Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer
Distance: 3 miles – Time out: 4 hours
Degree of Difficulty: 1 – Elevation Gain: none
Pet Friendly: yes
August 14th 2013
Exploring the Crescent Mine 2013
I have a confession: I’m lured by stories of vanished gold, hidden gems, old maps, and especially all manner of lost mines – so I was very excited when my friend Lynn Johnson asked me to take a walk along the Olympic Discovery Trail and visit the abandoned Crescent Mine. Andy Stevenson joined us. Not only is Andy a past president of the Olympic Discovery Trail, but he knows his geology. Andy holds a degree in mine exploration from Stanford and has explored for copper, gold, and uranium. He still mines recreationally now and then on a couple of gold claims his grandfather left him. When I asked Andy how he became a miner he said, “Learnt it at my grandpappy’s knee,” Turns out Andy’s grandfather was also a Stanford trained engineer and successful miner.
Lynn, Andy and I drove to the west end of Lake Crescent and parked our cars at the turn-off on the north side of SR-101 at the intersection of the Sol Duc Hot Springs Road. We walked down to the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT) to start our journey.
As we passed noisy equipment Andy yelled in my ear that the crew was laying asphalt over a new section of the Olympic Discovery Trail called the “Mt Muller Bypass.” This short bypass now connects the west end of the trail at Lake Crescent to the permanent crossing at SR-101. Someday the ODT will be a 140 mile, paved, multi-purpose trail all the way from Port Townsend to the Pacific Ocean at La Push. Today, much of the trail is already complete. In fact, my wife and I had a wonderful time bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail earlier this year. We completed the entire route, and though we were forced to ride along the shoulder of the highway at times, we were inspired by the thought of how spectacular the completed trail would be.
The stroll along the Olympic Discovery Trail to the Crescent Mine site was an easy one, only taking half an hour. East of the intersection with the Mt. Muller bypass, the Olympic Discovery Trail slopes gently downhill away from Mt. Muller and toward Lake Crescent. Here the ODT follows the route of the historic Spruce Railroad; a train track hastily constructed through the wilderness by the United States Army during World War I in order to log Sitka Spruce. The specialty wood was an essential material used in early airplane construction.
As we were just hitting our stride, Andy pointed to an overgrown path on the north side of the trail. We brushed aside sword fern and scrubby branches and tunneled through until we came to a clearing just a few hundred yards from the ODT. We had arrived at the Crescent Mine.
I forced myself to walk slowly behind Andy. I’ve clambered around the Superstition Mountains in Arizona searching for the Lost Dutchman mine, rushed around the White Mountains of New Hampshire looking for the Great Carbuncle, driven through the wilds of Eastern Oregon hunting for the Blue Bucket Mine and leaned over a cold stream panning for gold in the ghost town of Liberty WA. To say I was eager to see the Crescent Mine was like saying we could use a little warm sunshine around the middle of January.
We walked ankle deep through dead leaves and salal into a clearing where the bunkhouse and other buildings once stood. Looking east, we could still discern a straight path through the sword fern and underbrush leading back toward the Olympic Discovery Trail. This must have been the railroad siding. Blocking the western sky a massive ridge rose steeply in front of us, thick with knobby hardwoods and scrubby brush. Running away from the ridge was a hundred-foot long, fifty-foot high, knife edge of talus; the waste rock removed from deep below the earth as miners dug for an important mineral – manganese.
During the Industrial Revolution manganese was used in forging hardened steel. As steel production increased so did the need for manganese. Manganese is one of the more common elements of the earth’s crust, but very little is found in North America, so there was great excitement when a large body of high-quality manganese ore was discovered here at the west end of Lake Crescent in 1923. According to a Department of the Interior report published in 1927, “Manganese-Bearing Deposits Near Lake Crescent…” by J. T. Pardee, an out-of-state mining company leased the claims and erected cabins and shops and hung a tramway from the mine to a railroad siding where empty train cars sat. Miners removed a vertical seam of 11,000 tons of high-grade ore and shipped it all the way to Philadelphia via the Panama Canal. The ore body was exhausted by September of 1926 and operations were suspended.
