In August of ’78, the Grizzly was renamed the “Maggie,” for Maggie Gillett, who ran one of Silverado’s meaner hotels. It is not known whether this honor paid off a board bill or was a tribute to Mrs. Gillette’s disposition.

A mining village sprang up at the fork where Pine Canyon enters the main Canyon. P.A. Clark, a real estate man from Anaheim, laid out the townsite. Appropriately, he named it Silverado, and Canada de la Madera became Silverado Canyon. Population soared … Three stages rain daily from Santa Ana and two from Los Angeles, and seats were at a premium.

The next few years were filled with excitement. J.D. Dunlap, a Deputy United States Marshal sent to arrest a Mexican outlaw hiding in the mountains, never succeeded in apprehending the fugitive but caught the mining fever instead. Dunlap located the mine which has become the most famous in the area, the Blue Light. He put a crew to work, opened up some rich galena ore, and helped to spread the exciting news of silver. Soon a company of eastern financiers formed the New York Mining Company. They located all the property that had not already been staked out, put a large force of men to work driving tunnels and sinking shafts, and spent a sizable fortune on this development.
The Western Zinc Company, composed entirely of French stockholders, began operations in Silverado and installed a quartz mill to handle the ore. In the shadow of the bigger companies were the lone prospectors and “pardners.”

…"'Dad' Justice, a most colorful character filled with the prospector’s perennial optimism, pronounced “a great silver ledge, as great as the richest Virginia City . . . has ever known, lies buried in the Silverado’s ridges awaiting the lucky strike of some miner’s pick."

The lucky strike never came. The Blue Light mine offered the greatest promise. Once the owners believed they had struck the Mother Lode: they pierced the whole side of the canyon with tunnels, in search of the great ledge of ore they knew must be there. But disappointment was their only reward, and the dream of wealth became more and more a myth. . . . By 1883 the last family left, the post office shuttered, and Silverado stood deserted.

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