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Lost Below - A True Life Adventure

by Reggie Gould

Published in the December 2001 issue of the International California Mining Journal

Note: Images with captions appear at the end of this article.

The year was 1956. The place was a silver mine in Silverado Canyon, California. To familiarize you with the area, Silverado Canyon is located in Southern California near El Toro Marine Base, which is located near Majeska Peak.

My story starts out, like any young teenager’s, looking for adventure. When I was in high school, some of the kids I knew told me about an abandoned silver mine up in the hills. Since the age of ten, I was always crawling into caves to explore them, except this sounded like a bigger adventure than I had ever experienced before.

I had two friends that liked to stare danger in the face. We decided as a collective group to research the mine through any existing documentation. We started out by first buying a topo map of the area and, sure enough, the mine was well marked, along with many other mine locations. We then went to the library and researched it for further information.

The largest mine we could find in that location was the Silverado Silver Mine. According to the data, they had taken millions of dollars of silver and gold from the mine. Its demise came soon after the country went to the Gold Standard.

We also found out that the mine’s trust was mostly held by stockholders; so when the mine shut down, almost all of the equipment was left behind to rust away with time. When the day came to explore the mine, we were prepared, or so we thought, for a great adventure in mine exploration. Our equipment included Army surplus helmet liners, hand picks, canteens, ropes and flashlights.

The hardest part of the search was finding the portals, so we enlisted the help of some of the local kids. We didn’t know that it was going to be a five-mile hike to the top of a mountain. For some reason, I thought it was going to be just a short walk off the highway—boy, was I in for a rude awakening.

The first part had been easy. We sneaked past property belonging to one of the locals who used to work in the mine. After a short walk we came upon the old mill where the ore was processed. The mill was in outstanding shape—nobody had vandalized it, nor had they removed any of the property. It was rich in old mining equipment. We had read about old mining equipment for years, but this was the first time we were able to see it and touch it with our hands.

The ore entered through wooden chutes. The chutes were fed by overhead cable ore cars, which dumped their contents into the ball mills. The grinding balls were still inside, probably since the power was removed and the mill was shut down. The balls were shaped like cannon balls at about 4 inches in diameter. The drums were lined with a heavy rubber lining about 1/2" thick. We were going to pan some of the ore, but we left our metal gold pans at home. As we moved through the mill, we could see each stage of processing for the ore. There were many operations that we were not familiar with, so we passed them and moved on to something more familiar. Then we found the final processing—the shaker tables with the ore still in place—as though it was stopped and frozen in time.

The next part of the trip was the five-mile hike up the mountain to reach the first portal. To our amazement, there was an old air compressor still connected to air lines in the tunnels. The tunnels had all been closed, probably with dynamite, but the compressor was intact. The engine was an old Buddha with an O’Sullivan compressor. I considered firing it up to see if it would run.

We examined all the portals to see if we could crawl into one of the tunnels. By this time we had lost the help of the locals. They apparently did not want anything to do with exploring the tunnels.

Time and nature had almost completely overtaken the mine site with vegetation. The old cable bucket system to haul the ore from the top of the mine to the mill below looked ready to run.

We scrambled through the brush following the overhead cable, trying to locate the portal. This was risky business because the area was known for rather large rattlesnakes. I had my machete to hack weeds, so I was half-confident I would win the battle with a rattlesnake or two.

The cable spanned over a hundred yards straight up the mountain with overgrown sagebrush and buck brush, a poor match for a machete. We finally found the portal, but to our disappointment, it had been closed. Tired and exhausted, we sat down to rest and planned our next move. A rattlesnake started crawling towards us. We watched the snake slither closer and closer until it was within about an arms length. One of my buddies calmly crushed the snake’s head with a rock and we went on planning our trip as though nothing unusual happened.

After a good rest, we left the mine portal and looked for another way to enter the mine tunnel complex. That’s the beauty of being young—you seem to have infinite energy left in reserve. As I was chopping through the brush, I stumbled across a set of mine car tracks. The tracks curved around the mountain and stopped at another mine portal. This one wasn’t closed, but it was flooded with water. We started in, but decided not to go in any farther when the water reached waist-level. The thought of stepping into a vertical shaft full of water was not a pleasant one. We decided to search for another way into the tunnel complex.

