Back in 2014, we lived in the Jackson Valley near Buena Vista. That spring and summer my husband and I took long walks along the country roads that traverse the lower reaches of Amador County. I took a lot of photos on those walks and combined them into albums titled “In Our Own Backyard.” I shared them on social media. The point of this exercise was to entice Amadorians to slow down and take time to look at the beauty and uniqueness of their home and enjoy those things that they speed past every day on their way to and from work, or when out running errands. My favorites on those excursions were the old stone house that sets back in a field along Jackson Valley Road and the Boston Store at the crossroads leading to Pardee. That house, the first one built in the Jackson Valley, has been standing since the 1840s. The Boston Store takes us back to a time when commerce existed well beyond the hub of the towns along Highway 49. They are just two on a long list of unique Amador treasures worth preserving for the future. The Kennedy Tailing Wheels are at the top of that list. Only a few places in the world can there be found wheels akin to those in Amador. And, to my knowledge, nowhere does there exist those of a similar type that were used in the mining industry. Now, Wheel No. 1 is in danger of being lost. The City of Jackson has enlisted the help of experts and launched a fundraising campaign to save this wheel. Given the circumstances, I thought it only appropriate to devote this column to providing the reader, and the possible donor, with a bit of history on this one of a kind historic resource. I’ll forego the saga of the early days of the Kennedy Mine and begin this story in 1911. 

Mining debris was long a thorn in the side of farmers and ranchers that resided downhill and west of the many mines that dotted the Mother Lode. Despite the passing of the Caminetti Act that was introduced into the State Legislature by Jackson’s own Anthony Caminetti in 1892, and the subsequent formation of the California Debris Commission, the pollution of waterways and farmland with mine waste continued to be a problem. The issue came to a head in Amador County in 1911. Heavy rains early in the year washed copious amounts of mining waste into the creeks and streams, some of which spilled over into farmland, particularly so in the Jackson Valley. Here, sand and gravel piled up for long distances, causing both Jackson Creek and Dry Creek to overflow, depositing a thick coating of sand. The farmers estimated that the soil would be unfit for planting for a number of years. In response, the farmers met on February 15, 1911 formed an association and planned to meet with the Sacramento Valley Anti-Debris Commission. Christopher Prouty was appointed as Chairman of the Committee. A committee, consisting of Andrew Bonham, William Leininger, and William Prouty, was appointed to meet with mine owners and find out what they were going to do to remedy the situation. Representatives from the Amador group met with their Sacramento counterparts on February 18th. They were informed that the Sacramento Commission had focused their energies on the hydraulic mining debris situation and has yet not filed any lawsuits. They assured the Amador farmers that they would look into the situation regarding the hard rock mine debris. On March 17th, the farmers met again and combined efforts with valley organizations and formed the Amador, San Joaquin, and Sacramento County Anti-Debris Association. The farmers made it clear that they wanted to resolve the situation in a “friendly” manner. A lawsuit was already in the court in neighboring Calaveras County. There, mine owners were being sued for violating anti-debris laws. They lost the case in October, 1912 being found guilty of violating the anti-debris laws. Their mine was shut down and they were fined a hefty sum. Amador mine owners did not want to find themselves in court and assured the farmers that they planned on complying with the law.

Representatives from the Argonaut and Kennedy mines met with the Association in early April 2011 to inspect the conditions of the contaminated land. They saw in excess of 300 acres of prime farmland buried under a deposit of silt and gravel, the latter being the most abundant. A mining engineer who viewed samples of the debris under a magnifying glass declared that “This is all about gravel and we don’t send one pound of gravel down the creek.” Only small quantities of mill sand were found in the deposits. As a result of that meeting, the farmers proposed that the mine owners “make a correction” in the channel of Jackson Creek. Their idea was that the creek be dredged out and the debris be piled up on either side of the creek bed as levees to prevent further overflows. This type of mitigation had taken place along the Yuba River when hydraulic mining raised the riverbed there and farmland was flooding with mine waste. This proposal did not come to fruition; however, the Amador Ledger of December 1st reported that “A number of complaining farmers have been amicable settled with by the mine owners.” This leads one to believe that they were paid off. Both the Kennedy and the Argonaut were well aware that the anti-debris laws stipulated that by September 1913 they must have in place a method to impound and restrain all debris produced by their operations.

