If you were a resident of Jackson prior to 1942, every morning you awoke, each night you went to sleep, and all the hours in-between, you would hear the loud relentless pounding of the stamp mills from the Argonaut, Kennedy, and other mines surrounding the town. If you lived at the north end of Jackson, you may have also heard the creaking and moaning of the four, large wooden Kennedy Tailing Wheels moving the waste rock spewed out by the mill across the fields to Indian Gulch. Like birds singing in the trees and crickets chirping on warm summer nights, these industrial sounds were part of the background noise of life. From the days of the gold rush until World War II, the sounds of miners and machinery working filled the air, until one day in 1942 when all fell silent.
In the early part of 1941, it was determined by the Federal Government that there was a critical shortage of nonferrous metals needed in the war effort, especially copper, and a shortage of the machinery necessary to mine those metals. In response to this need, the War Production Board issued Limitation Order L-208 which effectively shut down all gold mines in the United States. They were considered non-essential. Mines that were determined to be of importance to the war effort were given priority in obtaining the necessary machinery and materials to continue and increase their production. By March of 1942, gold mines were limited to using only the supplies and machinery they had on hand. Some were able to continue operation if they had replacement parts, or could machine them on site, but once these were depleted they were forced to close. In addition, a shortage of skilled labor to work in the nonferrous metal mines developed due to the military draft whereby many miners were sent to war. It was assumed that by closing the gold mines, miners would relocate to work in the nonferrous mines. One might wonder why the government might kill a cash cow giving the great cost of the war effort. The answer to this is that for some time prior to shutting down the gold mines, the Federal Government was buying up all the gold that was mined in the country for $35.00 per ounce. By the time the mines were shut down, they had accumulated over $23 billion in gold and felt that the need for nonferrous metals needed took priority, or at least that is the reasoning that they conveyed to the public.
Across the nation, gold mining companies and miners were up in arms. Despite the nation’s rally to contribute to the war effort, Amadorians knew that their economy would be hit hard. The day that order L-208 was issued, 75% of Amador’s mines and mills shut down. By December 7th, the deadline for mining companies to meet the order, nearly all in Amador were closed. Some miners, anticipating the shutdown, left their jobs and started work in Amador’s lumber industry while others knew that they would be forced to look for work elsewhere. Ads began to appear in local papers but they were few and far between. One posted in November 1942 wanted miners to go to work for the Federal Government in Brazil for the length of one year. They sought to employ eight shift bosses and twelve miners experienced in “soft ground” mining. The requirements were to be a U.S. citizen, in good physical condition, and able to speak Portuguese or Spanish fluently. Their travel to and from Brazil would be paid and they would receive a living allowance plus good wages. Another advertised for ten miners needed immediately to work near Redding in copper production. They would receive “good board and lodgings” and a wage of $.96 per hour with production bonuses ranging from $1.50 to $4.00 per shift. Some employed miners were able to stay in Amador and work in nonferrous metal mines but many could not find work.
Along the copper belt that stretches from north to south between Highway 49 and the Ione and Jackson Valleys, the Newton, the Copper Hill, and other mines increased production. Chrome, also needed in the war effort, sparked the opening of several new mines upcountry near Pine Grove and Pioneer. Dr. Joseph Stacy opened a chrome mine near Pioneer Station and within a short time was shipping high-grade ore for the war effort, pulled from two large tunnels there. He employed about 20 miners. In December, 1942, a Seattle-based company established the Payton Chrome Mine near Pine Grove and employed about 30 miners. Manganese was also being mine in this vicinity. So prolific was this industry that the mine owners ask that the Metals Reserve Company open a stockpile yard to be established near Martell for their products. This location was convenient for shipping the material out of Amador via the Amador Central Railroad.
Despite the increased copper, chrome, and manganese production in Amador, and miners moving to distant locations, Californian’s considered the effort by the War Production Board to relocate miners a failure. From the onset, legislators from the state, along with others across the nation, petitioned Washington to delay the shutdown order and investigate the economic consequences. Not only did the gold miners lose their jobs, once the December deadline passed they were required to get a release from the United States Government Employment Service before they could accept other employment. Fulfilling this requirement could stretch into weeks through which the men were without a paycheck. In March 1943, the Amador Ledger and Record reported that of the 23,000 California gold miners that had lost their jobs, only between 300 and 400 had been able to find work in the mining industry elsewhere. It is probable that for many they felt they were reliving the Great Depression. The pleas of their government representatives fell on deaf ears. Many of the young miners, with no recourse, joined the military, while the older men sat idle at home.
Likewise, the mining companies were in desperate straits. In March 1943, led by Senator Jesse M. May of Angels Camp, the California State Legislature approved Senate Bill No. 291. It provided some relief to mining companies by suspending their obligations to contracts for properties held or leased by them for the purpose of mining, and, any outstanding balances due to creditors for machinery and supplies purchased prior to the shutdown. The bill also stated that they would not need to meet those obligations until six months after they resumed operations. However, it would not allay the expenses they would incur during the shutdown. Their concern was the rapid deterioration of the mines, not limited to timber decay, underground flooding, and cave-ins. Several mining companies divested their interests to other regions while others waited for the moratorium to be lifted. The Central Eureka Mining Company bought up a group of copper mines near Butte Mountain, Nevada for $530,000 and relocated some of their miners there. The Kennedy and the Argonaut continued mining for a few months until supplies and spare machinery parts were exhausted and then shut down.
