The Road to New Idria


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Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 3, 2010 - 09:31am PT
I was poking around Jerry Dodrill's photography site, stunning work dude, as usual!

I found his article on New Idria:

I have always been fascinated by this place, particularly after seeing a California Condor low overhead once, while driving up the canyon toward that place.

Up behind New Idria is San Benito Mountain, the high point of San Benito county.

This is the rugged interior of the interior coast ranges of California - hot, dry desert mountains. In particular this range is the Diablo, named after the mountain anchoring the northern end. It is the longest single range of mountains in all the California coast ranges. It presents a formidable barrier to interior traffic with suitable passes only at Altamont and Pecheca.

New Idria itself is located on the New Idria diapir, a upwelling of serpentine rock being squeezed to the surface. San Benito peak is the high point of the diapir, as well.

The serpentine rocks of California are quite unique and their origins from the depths of the mantle speak of plate tectonics, the subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate and the forces that built the basement rocks of both the Sierra and the coast ranges.

Serpentine rocks come from the depths and they bring up many heavy metal constituents with them; iron, mercury, platinum, gold, etc. These deposits are often disseminated through the country rock in tiny quantities, necessitating the crunching of beaucoup rocks to get the goods.

They used mercury in the gold mines, to smelt gold from hard rock slurry. The mercury binds with the gold to make an amalgam, similar enough to the stuff they put in our teeth to fill cavities!

Then they roast the amalgam in giant furnaces, vaporizing the mercury and leaving gold behind. Viola....

Mercury was so plentiful at New Idria it could be found often on the surface of the ground, pooling in tiny amounts.

The threat of asbestos exposure is real but imo highly exaggerated as well. The most of it in the New Idria area comes from the fact that these lands were considered 'scrub' and 'useless' for any purpose to man (never mind the native species that used the place for LIFE). So they located an off road park here.

This is common in California - the interior coast ranges, along the Orestrimba faults along the Diablo range and the Stony Creek thrust along the ranges north of the Bay Area - several serpentine lands have been given over to off road biking.

Not too bright.

Soils derived from serpentine are unusually colored - often seem orange or red-clayish in nature. They offer few nutrients and suffer many heavy metals such as manganese so normal plants don't like it. Species found no where else thrive on serpentine soils, its an environment with only a few counterparts world wide and as far as the US goes, this ecosystem is pretty much unique to California.

New Almaden at San Jose, Knoxville in the northern coast ranges and New Idria, formed for many decades the backbone of the California mercury production. The history of these places is fascinating for those with an interest in CA or mining history.

The Knoxville area mines are well documented by the UC Berkeley project Bancroft library.

These are detailed interviews with folks who were part of the original mercury mines as well as the crew who realized there was gold up there in them thar hills. They found what was essentially a buried "Yellowstone", the fossilized remains of a hot springs system. Encapsulated in those deposits was finely disseminated gold. Surely there is gold being deposited in Yellowstone hotsprings even now, along with all the other stuff from the deep. Hot water under pressure is a great corrosive and transport system.

So these interviews also include the discovery of gold, the sneaking around of modern prospectors, and the sort of shenanigans required to bring a modern open pit gold mine into production in California.

Anyway, back to New Idria... the surrounding mountains are not that tall, but they are rugged and to me, endlessly fascinating; from the structures of the mountains and the construction of their bones to the unique biodiversity that at its top includes, most wonderfully, free living California Condors.

Thanks Jerry.

Yall check his site out now!



In front of my computer
Dec 3, 2010 - 11:07am PT
This thread's a two-fer on consistency: engaging, informative writing from DMT and amazing photos from Jerry.

Thanks to both of you.


Dec 3, 2010 - 12:00pm PT
Very cool!

Awesome photos that capture what seems to be a very spooky vibe (at least to me). This reminds me of a photo essay I saw once of Chernobyl. If I remember correctly, the author visited the abandoned town outside of the plant without authorization a few years ago and took a ton of great photos. Someone with better internet search skill than me could probably find it...

Thanks for a great post, Dingus!
Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2010 - 01:17pm PT
Its like driving back in time, going up that road. Those who have been can probably relate.

Panoche Valley too, the site of one of the classic western land boom/bust real estate scams.

Selling lots in a valley with NO natural watershed. You can still see the remnants of this busted boom when driving through there.