When we reached the outside I decided to survey the landscape around the portal. I saw a small tailing pile to the upper left of the portal and we dashed up the hill to get a better look. To our surprise, we found a hole about two feet in diameter smack in the middle of two tree roots from an old oak tree. We dropped down into a tunnel that apparently stopped at that point. We wondered why they didn’t drive the tunnel another 10 feet to punch out the side of the mountain. It didn’t matter because we found another way into the tunnel complex and a whole new adventure started.

The first tunnel eventually split into two tunnels. We decided to start investigating the one that headed towards the surface. We passed a string of about 15 ore cars that traveled up a grade of about 30 degrees. When we finally reached the top of the incline the tunnel flattened out. We followed the steel tracks for 2,000 to 3,000 feet only to come to a dead end. It was obvious that it had been blasted shut to keep out people like us.

There was only one way out, so we headed back the way we came. As we were walking back, we noticed an ore chute, and without hesitation, one of my buddies slid down the chute into the unknown. I was the last one down the chute and it broke as I neared the bottom. My two mining buddies were less than a 100 pounds, but I was around 165 pounds. When the bottom of the chute broke, I fell right on my butt, knocking the flashlight from my hand. My fellow explorers had not even seen me fall—they were already exploring the next tunnel. I did make them aware of my situation with a loud yell that almost shook down the supports. Usually we were quiet, fearing that loud noises might trigger a cave in. The tunnel system was quite old, and many of the timbers were split in two from the shifting earth.

We descended lower and lower into the mine, looking for a portal to exit, but we kept running into dead ends.

One of the tunnels opened into a huge room. I would estimate it was 300 to 400 feet wide, with a height of 50 to 75 feet. I wondered why there was so much rubble in the center of the room. It just didn’t make sense that they would leave this much ore behind. Years later I learned that they dug these glory holes with a flat ceiling to follow the ore concentration, with little regard for the structural integrity of the ceiling. Over the years, nature shaped the cavern with an arch on the ceiling.

A mining engineer told me that the most dangerous place to be is in the center of one of these rooms. The ceiling continues to cave in until the arch is formed, and there is no predictability as to when the ceiling will collapse.

We stumbled onto a long series of ladders going back up, so we decided to see where they went. Both of my buddies scrambled up the ladders and yelled for me to follow them. I climbed the first ladder and almost reached the top when a rung broke, and I proceeded to fall as each rung broke below me. I picked up speed until I reached the bottom with a thud. I had burns and splinters in both hands, and the jar from landing hurt my back.

My friends heard me falling and came back to investigate. They were more upset about the broken ladder then my physical condition!

They finally managed to come down the broken ladder and we decided to travel down to the lower tunnels. This seemed like a good plan until we reached the bottom tunnel and found it had been closed. Not only was the tunnel blasted shut, but the air was heavy and stale. We had been in the tunnel system for hours and didn’t have a clue as to how long it would take to reach the surface.

It seemed that every time we followed a tunnel it would lead us back to a room, and the air was getting worse as we used up the oxygen. Normally the airshafts and portals provide fresh air, but all the portals had been closed. To make things worse, we were lost. We wondered, "Can anything else possibly go wrong?"

It got worse. My 5-cell flashlight quit working and we were in a pitch-black tunnel. I wasn’t really scared, but I did think this was the end for us. My friends’ flashlights, to my surprise and disgust, had also stopped working. None of our parents knew where we were. If anyone had discovered our cars, they still could not have found us for we had come in through a two-foot hole in a tree root.

We thought we were doomed. I sat down in the dark to ponder our situation. The more I pondered, the more I realized we were going to be reported as three missing boys—whereabouts unknown.

It’s a funny thing—as I sat in the dark I began to review my entire life. It all happened in a short time, but when reviewing my life there appeared to be no time element. Nobody talked; we just sat in the dark. Nobody felt the need to ask the other guy what he was thinking. I don’t know about the others, but I thought this would have been a good time for God to intervene. I guess my prayers were answered because a voice inside of my head, just as clear as a bell, told me to try placing 2 of the batteries from my 5-cell flashlight into one of the 2-cell flashlights. Was this my guardian angel talking to me or just my imagination? The experience was so earth-shaking, so loud, and so clear, that I chose to believe it actually was a guardian angel bailing me out of a very bad situation.

