Few things conjure the Old West quite like the phrase “Gold Rush.” Out here in the New West (if we’re calling it that—or perhaps just the West, though for many it’s really the North, or the East, or the Center) we tend to be quite romantic about this particular chapter of our not-so-distant past. There’s that “rush” to it, that sense of explosive, fantastical thrill. And of course there’s the “gold,” all glittering and mysterious and earthy, like a big red X on a treasure map.
The whole thing seems to take on near-mythic proportions, with its cast of psychotic mustachioed men and its wild and improbable tall-tales, so many of which have proved true. But in general, we think of these things as removed from us somehow, in turns amusing and horrifying, inspiring or pitiful—but always distant and observable; not lived, but reserved for the classroom and the movies. And yet, there are places that challenge this arm’s-length version of things: They confront us with evidence, made plain and very physical, of the force that the past can and does still exert. There are places, like Dawn Mine, where history hasn’t scarred over at all.
Just north of Loma Alta Road in Altadena, a small access route called Chaney Trail slithers off into the foothills before colliding with Mount Lowe Road, where a sign declares “Sunset Ridge,” and a number of cars have already filled most of the parking spots. There are twelve, to my counting. Off to the right, the road continues beyond a barrier, following the old railroad route. It’s 9:30 a.m., and the breeze is still cool and sweet-smelling as I lock the car and start up that way.
Almost immediately, the road rises up onto a ridge. On one side, the mountains rise steep and imposing, while on the other, the flats extend outward to Pasadena, and, very faintly in the distance, the glittering towers of downtown Los Angeles. In 1893, the growing demand for improved access to these vistas inspired one Thaddeus Lowe (an accomplished and eclectic inventor, whose titles included Ice Tycoon and Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps, no joke) to construct a commercial scenic railway line from Altadena to Echo Mountain, where a luxurious hotel and chalet (and even a zoo) perched invitingly. Despite its short-lived career as a local sensation, the plan was fraught from the beginning, and in 1938 the entire operation was swept off the mountainside by a dramatic flood. Today, the road follows the route of the original track, and further up there are still some old remnants of the original machinery.
The road bends easily a few times, serving up a few pleasant views before soon a dirt clearing appears off to the left, with a sign and a nondescript trailhead. The sign provides more information about the old railway—but the side trail goes off along the canyonside, and eventually down to the Dawn Mine. And today, so do I.
This new trail is unpaved and thin, and hugs the steep face of the mountainside tightly. A few lizards scurry around, and it grows very quiet, and pleasantly lonesome. Except for one biker, that is, who careens around a corner suddenly, showing a downright heroic nerve in his ability to brace himself along the edge and manage to whoosh past with a surprised yelp. Be aware, this is a known danger. As are black bears. And sunburn. And then, in a dramatic flourish, the trail wheels around a ridge, and the whole canyon comes crashing in all at once.
The canyon is steep, narrow, and jagged, and the trail becomes so precarious that at times I have to duck below overhangs and protrusions, making sure to step carefully as loose rocks go tumbling down into the creekbed a few hundred feet below. I can hear water, too, and laughter, from the cascade called Millard Falls, which is visible distantly, a white streak against the pale rock where the canyon walls pinch together. You can get there, if you wish, by another route, starting down at the floor of the canyon where there’s a popular family campground. An old track was once laid down there, too, on which mules pulled supplies up and into the mines. But this trail passes well above the falls, and at this point it forks.
Here, the trail drops down into the canyon, leaving the exposed ridges for the shade and cool air of the creek. The difference is stark. The air is so much colder that I even start to sniffle, and birds and squirrels and moss appear with lively abundance. The trail begins to zigzag, hopping back and forth across the creek in a series of logs and rock-hops, growing increasingly scrambly.
Despite some brief stretches, the trail becomes markedly steeper and unkempt, at some points nearly disappearing into the surrounding terrain.
As my legs begin to burn a bit, I imagine what it must have taken to get all that heavy mining equipment up here. And for what? As it turns out, the Dawn Mine never produced more than a moderate trickling of gold. First excavated in 1895, the site yielded just enough to keep optimistic prospectors interested for a few years each, before ultimately petering out in the 1950s. This was the fate of most Gold Rush endeavors: months, sometimes years of hard labor, driven by greed, or by force, or by fervent American optimism, destined only to collapse under the weight of their own disappointment. I begin to pass hints on the sides of the trail—a rusted pan or trough of sorts, a mysterious meter-long cannister so absorbed into the earth that I almost don’t notice it. The incline increases still more, and the shade begins to drop away. And then the whole trail seems to dissolve into a wide, dry creek. At the far end, I can see some strange and angular protrusion jutting out from the canyon wall.
Two rusted I-beams extend out of an implanted shelf in the rock, and above them sits what looks like an engine or pump, with two thick metal wheels on its sides like hunched shoulders. This is it, the main mine site. There are birds perched on the wheels, which take off as I approach to watch from a nearby oak, and some thick orb weaver webs strung between the beams, which have the appearance of arms extended to catch something heavy. It’s all very bizarre, and gives off the effect of being slightly embarrassed by itself.
A few feet away, off to the left, a rock outcrop obscures the entrance to the mine shaft. It’s small, only two or three feet across, and so low that I have to crawl to get a closer look. The first thing that hits me is the smell. It’s cold, dark, deep, and clear, kind of rotten but not like a vegetable, more in the way that one might imagine a rock might rot, or at least grow very old—and it’s oddly unnerving, like you’ve smelled it before, but you can’t quite say when. It’s incredibly cold, and in a very steady stream, and as I shine my light through the slats I can see a lot of standing water, a couple logs, and off where the light fails, continuing tunnels. There are people who crawl into there. And there is, if you’re so inclined, another opening twenty feet overhead, cut into the cliff face and accessible either by ill-advised scramble or equipped expedition, known to a regular ring of spelunkers. For today, I content myself here, by the weird rocks and machines, and am satisfied. A while later, I leave, and the trip down is charmingly uneventful and meditative. The whole event has taken two and a half hours, and there are cars idling for spots in the lot when I arrive.
Now, I don’t want to sound preachy, but I do think that there are a lot of familiar images tied to the Gold Rush. We’ve discussed them. But there are also all these other ones, these odd and all-too-human ones, which I, at least, have not given proper shrift: a man wriggling into a mine like a snake, the useless strain of both humans and animals, a mountain with two steel I-beams sticking out of it and 1,800 feet of unproductive tunnel through its guts. I don’t know what to make of it. Maybe you will. I can’t say I’m impartial, of course. But I can say this: If you want to go hiking this weekend, go here. Get up close to this stuff, before all of it’s history.