During, before and after the California Gold Rush of 1849, hardy men and women set off into the harsh California interior and mountains to find gold and hopefully make their fortune (not many did). The desert terrain of what is now Joshua Tree National Park was no exception and some 300 mines were developed there. Most were not overly successful though as the terrain was always challenging (hot, limited water and wood) and the cost to transport equipment and supplies out there was high.
One exception was the Lost Horse Mine which was able to produce the equivalent of $5,000,000 in today’s money between 1894 and 1931 in the form of 10,000 ounces of gold and 16,000 ounces of silver. The mine was operated full-time until 1908 (when the main gold vein played out) and then experienced some dormant periods along with small-scale gold mining until officially closed in 1931.
The mine has been under the protection of the US National Park Service since 1936 and they have done their best to preserve this historic site. This has been challenging as there has been earthquakes, the old wooden cabins and part of the mine head along with the mine shaft have collapsed, and there is a big sinkhole there too which has consumed parts of the mine! In 1996 the mineshaft was capped using a special plastic foam called PUF (Polyurethane Foam) which was injected into the mineshaft to provide a stabilising plug. Thankfully this worked and today the mine mill is considered one of the best preserved examples within the National Park system (you can not enter the mill building though, as it is still considered unsafe and is fenced off).
The history of the mine is pretty interesting with a past of cattle rustlers, horse thieves and even a gold thief from within! In 1890 cowboy Johnny Lang and his father herded their cattle into the Lost Horse Valley. One night their horses were stolen but were tracked to the McHaney brothers camp. These guys were cattle rustlers and basically told Johnny Lang his horses were not there, so shove off! These guys were apparently pretty good at scaring off anyone in the area including a gold prospector who sold his claim and mine to Johnny Lang for $1,000. He called it Lost Horse Mine and deciding there was safety in numbers took on 3 partners to run the mine. They submitted their claim in 1893, set up a two stamp mill and got to work processing gold.
In 1895 wealthy rancher J.D. Ryan bought out Johnny Lang’s partners and decided to expand the mill. He purchased a steam-powered ten stamp mill to process more gold. He ran a pipeline from wells on his ranch 5.6km / 3.5 miles away to provide water for the steam engine. A reservoir was built at the mine site to hold the water and the remnants of this and the water pipe can still be seen today. To push the water up there they used steam engines on the ranch all of the engines were fired by trees from the nearby mountains (there is a distinct lack of trees in the area today!).
This mill operated 24 hours a day and the gold was made into bricks and transported weekly to Banning. Supplies would be collected there and the 209 km / 130 mile journey would take 5 days. At its peak some 15 men worked the mine which featured a 500 foot main shaft that was operated on at least 6 levels with various tunnel offshoots from the main shaft.
Curiously the day shift of the mine was producing twice as much gold as the night shift. Johnny Lang the original owner was running the night shift. He must have not like J.D. Ryan too much though. Following an investigation by detectives hired by Ryan, it turned out that Lang was stealing half the gold produced each night! He was given an ultimatum to sell his share of the mine or go to jail, he took the former option and went on to continue mining nearby! Apparently he had stashed his stolen loot near the original mine and during a dormant period of operation, moved back there to retrieve and sell some pure gold. His fate was to remain in that valley forever though, as he died of exposure near the road to the mine during the winter of 1925 (his body was found by local long-term resident William F. Keys and buried nearby).
There are a couple of hikes you can take to the mine, one is a more direct moderate 6.4km / 4 mile, 2-3 hour return hike; and the other a longer moderately strenuous loop trail 10km / 6.2 mile, 4-5 hour hike. Either way, bring plenty of water! The trails can be found off Keys View Road.
The arid terrain along the trail makes for some great views (relatively recent fire damage is evident on the terrain too). You will see quite a variety of desert flora and fauna on the trail.
If you have the time, I recommend taking a hike out the Lost Horse Mine. Well worth the effort even if it is really hot!