I put into action the information I was given and it worked—the light was dull, but it was enough light to see by. We felt the walls for anything that would lead us out of that tomb. We moved towards a dark spot on the wall—an opening about 3 feet in diameter—that we had apparently crawled through to enter the room. We didn’t need an invitation for us to charge through the opening and start for the surface. The air immediately started to smell better after we left the room.

We went up a completely different route from the way we entered, but we didn’t care—at that point in time we just wanted to get out of there. About halfway to the surface the flashlight went from dim to no light at all. Again, we were in total darkness. This time, however, I didn’t need divine intervention to solve our problem. I used 2 of the remaining 3 batteries in my flashlight. It was dim, but provided enough light for us to continue our search for an exit.

We stopped to catch our breath and I turned off the flashlight to save energy. Now I know what it must be like to be blind, and I can tell you it is not fun. After we caught our breath we ran and crawled any direction that would lead to freedom. The flashlight batteries were almost dead when we saw daylight. As we scrambled towards the opening, we realized that this was a different portal than the one we had previously entered, but it didn’t matter. We finally crawled out of the portal, enjoyed the smell of fresh air, and saw the beautiful light of day. It was a good to be alive.

Images with captions on Silverado Mine Exploration

S 1

This is a picture showing the air compressor.

S 2

This view shows the portal we dropped through looking from the bottom out.

S 3

This is a shot of the author Reggie Gould

S 4

Gov, one of my mining partners is standing at the portal opening in the bushes.

S 5

This is where we stopped to rest at the top of the cable.

S 6

There is a portal here but it was closed after 20 feet.

S 7

We are at the top of the mountain looking down at where the car was parked.

S 8

This is some of the area we came through to find the tracks.

S 9

The picture shows the cable car and the cable, we are at the bottom of the cable.

S 10

This is the way we came out, it was not the way we came in. The brush is so thick we could have never found it from above.

S 11

This is at the top of the ladder that broke, no I didn’t take this picture.

S 12

This was the first portal we saw near the compressor. The entrance was blasted shut about 50 feet in.

S 13

This shot shows the other side of the portal near the compressor, as you can see by the airlines.

S 14

No shooting this snake prefers whole wheat bread.

S 15

Guns, a snake and a Coors beer.

S 16

This is one ladder I didn’t clime, it went way way to the bottom of what we no not.

S 17

Another stope going up to no where.

S 18

This was the ladder before I broke it.

S 19

This mine was very old and very unsafe, a great deal of the shoring was in this condition, probably due to the earth shifting.

S 20

This is the entrance to the ore chute that broke under my weight.

S 21

This is a side view of one of the ore chutes.

S 22

Another ore chute showing the steel ore car tracks. Most mines I have been in have had the tracks removed.

S 23

After the fall I can only say that it only hurts when I laugh.

S 24

This view shows the left side of the processing mill.

S 25

This is the right side of the mill.

S 26

This view was the ore chute that gave way under me. My partner took the picture, still laughing I might add.

S 27

This is one of the many ore cars we saw during the exploration.

S 28

This is the unofficial portal or more like a small varmit hole we crawled through when we found the first way to enter the tunnel complex.

S 29

I am standing at the lower part of the picture. We found many of these glory holes with absolutely no timbers in site.

S 30

We found many vertical stopes with lots of ladders, some were so worn over time that the centers of the rungs were half worn away.

S 31

This little hole lead to another tunnel complex. I had the unfortunate experience of getting stuck in this one and experienced fear of small wall closing in, a very unpleasant experience.

S 32

This was the first portal we found on the other side of the mountain only to find it flooded.

S 33

Another shot of a different glory hole.

S 34

This is a picture of my girl friend, now my wife, she was always overdressing for the trips.

S 35

This is a picture of Gov, all 4 ft. 6 inches of him.


Gould Engineering
P. O. Box 406
Garden Valley CA 95633
Phone: 530-333-9130 Fax: 530-333-9130