Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve

Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve

About an hour to the east of San Francisco, lies the historic Black Diamond Mines site. It's a part of the East Bay Regional Parks District.

If you’re planning a visit to San Francisco or the greater Bay Area, this is an interesting side trip for history buffs to explore, for both the history and the views, wildlife and many assorted plant species. Open to hikers, equestrians and bicyclists, there are miles and miles of trails to travel.

Coal Use in History

The use of coal has a long history, and dates back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, when it was widely used in weapons factories, notably during the American Civil War, and also in steam locomotives, when firewood or charcoal were not easily obtained.

A major advantage of coal is that it can be used “as is” when it is mined from the ground, without need for any processing. It is one of the group that comprise the fossil fuels, the others being petroleum and natural gas.

Not a great many people today realize that the coal used in the late 1800s and early 1900s in the San Francisco Bay Area, notably, San Francisco, Sacramento, and surrounding areas actually came from very nearby.

Before electricity became common in people’s homes, heating was often accomplished by steam heat, fired by coal-fueled boilers. It was also extensively used in manufacturing, and in steam-fueled pumps on horse-drawn fire engines. Hence, there was a great need for coal, and it was found in abundance in the Black Diamond mines near what is now Antioch, California.

A Bustling Batch of Boom Towns

The area around the Black Diamond coal mine soon developed into several boom towns, complete with a school, and a cemetery. Everything you needed from birth to death. A little tidbit I gleaned from a park ranger, is that the school was considered the best in the area, because the residents gave 1% of their pay for the school, and kids would walk 6 miles over from Clayton to attend the Somersville school because it was so much better.

There were actually five towns in the area: Somersville, Stewartville, West Hartley, Judsonville, and Nortonville. Nothing remains of any of them, but Somersville is remembered in the name of a major street in Antioch.

There is a Nortonville road, on the western side of the park boundary, near the current town of Clayton, but it is not open to the public, and a Judsonville road to the east.


It was a hard, rough-scrabble life, though, and dangerous work. Deaths at young ages were common both among the miners and the population at large. Some deaths were from illnesses for which we now have cures or treatments; many others died in mining accidents of one sort or another. Children, too, suffered these fates, as there were no child labor laws back then, and young boys would work in the mines along side the men.

In the coal mines, many of the shafts were as thin as 18 inches, and so were an extremely tight fit for a grown man. Boys were probably used to scoop out the mined coal, and possibly to wield picks as well. It was hard, dirty work.

When the coal was mined out past the point of being economically feasible, the towns died out and the residents moved on.

Outdoor placard showing some of the buildings that used to stand and some of the people who once lived there
Outdoor placard showing some of the buildings that used to stand and some of the people who once lived there

The Next Chapter

In the 1920s, the area was revitalized when high-quality silica sand was begun to be mined for glass production, and also for foundry use in making sand mold castings for steel products. This revitalized both the Somersville and Nortonville townsites for the duration of this mining venture.

The two main players in the sand mining were the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, which made glass from the sand at its plant in Oakland, California, approximately 36 miles away. Also involved, on the steel-casting side was the Columbia Steel Company in nearby Pittsburg, California.

The sand mine, and all mining in the area ceased in the late 1940s when competition from other glass makers and the closing of the steel foundry left no further demand.

There is little left of the old towns, the buildings having long since been removed. What remains is seen from the hiking trails or perhaps with binoculars from the hilltops.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Entry sign at the visitor centerGreathouse Portal; the entrance to the visitor centerCeiling inside the visitor center, where pick marks can clearly be seen3-D model of the layout of the Hazel-Atlas silica sand mine, showing public areasInside the visitor center, fashioned from a large excavated area of the mine, can still be seen holes where blasting caps would be placed to loosen material for the next days' workA display of antique miners' lampsAn assortment of the kinds of glass products were made using silica sand from the Hazel-Atlas mine
Entry sign at the visitor center
Entry sign at the visitor center
Greathouse Portal; the entrance to the visitor center
Greathouse Portal; the entrance to the visitor center
Ceiling inside the visitor center, where pick marks can clearly be seen
Ceiling inside the visitor center, where pick marks can clearly be seen
3-D model of the layout of the Hazel-Atlas silica sand mine, showing public areas
3-D model of the layout of the Hazel-Atlas silica sand mine, showing public areas
Inside the visitor center, fashioned from a large excavated area of the mine, can still be seen holes where blasting caps would be placed to loosen material for the next days' work
Inside the visitor center, fashioned from a large excavated area of the mine, can still be seen holes where blasting caps would be placed to loosen material for the next days' work
A display of antique miners' lamps
A display of antique miners' lamps
An assortment of the kinds of glass products were made using silica sand from the Hazel-Atlas mine
An assortment of the kinds of glass products were made using silica sand from the Hazel-Atlas mine

In Remembrance

The former town sites are not all that remain of the old mining days. There is also the Rose Hill Cemetery, which is in the process of being restored. Unfortunately, prior to the acquisition of the area by the park system, there was a lot of vandalism and theft of the old headstones. Much information about who lies buried there has been lost.