In December 1911, the newspaper reported that some of the larger mines were considering using the debris from milling operations to backfill stopes and drifts instead of waste rock that they had used for some time. This would involve considerable expense in redesigning system operations, however; it would solve the issue at hand. Another plan was for the mine owners to buy strips of land along the streambeds, but the farmers would not agree to the proposal. It seems that the only large mine taking any immediate steps to impound their debris was the South Eureka mine who came up with the idea of depositing the material in a natural depression near the mine. By June, they were constructing ditches to carry out their plan. 

The following year a suit was filed in the Sacramento Superior Court against all the operating mines on the Mother Lode in Amador County by a Sacramento farmer Hugo Loll and his wife Martha. Their farm sat along the banks of Dry Creek just beyond the Amador-Sacramento County line. Although the mine owners had settled with a number of farmers, many rejected their offers stating they were “way out of line” with the losses suffered by them. Following the suit, Kennedy and Argonaut owners began an earnest effort in their plans to impound their tailings. The Argonaut began plans on their dam while the Kennedy envisioned the use of one overshot wheel which would transport the material away from the streambeds. The Kennedy, of course, would later amend their plan to four wheels. Both mines planned on using containment reservoirs for the waste and considered the possibility of the water used to move it could be sold for irrigation purposes. One consideration being faced was that using that much water may dry up the creeks.

The wheels designed for use at the Kennedy were not a new technology. The are much like the traditional water-raising wheel devices that were widely used in Spain, the Middle East, and India. The most famous of these, the Norias of Hama, were developed as early as 469 AD. These gigantic water wheels, some up to 75 feet in diameter, lifted water from the Orontes River, providing water to the townspeople of Hama, Syria. Today, only 17 of the many hundreds that lined the riverbank now remain. They are noted as the most splendid norias ever constructed and have been nominated as a World Heritage Site.

By early 1913, the Kennedy’s plan to build the wheels was underway. In February, it was reported that “carpenters and others are busy working” and “four big wheels are in process of construction, each 56 feet in diameter.” The plan was to pump the tailings over the hill to Indian Gulch where the Bright (aka Bellweather) Mine was located. Mine owners estimated it would take three or four months to complete the project. At the end of March, the lawsuit filed by Hugo and Martha Loll was settled through arbitration. The Loll’s and their co-defendents agreed to not ask for monetary damages upon the stipulation that the mine owners shall, no later than December 1, 1914, have in place impoundment and restraining works and take any necessary measures to prevent any future action from causing harm to the farmers’ land.

As work progressed on the wheels, the Kennedy was hit with another legal action. On March 23, 1913, a Notice of Appeal was filed in the Superior Court by H.D. Emerson regarding the ownership of the Bright (Bellweather) Mine property. The controversy over the property started two years prior when the Kennedy Mining Company purchased the mine property and adjoining ranch for $20,000, described as a “considerably low price” at the time, because of a claim jump on the property. The title to the property was held for many years as a Jackson townsite title. After the death of the owner, S.W. Bright, Emerson jumped the mining claim just as the Administrator of the estate was about to sell it to the Kennedy. A few days before the sale, Emerson posted a mining location notice on the Bellweather claim with the idea that since it was of a mining nature, the original townsite patent was not applicable to the property under federal patent laws and that it was in fact part of the public lands. The Kennedy Mining Company purchased the property and subsequently filed suit against Emerson who lost the suit. Six months later Emerson sued the Kennedy; however, the previously issued demurrer on the title was upheld and Emerson was thrown off the property.

Workmen continued to move forward on the wheels and the flume that would carry the tailings over the hill. By June 13, 1913, the Ledger reported that “one of the big overshot wheels…has been completed and work is being pushed ahead steadily on the second.” The Kennedy Mine payroll records and time books show that thirteen carpenters worked on the wheels: William Daugherty, Nathaniel Williams, F.G. Cooley, John Dake, Elbridge Post, Joseph Combs, Grover Ritter, Pete Poletti, Frank Joy, M.R. Sanders, Frederick Giles, F.C. Dake, and G. Diveccio. George Wrigglesworth, an engineer at the Kennedy Mine also worked on the project. The wheels were first assembled at the mine site. They were then checked for stability and disassembled. They were then hauled via team-drawn wagons to the area where they were be placed and reassembled. With the use of ropes pulled by teams, they were lifted and anchored into place. It must have been truly a grand site to watch them as they rose from the ground. 

To be continued…

If you would like to contribute to the effort to save Wheel No. 1, please contact the Kennedy Mine Foundation or send your donation to the KMF, P.O. Box 684, Jackson, CA 95642.