The back way in from Hollister is an absolutely stunning drive through the coast range ophiolite, the serpentines and such.


Boulder climber
I'm James Brown, Bi-atch!
Dec 3, 2010 - 01:23pm PT
we have a secret camping place up behind idria,

The Hole!

a 500 foot vertical shaft with a steel ladder going all the way to the bottome, suspended from an I beam at the top plus a cable that runs to the foot of the ladder.

interesting idria tales:

workers used to go inside the the big metal furnace pipes and clean out the mercury deposits, they got paid 35 dollars a day, big money back then, but they usually died about 4 years later,

there used to be an old tramway going from idria to the san carlos mine, workers used to put ladies of the night from cental valley towns like mendota or firebaugh, bakersfield even? and haul them up in the oar buckets for some fun,

you think in a desolate area like idria that it would be depressing, but these miners made lemonade out of lemons,

Les Depostes - a song by Woody Guthry about a plane full of mexican imigrants crshing near new idria, the wing broke of and a witness said he saw people jumping from the plane,

"don't worry, the were only deportees,..."

Woodie picked up on the insensitivity and made a song about it, parts of the plane are still there near condit peak i believe,

serpintine is the state rock,

the state gem is Benitoite, a rare beatiful rock found at the san benito mine.
you can pay 40 bucks a bucket to mine your own,

mountain biked from san benito mountain to san carlos mine, some of the best riding in the state,

there use to be a weird nekid guy that roamed the hills of idria and freaked out the miners,

if you camp out during the week, you will see nobody, maybe a dirt bike or two, so bring food and gas and beer.

Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2010 - 01:26pm PT
Some ASSHOLE of an Assembly representative wants to remove serpentinite as the state rock. Because of the specter of asbestos exposure (however ridiculously over blown, its like SNAKES!) and some f*#king trial lawyers who feel the removal will help them fleece tax payers in some massive class action.

Serpentinite is truly a unique rock and no finer a state rock could there one be.

Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2010 - 01:27pm PT
the state gem is Benitoite, a rare beatiful rock found at the an benito mine.
you can pay 40 bucks a bucket to mine your own,

According to my gem book that is the only place in the world that benitoite is found.


Trad climber
A trailer park in the Sierras
Dec 3, 2010 - 01:32pm PT
The UC Santa Cruz geology department runs their introductory field geology class right outside of New Idria. There are some awesome outcrops of the Domengine-Yokut Sandstone and Kreyenhagen Shale formations nearby.

It was on this field trip that the professor *encouraged* us to climb up the cliffs to better examine the outcrops... A climbing geologist's dream? Certainly.

We checked out the old mining town and it's pretty spooky alright. I didn't see a pic of it on Jerry's site, but there's a very volatile looking pool spilling out from an old mine shaft - pretty sweet.

Last of all, is it pronounced New Id-ria, or New Eye-dria?

Boulder climber
I'm James Brown, Bi-atch!
Dec 3, 2010 - 01:40pm PT
there is an old hog that sits in the gutter, look close to the left as you make the first right,

there is a baseball field up there,

here is the best site:
Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2010 - 01:40pm PT
Its named after the Idrija mines in Slovenia. According to google translation that is pronounced Eye-Dree Jya.

So I would guess I Dree a is correct, though I have always pronounced it

Id ree ah


Boulder climber
I'm James Brown, Bi-atch!
Dec 3, 2010 - 01:42pm PT

Trad climber
Mountain View, CA
Dec 3, 2010 - 02:15pm PT
There is a great road bike ride loop that heads out from Paicines on Highway 25 past the Pinnacles National Monument then turns onto Coalinga Road. At about mile 46 turn left on Clear Creek Road which climbs up to about 4500' on very rideable dirt. There are about 10 creek crossings that all have concrete in the stream beds, but it is best to go during times of low water.

Clear Creek Road descends to New Idria on four miles of steep dirt (still very rideable on a road bike). From there head to Panoche and back to Paicines. Total ride distance is 113 miles with about 8000' of climbing.

It is best to be self sufficient on this ride. The only supplies, food or water, are at the store in Panoche (mile 85) and the hours of operation are sketchy at best.


Trad climber
A trailer park in the Sierras
Dec 3, 2010 - 02:21pm PT
There's this crazy guy who lives just outside the road to the town, can't remember his name, but he has a very impressive gem and mineral collection. Apparently he has one of the largest samples of Benitoite in the world or something... Last I heard, he was trying to sell it for like $50k.