During World War II when the United States Navy fought along two oceans and the Army fought on three continents, shipyards were frantically producing steel-hulled ships to overcome the superior Japanese fleet and factories were stamping out hundreds of thousands of steel infantry helmets to protect our boys “over there”, the United States still imported almost all its manganese. Finding domestic sources was deemed crucial and here on the Peninsula, manganese prospects were located in an arc that circled the foothills on all but the western side of the Olympic Mountains. Miners had staked numerous claims, dug holes and sunk shafts but very little manganese was actually removed from the ground. Geologists returned to the Crescent Mine and with new technology discovered another large body of high quality Manganese ore below the original mine. In 1941 a new shaft was sunk 850 feet deeper into the roots of Mt. Muller. Bunkhouses, a blacksmith shop, and a pump house were erected all over again and according to the May 1942 issue of Mining World, soon the Lake Crescent mine employed“…a total crew of 25 to 30 men working two shifts of 8 hours, six days a week.”
Andy, Lynn and I stood on the long pile of waste rock. Ferns and trees were growing on the steep slopes and at the base were rusting sheets of metal and parts from an old automobile. Andy picked up a red rock the size of his fist. He pointed to the globs of black clearly visible along its reddish surface and said, “I believe the black mineral is Pyrolusite or some other ore of Manganese…. The reddish material is hydrothermally altered basalt, the red color coming from Hematite, an iron mineral introduced by the same fluids that brought in the manganese. This association of Hematite and Pyrolusite is a hallmark of submarine hydrothermal manganese deposits formed in seafloor basalts as they cooled. This is consistent with the inferred origin of the Crescent Basalts, which is the host rock at the mine.”
I held the minerals in my hand and grinned excitedly. The 1942 article in Mining World said the Crescent Mine was an important, long-term operation; even the name of the operator of the mine, “The Sunshine Mining Co.” exuded optimism. But Andy looked around at the dark forest and precipitous ridge above hemming in the tiny clearing and shook his head because he knew what it was really like to be a hard-rock miner on the Olympic Peninsula.
Historical records on the daily life of a miner here on the Peninsula are scarce. In his 1982 booklet, “Mining the North Fork Skokomish River” Robert Keatts held a mythic view of the miner. “The prospector was in most cases a special kind of person. Besides being close-mouthed, most were single and liked to live a life without complications and restrictions…. (and) who likes to live alone most of the time but occasionally goes to town to get drunk and chase women,” Keatts wrote.
Longtime Olympic National Park Ranger, Jack Hughes, had a slightly darker interpretation. Jack said in an interview with Olympic National Park anthropologist Jacilee Wray, back in 2000, “The old guys liked to live an independent life, you know, in a cabin, working their own shifts. All they cared about was a grub stake. Enough money to get along. So if they could convince somebody that if I go back another hundred feet I’m really going to hit it. It was a con game.”
We followed Andy carefully down the pile of tailings and back to where the edge of the clearing met the steep mountain ridge. Andy had an even gloomier understanding of mining here at the Crescent Mine and stiffly pointed to the main entrance, a twenty foot diameter hole in mountain, collapsed and filled with fallen trees and rotting leaves. Andy said, “During the early 1920’s, when the mine was at its peak, it must have been ‘beyond the back of beyond’”.
I backed away from Andy. Were there any references or journals available about the daily life of a miner at the Crescent mine or any of the other tiny mines on the Peninsula to prove this claim? Andy said, “Outside of the 1860’s-1900’s histories of a few famous camps and mines like Virginia City, Butte, Angel’s Camp, etc. there is nothing dealing with the life of an ordinary ‘doghole’ miner. These folks were illiterate, often foreign born or first generation, uncomfortable around others, and taciturn. Not the type to be writing or even speaking about their lives and histories.”