It is a short, but steep walk to the cemetery from the visitor center, and well worth the trek for both a spectacular overview of the surrounding area and a somber visit among the ghosts of the past.

Rose Hill Cemetery, circa 1939
Rose Hill Cemetery, circa 1939 | Source

If you’re going:

From the West and North-West:

Navigate to California State Highway 4, eastbound. (Signs will read “toward Stockton).

Take the Auto Center Drive/Somersville exit, and turn right (south) from the exit ramp. Follow Somersville Road to its end, and keep going; this is the entrance to the preserve. The ranger entrance kiosk is approximately 1 mile up this road, which winds, and is narrow, but it is paved.

From the East and South-East:

Navigate to California State Highway 4, westbound, and take the Auto Center Drive exit; stay in the right lane on the exit ramp, which follows a U-turn off the freeway. Turn right onto Auto Center Drive, which becomes Somersville road as you pass under the freeway and cross the signal at Deltal Fair Blvd. Do not turn; stay going straight on Somersville, and follow directions as above to the preserve.

Within the Park

As you drive up the road going into the preserve, you will notice a collection of old buildings on the western (right) side of the road. These are not yet within the park’s boundaries or jurisdiction, but they are looking into acquiring them sometime in the near future. They are, however,

representative of the types of structures you would have seen in the old towns of the area.

The remaining vestige of the sand mining operation is seen in the Greathouse Visitor Center, which is carved out of a large part of the old sand mine, so named for R. Marvin Greathouse, the original owner of the Hazel-Atlas Mine.

Mine tours are available of a portion of the sand mine, but not of any of the old coal mines, as those are too dangerous to enter.

The park boasts over 6,000 acres of preserved area within its boundaries, and also abuts the Contra Loma Regional Park on its north-eastern side.

There is a paved road leading into the preserve from Somersville Road in Antioch, California and it takes you to the parking lot, from which it is a short walk to the visitor center. It does, however, go up and down a couple of hilly areas, so keep this in mind if you have any mobility issues. (The park rangers told me that it is sometimes possible (but not guaranteed) to arrange a ride up from the parking area for disabled visitors, depending on staffing and how many visitors there are.)

The rest of the park trails are open to hikers, mountain bicyclists and horseback riders.

Picnic tables are available for day use visitors near the parking lot areas, as well as vault toilets and drinking fountains.

Picnic areas can accommodate either larger or smaller groups
Picnic areas can accommodate either larger or smaller groups

Remember never to approach any wildlife; it is both illegal and dangerous

Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve area map
Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve area map | Source

What to Look For

As you walk the various trails and roads in the park, (over 60 miles worth!) you will cross a number of different areas, and possibly see some wildlife, depending on time of day. Remember, it is both dangerous and illegal to approach any wildlife. Appreciate them from a distance, and take only photos.

You will see native vegetation and various types of terrain, including chapparal, grassland, foothills and stream vegetation. There are also some areas of evergreen forest, as well as some exotic non-native plants originally introduced by the miners.

Also, in several spots you will come across great piles of mine tailings, or the non-usable rubble that was hauled out of the mines in the search for those black diamonds.

Some of the tailings also probably come from the sand-mining era.

Mine tailings in many colors dot the landscape in the park
Mine tailings in many colors dot the landscape in the park

Mine Tours

The mines are open for touring on weekends from March through November; reservations are strongly recommended. Children under the age of 7 are not permitted on tours for safety reasons, and all children 7 and above must be accompanied by an adult.

Fee for the tour is $5 per person; the duration is about 90 minutes. Temperatures in the mine hover at around 56 degrees Fahrenheit, so a jacket is probably advisable. Hard hats and flashlights are provided by the park.

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About 5 times per year, Mine Open Houses are held, at which time, the mine tours are free between the hours of noon and 4:30 p.m.

Dogs are not allowed on mine tours, though they are welcome, on leash, in the visitor center.

Reservations

East Bay Regional Park District Reservations:

1-888-EBPARKS (1-888-327-2757, option 2).

Monday through Thursday: 8:30 A.M. - 4:30 P.M

Friday: 8:30 A.M. - 4:00 P.M.


This is a central number. Be sure and state the name of the park and facility you wish to reserve.

Reservation office is closed Saturdays, Sundays and all District holidays.

Camping

There are 2 campsites: one for the general public, and a group camp. Both are limited to a 2-night stay; reservations required at both.