One can understand the frustration of both the mine owners and their workers. They were not alone. Numerous editorials were published across the country bashing the government for closing the mines. One published in the Wall Street Journal blamed it on other mining industries, stating “In the controversy over the order, it was said that organized labor had a distinct interest in the shift of men from unorganized gold mining to organize mining of other kinds.” and went on to say that “…it was a strange policy that directed the buying of the government’s gold abroad while it closed its own sources of production at home.” The writer considered the policy an exercise in “futility, inequity, and wastefulness.” Many were asking who supported the order, why did the government change their gold buying policies, and how much did the unionization of the mining industry have to do with the shutdown? Still the government held fast to their decision and Amador went into a steep economic decline. It was the end of an era in the Mother Lode and no longer would Amadorians hear the pounding of the stamp mill and the creaks and groans of the Kennedy Tailing Wheels.
The Kennedy never reopened. After World War II activity at the site was limited to reworking some of the tailings over the period of about 1 ½ years. At that time, about 20,000 tons were treated at the cyanide plant with a recovery of approximately $40,000 in gold. Another lessee later attempted to recover gold from the tailings but had no success.
When construction was completed on the wheels in 1914, they were then encased in buildings covered in metal sheeting. By the time the mines were shut down in 1942, the price of scrap metal had soared. The corrugated iron sheeting was removed from the wheelhouses and sold for scrap. As the decades passed the wood, exposed to the elements, began to decay. Eventually, two of the wheels fell, leaving only Wheel Nos. 1 and 4 standing.
In 1971, Sybil Arata, then owner of the Kennedy Mine property, deeded to Amador County the property holding the wheels and a 10-foot right of way from the Jackson Gate Road to the parcel. Several months later the county transferred the deed to the City of Jackson. Two years later a dedication ceremony was held for the new Jackson Tailing Wheels Park. During the 1990s, local citizens and the Amador County Historical Society pressed the city to take measures to preserve the wheels. In 1991, the Wheels were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. That same year, Ernie Perano and Allan Garbarini, who were familiar with the construction and operation of the wheels submitted a report to the City Council urging them to begin repairs and preservation. At that time city workers took several measures towards preservation including the application of a preservative to deter dry rot. Those efforts were funded with approximately $50,000 from a State Bond Act and local donations.
In 1993, the Amador County Historical Society (ACHS), under the direction of President Henry Mace, approached the city offering assistance in raising funds to make improvements at the park and further wheel preservation. Mace and ACHS members stated that they would like to see Wheel Nos. 2 and 3 raised and repaired, a portion of the flume restored, an historically accurate corrugated steel building erected over one of the wheels, and barbeque pits installed at the park. At that time, the city estimated that it would cost at least $150,000 per wheel for the restoration project. It was not until 2001 that restoration work took place on Wheel No. 4 when Reyman Brothers Construction of Sparks, Nevada entered a contract with the City of Jackson. They found the bottom of the wheel broken off and lying in the bottom of the over which the wheel stood.
In 2001, funding in the amount of $150,000, drawn from the California Transportation Enhancement Act (TEA) paid for major work on Wheel No. 4. This was followed by another TEA grant of over half a million dollars that funded a new kiosk in the park, signs, a mural, and the enclosure of Wheel No. 4 in 2013. The park was rededicated on June 15, 2013 celebrating the new preservation measures.
The Kennedy Mine Tailing Wheels have long been a symbol of Amador’s rich mining heritage and have always held a special place in the hearts of its residents. Since they were built, images of the wheels have been used to celebrate that heritage. Their likeness adorns the official stationary of the City of Jackson and was once used to decorate table china. Yes, table china! In the mid-1960s, a salesman from British Columbia, Canada sold to Garibaldi Studios in Jackson a large order of china that was produced in Canada bearing images of the tailing wheels. A Garibaldi family member later said that they had about 3 barrels of those dishes that sat around the studio for a long time and they couldn’t give it away. Boy, I bet some Amador historians would give their eye teeth to have a set of it today! If you’re interested in seeing what it looks like you can visit the Amador County Museum. In 1991, Sutter Creek resident, Louis Lewis, donated her set of fluted cups, saucers, a creamer, and a sugar bowl to the museum. If they are not readily visible you might ask them to pull them out of the collection and put them on display to promote the restoration of Wheel No. 1.
Previous preservation projects were realized through combined efforts of the City of Jackson, Amador County, the State of California, and Amador citizens. Now, Wheel No. 1 is in danger of falling. Your help is needed to ensure that this does not happen. Efforts are currently underway to raise the needed funding. The Jackson Rancheria Casino and Resort has made a substantial donation and I was notified via social media that last week Charles Spinetta of Spinetta Winery and Gallery wrote a check for $3,000.00! He asks that I announce that he challenges other Amador business owners to step up and help with this effort to preserve Amador’s history for future generations.
If you would like to contribute to the effort to save Wheel No. 1, contact the Kennedy Mine Foundation or send your donation to the KMF, P.O. Box 684, Jackson, California 95642.