The term “doghole” miner refers to a miner hunched over, digging and tunneling while on his knees for his entire shift because the roof of the shaft was so low only a dog could stand. Andy stroked his throat and grimaced as he said that at the Crescent Mine it was, “Cold and damp year-round, forty degrees, near 100% humidity, dark, no electric light, only a few carbide or oil lamps, close, 4 to 5 foot high by 4 foot wide tunnels at best, working faces following seams maybe only 2 ft. wide, unbelievably poor air quality, no circulation, low oxygen, poisonous smoke and fumes from explosives and the lamps, choking dust from rock drilling. In short it was hell. Pictures of miners of the period, coming off shift tell the story best. The pain and fatigue, dirt and grit, indelibly etched in their faces attest to the environment they endured.”
Andy continued, “I’ve been in some of those old gold mines in California with modern breathing apparatus, quality lighting, and advanced design clothing, and been absolutely wrung out in four hours. The “normal” shift in the 20’s was 12-14 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, 1 holiday a year.“
In the end, the Sunshine Mining operation at the Crescent Mine was short-lived. On December 20, 1946, the Port Angeles News reported the last train-car of manganese ore was transported from the Crescent Mine for delivery to the Navy. The output of five years of operation totaled 29,200 tons, a fraction of what the United States imported. Over the next ten years or so other companies leased the site and scraped out some ore that was left behind, but mining on the Olympic Peninsula was over.
Of the hundreds of claims filed by hard rock miners on the Olympic Peninsula over the last century, only the Crescent Mine shipped out significant quantities of ore. The 1984 Olympic National Park Historic Resource Study said that all this mining activity, “…must have created waves of disappointment far larger than the shattered dreams of early settlers. Prospectors from the Rockies, the Sierras and the Klondike doubtless had visions of a new gold rush in the Olympics. Yet, be it hard rock, placer gold or even the black gold promised by oil seeps, the results were uniformly disappointing. Even manganese, the one mineral of sufficient value that appeared in commercial quantities, could not be successfully exploited. The hardships and expense caused by rugged terrain, coupled with the lack of transportation and a competitive world market were obstacles that could not be overcome….”
I swallowed hard because I was disappointed too. I’ll continue to be fascinated with the idea of lost treasure, but I’ll never look at hard rock mining with the same romantic view as before. Andy waived his hand over what was left of the Crescent Mine; the depression in the earth, the pile of waste rock and the rusty junk and said, “The Lake Crescent Manganese mine, even by mining standards, was a pimple on the backside of nowhere. An insignificant deposit of an unglamorous mineral. Who can honestly say they love Manganese? The mine was worked for no profit by anonymous people who occupied the lowest niche in the social structure of the Olympic Peninsula. Below farmers, below loggers, below drunkards… The ‘roaring 20’s’ was perhaps the era of the greatest disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in America, and we know where the miner sat: absolutely the bottom of the barrel, in the middle of nowhere. Some life, eh?”
Recently, I was reading Frontier Legacy by J. R. Rooney and came across this quote from the daughter of one of the Crescent Mine owners, “Manganese from that mine put me and my sister through college…and that was during the Depression.” Knowing that a little bit of good came out of the Crescent Mine reassured me that not all the herculean efforts down in that hellish hole were in vain.
Note: If spending the entire day at the Crescent Mine doesn’t excite you enough, continue along the Olympic Discovery Trail east for 4 miles and you will come to the western trailhead of the Spruce Railroad Trail. This beautiful section of the Olympic Discovery Trail is a rough path along northern shore of Lake Crescent. Experience it before it is rebuilt and paved in the next few years.
To get to the Crescent Mine from the Quality Inn and Suites, Sequim:
- Head west on Highway 101 toward Lake Crescent – About 41 miles.
- The Sol Duc entrance to Olympic National Park will be on your left, pull off the highway into the parking area on your right.
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