The Manson Mine
by Dr. Ralph E. Pray
The Manson Mine. That's what they called it in Ballarat in 1969. The name stuck even after Crazy Charlie Manson and the girls got hauled out of California's Panamint Range behind Ballarat in handcuffs and ended up in prison for the Tate-LaBianca murders.
From their camp at the Barker place, where the Manson family members lived in their school bus and the old stone house, Charlie sent the girls forth to find the entrance to the "land of milk and honey" beneath Death Valley. He told them the trees in this "bottomless pit" paradise had twelve kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year. During this search for the place to wait out "helter skelter," his predicted race riots, Charlie ordered the girls to bring in gold ore from a nearby mine dump. Guidance was provided by resident prospector and sometimes family member Paul Crockett.
The mine underground workings, dating from before 1900, are over a mile west of the Barker place. The zigzag trail from the sandy, boulder strewn arroyo to the diggings takes almost an hour to climb. Hiking down with a load is about the same. A 55 gallon drum behind the Barker stone house was filled with the fist-sized chunks of ore.
There, Crockett showed the girls how to break the iron-stained quartzite rock into smaller pieces. Each piece was smashed to a powder with a hammer on a steel anvil, no easy task for slight, tender aged girls, killers though they were, A four-inch sluice box two feet long received the powder along with water from a pipe running from nearby Myers Ranch. During the sluice operation, heavy fine material, mostly brown iron oxides, stayed behind in the box as light-weight powder was washed away by the water current.
It's doubtful that Manson saw more than traces of gold from those efforts. The project may have ended up more a form of punishment than a hopeful enterprise. Disagreements with Charlie sometimes resulted in a girl being temporarily banished from their camp. Several of the old mine diggings scattered in the hills along Goler Wash had Good House- keeping and other thick magazines in them, taken there by disciplined girls who spent dreary days in dim isolation.
The now-imprisoned killers of a dozen or more people left behind evidence of their activities. One victim, chopped into small pieces, was said to be buried near the Barker place.
Now we move ahead several years. I was an independent engineer during 1972, consulting with owners of a silver mine in Pleasant Canyon behind Ballarat. Paul Jones, the custodian of that former mining center, asked if I would assay a sample of gold ore from the Manson Mine. I had never heard of such a place, but agreed to assay his sample. Jones wondered if I'd be interested in the mine if the assay was high. I said sure. The gold content by my fire assay a week later was 0.74 ounces per ton, enough to be of interest if the rock came from a vein of sufficient width.
Two weeks later I took Jones up on his offer to show me the mine. We went up the storm ruined Goler Wash road boulder-by-boulder in my Jeep Wagoneer. It was so steep, gasoline ran out beneath the gas cap. One trip up the Goler falls could have, through chance or inexperience, easily finished off a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
When we got in the area of old gold prospects, Jones walked me up one draw after another, unable to find the mine. It soon became apparent that he was not going to take me to it. Unknown to me until later, word of his invitation to show me the mine had reached the Manson family through a German film company on location in Ballarat. Jones was warned by family members in the area against showing me the mine.
When I arrived he was too frightened to point the mine out, and too embarrassed to admit his fright. However, the trip wasn't a waste of time. I liked what I saw in the area. Stockpiled rock at the abandoned Barker place had to be old mine waste, since the girls didn't drill and blast. They just picked out loose rock, Crockett suggested. The samples I picked up from their yard assayed 0.60 ounce of gold per ton. There was an old ore grinder site along the wash road with waste that assayed 0.64 ounces of gold per ton.
Surely there was some high-grade ore around someplace if the old-timers had let that much gold get away. I quickly returned to Goler Wash to stake the best-looking prospect, naming it the Keystone Mine.
During the first 1972 Keystone activities, I established a permanent camp in old buildings on the bank of the wash. My crew blasted sharp turns out of the Goler Wash road and rebuilt the two-mile entrance into the Panamints. I was surprised when young visitors began stopping by, strange-acting people, a few too stoned to walk once they rolled out of their vehicle. These flower-people headed for Manson's former hangout, the Barker place, an abandoned millsite claim not owned by anyone. (Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Vincent Bugliosi's 1974 book, Helter Shelter, shows the sites of the Barker place and Myers Ranch switched on the map page.) As I brought more equipment to Keystone, security became a factor. Neither my employees nor I welcomed Manson family followers as residents in the area. None stayed, but a small group of armed hippies lived in a canyon to the north.
There were no phones at Keystone or nearby, and the nearest effective law enforcement was in Lone Pine, hours away from the extremely remote area. Although my home was in Los Angeles County, I realized I needed to get deputized in the county holding the Keystone Mine. The Sheriff of L. A. County called the Sheriff of Inyo County to give my name the okay. I was then commissioned a special deputy sheriff for Inyo County.
At about this time former Manson family member Paul Watkins, identified by Bugliosi in his book as, "Manson's chief procurer of young girls," and as, "once Manson's chief lieutenant," appeared in Goler Wash. Perhaps stimulated by word of the steady activity at the Keystone Mine,
Watkins staked the Desert Sun's Gold Dollar lode mining claim. This was high on the mountain across the wash from the Keystone camp. He recorded his location the next day at the Inyo County Courthouse. Watkins and his fellow claim co-locators, Crockett and Brooks Poston, were no longer members of the Manson family. In fact, they were now, according to "Helter Skelter," part of prosecutor Bugliosi's witness team.
The old workings Watkins staked were apparently the source of the gold ore stored and scattered about the former Manson headquarters at the Barker place. Watkins' mining claim was the so-called Manson Mine.
Watkins and his buddies failed to return to their twenty acres on the side of the mountain the next year. The Desert Sun's Gold Dollar lode claim became invalid. Later, I performed a field study showing a quartz vein about 4,000 feet long running east-west through the old workings, The Gold Ribbon claims were staked to cover the exposure. Two old tunnels were mapped, each about 150 feet deep. Midway into one, a large hole in the floor prevented passage.
Then we carried a plank up the mountain to span the hole. I walked to the back of the tunnel and found, amidst old dynamite, fuse, and rat trash, a 1916 newspaper, yellowed with age. This was a strange twist to the unusual sight of 1969 women's magazines I'd come across in other old workings overlooking Goler Wash, left there by Manson family girls.
I sampled the underground and surface workings and fire assayed tile samples at the lab. Gold assays ran as high as 2.90 ounces per ton, but there weren't enough tons of this good material in the exposed quartz vein to make a paying mine. The claims, with their early 1900s burropack frames still lying on one tunnel dump, were abandoned.
Keystone, on the other side of Goler Wash, became a small mine that produced rich ore under investor management in the 1980s, yielding gold selling for several million dollars. Mineral production and exploration in the area were completely free of any affect left behind by the earlier residents of the Manson family. Every trace of the family members worn out clothing, battered utensils, rusted hardware, even the beat-up school bus eventually disappeared, all carried off by souvenir hunters.
The Manson Mine is gone. The same as Charlie's tree with twelve kinds of fruit - just another story.
Dr. Ralph Pray is the owner/operator of the Mineral Research Laboratory in Monrovia, California. He welcomes your questions or comments; (626) 357-6511.
Previously Published in International California Mining Journal/November 2001