Eureka! That’s what Jack Keane and his partner, Domingo Etcharren must have said in 1903 when, while mining for silver, they accidentally discovered a ledge of free milling gold in the Funeral Mountains. Since it had been 8 years since his last strike Jack decided to call the claim the “Keane Wonder”. And so the gold rush began!
Surprisingly over 18,000 mining features have been preserved throughout Death Valley National Park but many of those were unprofitable and failed due to the scarcity of water, fuel, and transportation difficulties. But that wasn’t the case with the Keane Wonder Mine. During its heyday from 1904-1917, Keane Wonder Mine was one of the most successful mines in the area, producing over a million dollars in gold. The Rhyolite Herald in 1911 coined it The King of the Desert.
In 1907, the partners sold the mine to a San Francisco company led by Homer Wilson, an experienced miner from the Mother Lode mines of California. It was that company that was responsible for not only building a 20 stamp processing mill, housing, an ice house and a post office but also what made the mine successful and profitable – the unique ingenious mile long aerial tramway. This allowed them to tunnel horizontally into the mountain instead of sinking shafts which allowed the mine to operate with a good profit margin.
Two terminals and thirteen towers with cables spanning deep ravines and an overall vertical fall of 1500 feet were used to transport the gold ore from the mine to the mill.
At the top, metal ore buckets were loaded and moved down the cables to the mill a mile away. From there, the ore was transported by wagon over Daylight Pass to the railroad at Rhyolite. Over 70 tons of ore were transported each day during peak production.
It wasn’t until 1916 when the mine would finally close for good, approximately ten years after first production, making it one of Death Valley’s longest running and most successful mines.
The site of the mine was closed for over a decade to stabilize and repair many of the original structures to ensure the safety of their visitors, reopening in 2016. Today it is one of the most popular historic sites within the National Park.
Wanting to get up close and personal to what the rich mining history of the area had to offer, on a bright, sunny day, off we went on another beautiful scenic drive. Following CA-190 to Daylight Pass Road to Beatty Road where we would take a 2.5 mile bumpy dirt road accessible to most vehicles to the mine parking lot. Buckle your seatbelt and join us on our drive:
The timbers of the lower terminal and mill were just a short walk from the parking lot.
There were warning signs advising against mine hazards and milling contaminants and that the ruins are unstable so do not climb! On the National Park website, it states “while many of the mine openings have been closed for visitor safety and are now the homes of native bats, some openings and metal debris still exist, so use caution when exploring.” They sure were right about the metal debris – remnants were everywhere! Best to stick to the well used trails.
Gee, didn’t that make us feel warm and fuzzy!
Rob opted for a more strenuous climb along an unmaintained trail (approximately 0.3 mi) which brought him to the base of a tramway tower with views of a ravine with historic ore buckets at the bottom. Because of my hip issues, I decided to wait patiently below, hoping that he would find a few nuggets but alas no such luck.
More serious adventurers (Rob decided not to be one that day) can climb the entire steep 1.6 miles to the upper terminal of the tramway and the mine itself.
And sadly, this is one of the few places in Death Valley where Star Wars was NOT filmed! Imagine!
After spending a limited amount of time here, it was time for us to head back to Furnace Creek.