Black Diamond Mines is star of this winter road trip in Northern California
Winter rains and snow that blanketed the mighty Sierra also deluged our coastal mountains.
Today we share a road trip into the lovely, emerald green mountains just 45 miles west of San Joaquin County. Along the way, you will find several lovely other parks and towns just right for exploration. Make it a daytrip for stunning scenery and intriguing history.
Did you know that California’s former coal mining area was the Black Diamond Mines District just north of Mt. Diablo and south of Antioch? Today, this region is preserved in Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. From the 1850s to early 1900s, almost 4 million tons of coal ("black diamonds") was mined, the product of over 900 miners, many of them immigrants from Wales. These black diamonds fueled Delta steamships, railroad locomotives, power plant boilers and warmed the homes of Stockton and San Francisco in winter.
Only an hour and 10 minutes from Stockton, the preserve offers a lovely drive, a good hike (or bike) and loads of historical perspective. The area was once home to three Bay Area Miwok-speaking tribes; with the arrival of Spanish, Mexican and American settlers in the early 1700s, the Miwuk lifestyles were dramatically decimated.
Coal was discovered in the 1850s and was mined for 60-plus years, when oil’s discovery began displacing coal from its pinnacle. Towns including Somersville, Nortonville, Stewartville and two more blossomed in the district, home to miners, their families, merchants and saloon-keepers. At the peak of operations in the 1870s, the coalfield's population was the epicenter of Contra Costa County.
Scores of mines were tunneled into the Contra Costa foothills, with miners digging shafts into the hills yielding tailings (detritus from deep shafts, yielding waste rock piles) still visible from miles away. The Pittsburg Railroad hauled coal to Pittsburg docks, where it was shipped to San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton. Due to new energy sources such as oil, the coal mines ceased operations in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, sand mining began in the district, supporting the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company in Oakland and foundry sand for the Columbia Steel Works in Pittsburg.
Beside the Preserve’s parking lot are the remnants of the Independent Mine shaft. A large depression marks the site of a 700-foot sealed shaft and a boiler explosion in 1873, which killed two men and scattered boiler parts more than a quarter mile. Look high up the hills and see the Rose Hill Cemetery overlooking Markley Canyon, and begin the roughly half-mile, uphill hike, past the old Somersville town site and several tailing piles from old mines to the cemetery.
Rose Hill was a Protestant cemetery and burial ground for many of the Welsh immigrants. Over 230 burial plots include children who died of epidemics (smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid), men who died in mining disasters and women who perished in childbirth. Only 80 gravestones remain today, the result of vandalism or others that were wood and lost in fires; some gravesites remain unmarked.
Find the sobering history of plot 46, the grave of William Gething. He died aged 36 in a Black Diamond Mine explosion in 1876, killing him and nine others – seven of the men are buried nearby. Nearby, plot 6, is the grave of Sarah Norton, wife of Noah Norton for whom the town of Nortonville was named. Sarah was a midwife who delivered over 600 babies; at age 68, in route to a birth in nearby Clayton, she was thrown from a buggy and killed instantly.
About a half-mile past the cemetery is the Nortonville town site, though neither Somersville nor Nortonville retain any of their buildings, since homes and businesses were dismantled when the towns were abandoned and others lost to fire. If one stops along the Nortonville trail and gazes over the cemetery, tailings and town site, listen quietly as the voices of miners and their families whisper in the trees.
Back in the valley, short and relatively level hikes take you to the Greathouse Portal, which houses the visitor center within the old sand mine. Nearby is the Eureka Slope, an incline shaft entrance to the Eureka coal mine which produced 150,000 tons of coal out of a steeply inclined shaft descending 300 feet. Visit the Hazel Atlas Portal, another sand mine that operated until the 1940s. We chatted with a preserve docent, who notes that tunnel tours are offered on the weekends, by reservation (full details on website; bring a flashlight and jacket, the old mines maintain a temperature in the high 50s within their confines).
The preserve offers another 60 miles of trails traversing grassland, foothills, woodlands, evergreen forest and exotic plantings of the miners including pepper trees, almond, eucalyptus and black locust. The trails are ideal for hiking, biking or horseback riding (the park offers two backpack campsites).
Take your binoculars and watch for rabbits, deer, raccoons, skunks and occasional bobcat, fox, coyote and mountain lion sightings. Over 100 species of birds make the area home, including rare golden eagles. Mt. Diablo State Park is just miles south; we will save that trip is for another day!
How to get there: Take Highway 4 west through the Delta, to Summersville Road exit in Antioch. Go south on Somersville to the Preserve entrance (modest fee). For provisions or snacks, find businesses and restaurants in nearby Antioch.
For more information: East Bay Regional Parks District, ebparks.org, (888) 327–2757.
Contact Tim, firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy travels in the west!
This article originally appeared on The Record: Black Diamond Mines in Northern California is worth a road trip