neighborhoods of san jose

History of New Almaden

The furance yard at Hacienda de Beneficio, c.1880. (detail)

New Almaden is located 12 miles south of downtown San José, California in the Capitancillo Hills of the Santa Cruz Mountain Range.  Today’s Almaden Boulevard, Avenue, Expressway, and Road all follow the historic route between San José and New Almaden. 

The Santa Clara Valley’s most profitable resource during California’s Gold Rush wasn’t gold, it was mercury.  Mercury, also known as quicksilver, was produced at the New Almaden mines beginning in 1846, making it California’s first mining operation. By 1896 the Randol Shaft was producing $10 million in quicksilver.  Even more astounding, the mines at New Almaden produced more fortune than any California gold mine in history.

Cinnabar, Image courtesty of Mineral Information Institute.

Cinnabar ore is a vibrant red mineral that contains a mixture of mercury and sulfur.  The workers at New Almaden mined cinnabar in order to obtain mercury.  Mercury was a crucial ingredient for one method used in the extraction of gold and silver.  Quicksilver can separate gold or silver from crushed ore.  Success of California’s Gold Rush was due in large part to the readily available source of quicksilver supplied by the mines at New Almaden.

In 1845, a group of Ohlone Indians led Andrés Castillero, a captain in the Mexican military, to their source of cinnabar.  The Ohlone used cinnabar in body paint to decorate themselves and also in trading.  Castillero was also a mining engineer and recognized commercial uses for the cinnabar ore as a mercury agent.  Castillero filed a mineral claim with the Mexican government in 1845 and began small-scale mining of the ore and quicksilver production.  The Barron, Forbes Company obtained Castillero’s shares in 1846 and named the mines New Almaden for the famous Almaden quicksilver mines in Spain.  Legal challenges plagued the land from the outset and in 1863 the Quicksilver Mining Company assumed ownership. 

Miners at work, c. 1890.

The mining occurred in what is known as the Cinnabar Hills.  In order to extract the cinnabar ore, the workers dug "Main Tunnel" into Mine Hill in 1850.  The Main Tunnel was 10 feet high.  Workers tunneled over 100 miles into the Cinnabar Hills.  The deepest point was 2,300 feet below the summit of Mine Hill.  The Randol Shaft sunk into Mine Hill in 1870, in the subsequent 20 years miners removed 300 tons of ore per day.  Workers divided the ore into three piles by size.  The ore was roasted in furnaces separating the mercury from the sulfur, in order to obtain the quicksilver.  Quicksilver was collected and placed in flasks that weighed approximately 75 pounds.

Spanishtown at New Almaden, 1885.

By 1865, the community of New Almaden was home to 1,800 residents and housed over 700 buildings, mostly miners’ residences.  New Almaden contained three separate enclaves:  the Hacienda, Spanishtown, and Englishtown.  The Hacienda area was built along Alamitos Creek.  The most prominent building in the Hacienda was Casa Grande, constructed in 1854 to 1855.  This house was the mine manager’s residence.  The Hacienda also contained the homes of additional management and furnace workers.  A predominantly Mexican population of miners inhabited Spanishtown, New Almaden’s largest settlement.  Early miners also included Californios and Chilenos.  English miners from Cornwall began arriving in the 1860s and lived in Englishtown.  Both Spanishtown and Englishtown had a mine office, school, company store, church, and doctor’s office.  In the early 1870s to 1880s Chinese immigrants worked as miners, in the laundry, and as cooks. 

Hacienda Entrance at Almaden Quicksilver County Park, 2007.

After the turn of the 20th century, the mines and surrounding property changed hands many times as the population dwindled.  During The Depression, a Works Progress Administration project created Civilian Conservation Corps jobs that, in part, removed the abandoned buildings.  The majority of these buildings were abandoned miner residences in Englishtown.  In 1960 the property was purchased for a residential development plan that never came to fruition.  Plans were made to mine in 1968, but within a year the price of mercury dropped considerably and plans for mining were scrapped.  In the 1976 the County of Santa Clara purchased the former mines and developed the area as Almaden Quicksilver County Park.