Whether it’s high academic achievement or popularity with his peers, senior Benek Robertson is well known for many things, though hiking to abandoned mines is usually not one of them.
As a resident of the Carmel Highlands, however, Robertson takes advantage of special access to a water road that leads to one such forgotten coal mine.
Located six miles south of CHS in Mal Paso Canyon, the century-old mine is a remnant of the Carmel area’s rich but now largely obscure mining past, which remains relevant today as historical context to our present search for new sources of energy.
Robertson and friends have explored the area’s switchbacking trails extensively, and he paints a vivid picture of an overgrown yet still discernible fork in the trail leading to the mine.
“There’s no mine shaft visible,” Robertson describes, “but a lot of mechanical equipment [is] up there, really rusted up and kind of ancient, with some pipes and what looks like holding containers.”
The cages that once lowered miners into the 275-ft. shaft can today be seen outside Whaler’s Cabin in Point Lobos State Reserve, where the coal, transported there via a six-horse team and a coal chute, was loaded onto ocean steamers destined for San Francisco.
Interestingly, the Mal Paso coal vein is one of the only ones in California, and it is of the most abundant, lowest-quality, least environmentally friendly type of coal: lignite.
Because of this poor quality and the mine’s inaccessibility, the operation soon proved barely profitable, and, according to “Images of America: Point Lobos,” it closed in 1898 after a rockslide.
Several legends have grown up—thanks mostly to a 1955 Carmel newspaper story—surrounding its sudden demise, including the entirely false rumor that the owners shut Chinese laborers in the shaft and blew it up to prevent a smallpox outbreak.
Farther south along the Big Sur coast, the gold mines of the Los Burros Mining District hold many mysteries of their own, including the skeleton-filled Massacre Cave, as does Carmel Valley to the east, where an alleged uranium strike drew hundreds of eager prospectors to the Cachagua Chews Ridge area in the 1950s. (The reports were never confirmed, and the only reference to them is in an archived Monterey Peninsula Herald article.)
In the words of local author Randall Reinstedt, in his book “Monterey’s Mother Lode” about the Los Burros, “These ancient shafts and forgotten tunnels vividly bring to mind the activity, the dreams, the hopes and the prayers of a bygone generation.”
And if we can learn from the methods and successes, the functions and failures, of this and other bygone generations, the treasure we uncover will have more value than mineral wealth ever could.
If we can take anything from these mining activities of the past, perhaps it’s our approach to the future. Perhaps it’s not what’s in the ground, or in the history archives, but how we use it.
In other words, what will future generations think of us based on our stamp upon the earth?