By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
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Silverado Canyon didn't get its name for nothing. The canyons high above Orange County's citrus groves and broad beaches are perforated with mines. An old ledger housed in the Orange County Archives bears signatures on hundreds of claims filed a century ago by those in search of silver, tin, gold and oil. While those hunting for a connection to Gold Rush history need look no farther than their own back yard, be warned: Exploring mines is inherently dangerous, and a little common sense goes a long way.
In other words, stop reading here. Actually, don't. Because the Weekly doesn't want to make it too easy for every gold-crazed trespasser to traipse across some animal's pristine habitat, we'll let you do your own sleuthing for the exact directions to the locations discussed here. Clue: Check the Internet. But bear in mind the area's unique geology brings added hazards, including tunnels with low oxygen levels and deadly gases. And with hundreds of shafts in the area, some are certain to be on private property.
BLACK STAR FALLS
Little is known about this site, which is often confused with the Black Star Coal Mine located lower in the canyon. The county-owned right of way starts beyond the gate at the end of Black Star Canyon Road and leads to the falls. It's also claimed by local hillbillies. A sign warns against hiking without the owner's permission. The same hikers have maintained their right to use the path for decades. Rumored to be a favorite of Satanist cults, Black Star Canyon has been the site of unpleasant encounters between locals and hikers. In 2004, a resident named Art Tuttle was charged with brandishing a pistol in a menacing manner after encountering a female hiker on the road. And before that, back in 1990, Tuttle was charged with assault with a deadly weapon after he threw a rock at a helicopter practicing taking off and landing in a nearby field. It's unclear if a mine claim exists for this site, according to Scott Schmitz, a member of the Southern California Grotto Society, which practices conservation and exploration of mines. But the mystery only adds to the rewards: Assuming you survive the residents, you'll find a shimmering pool and, above it, a cascading waterfall beside a large mine shaft.
BLUE LIGHT MINE
In 1877, Hank Smith and William Curry were hunting at the southern end of Silverado Canyon when they discovered a rock containing silver ore. It was assayed at $60 per ton. Digging commenced and didn't stop until the 1950s; according to the Canyon Land Conservation Fund, between 1942 and 1946, the mine produced $47,000 worth of zinc, lead, gold and silver. Sadly, in 2002, two Santa Ana brothers drowned while exploring the flooded tunnels, which experts say contain dangerously low levels of oxygen. In 2008, the U.S. Forest Service gated off five of the mine's nine entrances to keep people out while allowing bats to come and go. A large building once housing the mill was also removed.
According to our friend Chris Jepsen of the Orange County Archives, tin was discovered near Trabuco Canyon in 1877. After the Santa Ana Tin Mining Co. was incorporated in 1901, more than $1 million was spent sinking thousands of feet of shafts and tunnels, none of which yielded an ounce of tin. Jepsen's OC History Roundup blog cites a 1969 panel of the Orange County Historical Landmarks Project, which concluded the Tin Mine was one of the best preserved mines in the county. "Not only are the old shafts and cut tunnels preserved," the panel found, "but the old mill, laboratory and a few other old buildings still stand." Thanks to the U.S. Forest Service, though, the entire site has since been scrapped. That's not to say some vigilant adventurer won't find a trace of the operation. If you do, let us know. Happy hunting.