Camp Chronicles (2): The Donner Mine Camp

Editor’s Note: This is one of our “letters” from Sierra Surf Music Camp.  It is not close to real time because we are too cheap - or technology impaired - to have wireless internet.  Besides, we were having too much fun!



Over Friday afternoon, campers arrived.  A father and his two daughters came from Nesika Beach, Oregon -- a 9 plus hour drive.  The California campers had traveled from, among other places, the Los Angeles area, the San Francisco Bay area, Sonoma, and the Sierras. The California campers also included locals from Auburn, Cool, Grass Valley, and Sacramento.

Giving in to the chilly and occasionally rainy weather, the instructors were around the fire place in the Lodge to meet folks as they walked in.

Showing their dedication to promoting surf music and support for the inaugural camp, Dusty Watson, Paul Johnson, John Blair, and Matt Quilter drove up to the Bear Valley from the Los Angeles area.  That drive was 8 to 10 hours and, in Matt’s case, included a breakdown at Emigrant Gap.

Campers straggled in over the afternoon, into the night, and even on Saturday.  Some could not leave work early despite the impending three-day weekend.  Even though not all campers had arrived yet, camp officially began with a tour of the Donner Mine Camp site conducted by Dan Beatie, Paul’s dad.

The Donner Mine Camp sits on the site of the former Zeibright Mine, which began operations around 1900.  Mining in some fashion probably took place on the property since the time of the California Gold Rush.  The Zeibright Mine was a hard-rock mine.  Miners tunneled into the mountainside and followed quartz veins which contained gold.  The main mine shaft descended 1950 feet.  Tunnels branched off.  Hundreds of feet below the ground miners picked, shoveled, and blasted away ore - known as “muck” - which then was lifted by an elevator to the surface.  There, it was dumped into a series of crushers which reduced the ore to a slurry.  Then, the slurry passed through a series of cyanide baths until gold emerged at the bottom of the process.

The mine operated around the clock.  Miners lived in a dormitory.  Some married miners had cabins near the site.  The Zeibright Mine was a working mine until 1941 when it shut down for World War II. 

Why it never reopened is up for guess.  Maybe it did not reopen for multiple reasons.  It was a “low grade” mine meaning that each ton of ore did not produce as much gold as many other mines.  It was relatively isolated compared with other mines in California’s Mother Lode.  The price of gold was regulated by the United States Government until 1972.  Gold mining generally became uneconomical at the fixed price set by the government.

Once the mine was abandoned, it filled with water.  The mining had been conducted below the water table, meaning that water was pumped out constantly while the mine operated.  Once the pumping ended, nothing stopped the water from filling the shafts and tunnels.

In 1959, Paul’s family bought the mine property to donate to the Boy Scouts for a camp.  Eventually, the Boy Scouts wanted to sell the property.  Paul’s grandfather exercised his right of first refusal and bought back the property.  Since then, the property has been used for the Donner Mine Music Camp, which is so successful that it has a waiting list for its two summer sessions.

In the small world department, Tim Stephenson -- the Pyronauts’ drummer -- attended the Donner Mine Music Camp as a child.  Maybe the Donner Mine Camp was destined to be the site of the inaugural Sierra Surf Music Camp to complete a circle.

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