Oro y Plata Mine
The mine was located above Owls Burrow Flat (Owlsburg), one of the original placer mining settlements in and around Murphys, which sprung up early in 1853. By March of 1858, the area was described by a correspondent for the San Andreas Independent as an “area of ditches, deep cuts, hydraulic flumes, water, prospect holes, and miners’ cabins.” Later that year the same correspondent mentioned about six companies prospecting in the area, but “stymied” for lack of water. In December of 1859, the correspondent noted that, except for Owlsburg, there was little mining activity between Indian Creek and Murphys.
One of the first to prospect the property, and the first to stake a quartz claim, was Leonard W. Noyes of Massachusetts. Noyes began prospecting in the area in 1854, noting that he “sank nigh a Gulch North from Murphys Camp about ½ mile where we found a very rich claim, as soon as it became known the whole section was staked off in claims….”(Noyes n.d.). This was probably the “Blue Wing” claim, although records no longer exist. The “Blue Wing” and the “White Wing” were later consolidated as the “Red Wing.” Noyes worked claims there during the winter of 1854-55 with several other miners, living in cabins and often moving to different claims. They dug numerous shafts, blasting the limestone when necessary, and using windlasses to raise the ore to the surface. The ore was then processed in arrastras or sluiceboxes to recover the gold.
The Union Water Company, organized in 1851, had brought water from the Stanislaus River to Murphys through the “North Ditch” by 1853, bisecting both the “Oro Plata” and “Red Wing" claims. The mining companies then constructed numerous extensions for working the entire area. Later, in 1862, a drainage system was designed which carried water from the head of the ravine to discharge into the bedrock flume on Murphys Flat, so that the area could be worked during the rainy season.
In 1861, Woodworth and Company, a group of eight men, erected the first quartz mill. The mill was two- or three-stories high, and powered by a steam engine installed in the upper story. It is not known how long Messrs. Woodworth and Co. owned and operated the mill, for in 1863, D.H. Dickenson was listed as the agent for the only quartz mill in Owlsburg assessed that year. By 1867, Mr. Bouglinval was reported as the owner and actively operating the Oro y Plata property (Mining and Scientific Press, April 14, 1867).
In November of 1876, Page Cutting claimed the original “Blue Wing” mill site on Owlsburg Flat and changed the name to the “Red Wing.” As he was listed in the 1868 assessment record as having “mining improvements only” on Owlsburg Flat, he must have been prospecting the area before filing his claim. By the late 1870s, J.J. Jerome and Page Cutting had gained control of most of the quartz claims, and the placer ground (lying between the hard-rock mines and the Masonic Hall) was being hydraulicked by a group of Chinese miners. At some point Cutting also acquired the “White Wing,” or eastern extension of the “Red Wing,” as he was assessed for it in 1880.
Cutting and Jerome continued to operate the mine and mill until it was sold to the Willard Mining Company in 1881, thus ending years of individual mine ownership in Owlsburg. In 1885, Zabdiel A. Willard, a Boston inventor and mining man, filed on the “Silver Star,” stating that he had used it for years. The major period of mining activity in the quartz mines occurred under Willard’s direction during the period 1878-1887. The company, incorporated in New York and California, was organized with a capital stock of $500,000, with Willard the major stockholder.
During the 1880s, a great deal of money was expended on mining and milling improvements on the property. These included a dwelling and boarding house, a 10-stamp water-power quartz mill, the right to Willard’s Patent Furnace, a new mill and chlorination works, tanks, settlers, and other structures (Assessor’s Roll Book, 1881). The company also acquired the “Sulphuret” placer mine, the “Pay Rock” claim, and the “Oro Plata” claim with the “original cabin, hoisting works, and Donkey engine.” This period of mining and milling activity, involving a substantial outlay of capital, was not rewarded with any great monetary success, although the mines were the most productive in Murphys.
In 1886, the company was running two mills—a 15-stamp mill for the fine quartz and a concentrating mill for the coarse rock and sulphur-bearing rock (Morse 1886:41). By 1886-87, the principal work was on the “Red Wing” vein, using the glory hole technique. In February of 1887, the Glory Hole collapsed during a rainstorm, burying the lower tunnel. With no hope of ever again working the Glory Hole, the company would now exert their energies in developing the “Blue Wing Vein West and the Crosscut East.” The Willard Operation never really recovered, and in 1887 a mortgage was given to Boston investors in an effort to raise more capital, but the mine remained idle until 1926.
Although Cutting’s patent for the land encompassing the mining claims was not granted until 1889, after he no longer owned the mine and the Willard Mining Company was no longer in operation, the land was evidently patented by Cutting to consolidate the lands around the patented mining claims, and probably filed many years previously.
The Oro y Plata property was acquired by the Union Consolidated Mining Company in 1926, but the mill building had burned and all equipment removed. This company then constructed a 60-ton flotation mill, with a jaw crusher, two ball mills, Harz jig, Dorr classifier, and four Kraut flotation cells. They employed 25 men (about the same amount employed by Willard in 1886) and operated until 1931 (Clark 1962:65). The mill was last run in the spring of 1935, in making a test. All equipment was removed from the site during the war effort in the 1940s.
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- Mining and Scientific Press. var. Mining and Scientific Press. January 4, 1861 and April 13, 1867.
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- Willard, Zabdiel Adams. n.d. Letters. In possession of Dr. M.B. Smith, Murphys, California. 1870s-1880s.
- Wood, Richard Coke. 1952 Murphys, Queen of the Sierra. Calaveras Californian, Angels Camp, California.