Public:

The Stewartville Backpack Camp is on the western side of the park, about 3.2 miles from the preserve headquarters, near the Stewartville and Upper Oil Canyon Trails. This camp can accommodate 20 campers. Picnic tables, pit toilets and non-potable water for horses is available. (Water must be treated or filtered for human consumption, or pack in your own.) Fee is $5 per person per night, open spring, summer and fall. Reservations must be made at least 5 days in advance.

Groups:

There is also the Star Mine group campsite on the eastern side of the park, also by reservation only; reservations must be made at least 10 days in advance. This camp is available year round, for organized educational groups only. There is space for 35 campers, and parking for a maximum of 8 cars. No water at site; haul in your own, and pack out your own trash. Picnic tables and pit toilets are available. Limit of a 2-night stay.

Photo Credits


All photos by Liz Elias, © July 2015, 
unless otherwise noted with the photo

© 2015 DzyMsLizzy

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17 comments

always exploring profile image

always exploring 16 months ago from Southern Illinois

Interesting hub. I would love to visit the area. It is sad that young boys perished in the mines. I took care of an old man with black lung disease. Informative article on the Black Diamond Preserve. Voted up..


bravewarrior profile image

bravewarrior 16 months ago from Central Florida

This sounds like an interesting day trip, Liz. My grandfather worked the coal mines in Pennsylvania. I remember a huge bin full of coal in their basement. I'm not sure why he had it, as electricity was the way to heat the home when I was a little girl. Perhaps it was left over from times long before I was even thought of. I found it interesting though. I don't think I'll ever forget the musty smell in that basement.

Thanks for the trip and the photos!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 16 months ago from Olympia, WA

Thanks for the tour, Liz! The next time I'm in that neighborhood I'll check it out. :)


drbj profile image

drbj 16 months ago from south Florida

What a complete and fantastic review of a very interesting site, Liz. Thanks for the tour and the fascinating history, m'dear. Voted Up, y'know.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 16 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

@ always exploring - It is sad that children were used for such dangerous jobs back then. Mining is still a dangerous occupation and yes, people still do fall victim to that awful black lung disease. Thanks for the vote; I'm glad you liked the article.

@ bravewarrior - Hi, Shauna--what a great memory you have of your grandfather's home. I imagine that was all very mysterious to you. Thanks for sharing your memory. I'm most pleased you enjoyed this hub.

@ billybuc - You're most welcome. It was a fun excursion--only about 9 miles from where I live,-- (that is, until my truck died on the way home). LOL If you ever are actually in our neighborhood, do drop me a line--I'll see that you get a personal escort of the place. ;-)

@ drbj - Well thank you, thank you very much. I'm delighted you so enjoyed it and many thanks for the votes!


Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin 16 months ago from Oklahoma

Looks like a really neat place. Next time I'm in SF I'll have to get out to it.

Great article.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 16 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Larry,

Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed this piece. It's one of my favorite kinds of writing. Hope you manage to visit.


tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 16 months ago from California

Hey Lizzy, My son works for EBRPD and worked a shift at Contra Loma in May. I almost rode along with him. It's been years since I have been out there. Fascinating as I remember.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 16 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi there, fellow Californian!

Wow that is funny! File under "small world department." What fun! Do come for a visit! Thanks for stopping by and sharing that fascinating bit of serendipity.


annart profile image

annart 16 months ago from SW England

Fascinating place! Love the photos too.

Like this, we had many mines in Britain but these gradually died out too. A few are now museums and some have guided tours. Our esteemed (not by me!) Maggie Thatcher got rid of many during her 'reign' and was thereby responsible for much unemployment. These days we could do with some of them; our coal comes from China!

It's so good to have a wonderful habitat on the site now; at least that creates a much more clean environment and creates other kinds of work for many.

Thanks for the information and the history, Liz.

Ann


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 16 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Ann!

Yes, the old mines provided a valuable resource, but sadly, in those days, there was no regard for the environment. I'm glad to see areas such as this at least turned into usable space, if not totally restored (impossible, in many cases, anyway).

I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and I thank you for your comparisons! Most interesting. I see we have politicians on both sides of the pond not so concerned with anything so much as their own bank accounts. Sad times, indeed.


FlourishAnyway profile image

FlourishAnyway 16 months ago from USA

This was an interesting hub and appars well worth the trip. I'd love to see it if I'm in the area.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 16 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Thanks very much, Flourish! I do hope you can manage a visit. Not sure how far you are from the area, but if not too far, I believe it's worth the trip, if you're into historical things as I am.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 15 months ago from Canada

fantastic article. I found the pictures amazing, and the plaque with the history even more so. Nice to know you can go camping there too.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 15 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hello there, Rebecca E.

Thanks very much! I'm glad you liked the article. Now, all you have to do is come on down and visit us! ;-)


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 8 months ago from England

Love the photos and interesting stuff! great to see you!


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 8 months ago from Oakley, CA Author

Hi, Nell! Glad you enjoyed the article--thanks so much!

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