Apparently Benitoite has some effect that attracts aliens. From outer space.
Dingus Milktoast

Gym climber
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2010 - 02:39pm PT
A word from the wise... do not try to drive dirt roads around New Idria when they are wet or after recent rains. The mud produced from that orange soil will freakin GET YOU. Its unbelievably slick and off-camber turns (where the road bed tilts outward for drainage) above big drop offs you can get into uncontrollable slides, even going 5 mph in a 4wd. I call it the Slow Slide of Death. Its some scary sh#t when it happens to ya.


from where the anecdotes roam
Jan 24, 2011 - 07:01am PT
bumping up a quality contribution here. thanks guys.

san benito county is a favorite of mine especially when the flowers kick in, it's so iconicly californian. the back roads have just the right amount of traffic, which to my mind is the amount where parking off the pavement while snapping a picture seems unnecessary, an extravagant gesture given that your ears are sufficient confirmation that no one is within a mile.

it's rewarding to bring along a visitor who has been influenced by the state's detractors. the romance and allure of the place is in full effect, as if it had been lifted out of time.

Trad climber
Fresno CA
Jan 24, 2011 - 08:09am PT
Thanks for bumping. I missed this the first time.


Social climber
Flagstaff, AZ
Jan 24, 2011 - 09:38am PT
Thanks all, for the great posts. I worked underground there for a time in 1955, trying to save $$ for a forthcoming trip abroad. I had a degree in geology but no actual experience so thought this was a good place to get some. Getting hired was easy; la migra had stopped by at 6 a.m. with a stake-bed truck and the crew was depleted.

Though I’d hoped to assist the geology team, I was happy I didn’t; they were going nuts looking for a seam to be worked. As mentioned by others, the area is heavily fractured and a productive seam would abruptly end, offset in some direction for an unknown distance that the geology guys were trying frantically to figure out.

At the time a flask (76#?) of mercury was selling for big dollars. Uses included reactor coolant before sodium came into vogue? Also I knew a guy who was working for Varian in “Silicon Valley” before Shockley and silicon tech arrived. This guy was working on a spinning garden-hose type nozzle that would make successive electrical connections arrayed in a circle for use in a (proposed?) spy satellite that used film cameras. (Film was to be parachuted to earth for processing.)

Anyway, the going rate was $1.50/hour for an 8-hour shift. Meals ($1.50 each) and required boots, etc. had to be bought at company store. I paid a similar amount ($1.50) for a bed in an upscale bunkhouse. I think it was 50 cents/night in the “wine barrel” (bunkhouse) where most of the crew lodged. We worked 12 days straight, then had a change-day (weekend off so miners good go in to Tres Pinos to renew liquid necessities.) Monday morning while the entire crew was crouched in the ore-carts waiting for the 8 a.m. whistle, the old-timers would have watches (all Westclock Scotties) in hand. Winners (Scotty right on time) would diss the losers, who would swear at, wind, shake and otherwise abuse their timepieces.

I was helper to a miner who was cribbing up old stopes (i.e. making stacks of used stull-posts to fill and support a mined-out void) as firing continued on the next level above.

In late summer a brush fire closed the mine temporarily and the crew was laid off. I went to Camp 4 and came back only to pick up my time. Smelter-workers were all “mad as hatters” and working underground had its own (unacceptable) risks.

The folly of youth!

Trad climber
Jan 24, 2011 - 10:18am PT
Very interesting thread...tpfu.
scuffy b

Three feet higher
Feb 11, 2011 - 06:31pm PT
Swifter, thanks for your writing.
1955 seems early to be talking about a spy satellite, though, with
Sputnik still a couple years in the future.

The miners with their Westclox Scotties: I hope they had the black-face
with radium numbers like I did. The white-face with black numbers were
just not classy enough for a $5 (mid 60s) watch. I remember popping the
back off and adjusting the speed of mine pretty frequently.

Mountain climber
coalinga ca
Aug 13, 2012 - 05:00am PT
Dmt. I think it is cool u r into the area and even know about benitoite! Most people dont. I do a lot of exploring in the clear creek area I love that place. Even found a few things to climb there. If u ever go back maybe we can explore together. Also if u have any ?s about benitoite or want to buy some let me know.
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