Exploring the East Bay; the ghosts of old coal miners haunt Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve north of Mt. Diablo

Ghosts of old coal miners haunt the East Bay foothills!

Somersville town site and Markley Canyon from Rose Hill Cemetery (look closely, see tailings from old coal mines).

From the 1850s to early 1900s, the largest coal mining area in California was the Black Diamond Mines District just northeast of Mount Diablo. The almost 4 million tons of coal (“black diamonds”) were the product of over 900 miners, many of them immigrants from Wales. These black diamonds fueled  power plant boilers, Delta steamships, railroad locomotives and warmed houses in winter.

It’s a beautiful regional park, only 45 miles and about an hour and 10 minutes from Stockton. A lovely drive, a good hike (or bike) and loads of historical perspective await, located just northeast of Mt. Diablo and south of Antioch. The area was once home to three Bay-area Miwok-speaking tribes. With the arrival of Spanish, Mexican and American settlers in the early 1700s, the Miwuk lifestyles were dramatically altered.

Old coal-mining ore car is hidden in weeks, just off Nortonville Road Trail.

Coal was discovered in the 1850s and kept over 900 miners busy for 50 years. Towns including Somersville, Nortonville, Stewartville and two more blossomed in the district, home to miners, their families, merchants and saloon-keepers. At the peak of operations in the late 1870s, the coalfield’s population was the epicenter of Contra Costa County.

Scores of mines were tunneled into the Contra Costa foothills, with miners digging shafts into the hills, yielding tailings (waste rock piles) still visible from miles away. The Pittsburgh Railroad serviced the mining district, taking coal to Pittsburgh docks where it could be shipped to San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton.

Due to rising production costs and new energy sources such as oil, the coal mines ceased operations in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, sand mining began in the district, supporting the Hazel-Atlas Glass Company in Oakland and foundry sand for the Columbia Steel Works in Pittsburgh.

Rose Hill Cemetery, high in Contra Costa foothills, contains burial plots of over 230 miners and their family members.

We visited early on a sunny morning recently, after a scenic trip across the Delta. During summer, start early for it can get very hot by noon!

Beside the preserve’s parking lot are the remnants of the Independent Mine shaft. A large depression marks the site of a 700 foot sealed shaft and a boiler explosion in 1873 which killed two men and scattered boiler parts more than a quarter mile.

We could look high up the hills and see the Rose Hill Cemetery overlooking Markley Canyon. We grabbed a map from the visitor’s kiosk, and begin the roughly half-mile, uphill hike, past the old Somersville town site and several tailing piles from old mines to the cemetery.

Rose Hill was a Protestant cemetery and burial ground for many of the Welsh immigrants. Here lie over 230 burial plots, of children who died of epidemics (smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, typhoid), men who died in mining disasters and women who perished in childbirth. Only 80 gravestones remain today, the result of vandalism or others that were wood and lost in fires; some gravesites were not marked.

Old mining machinery line the preserve's access road.

The gravesites carry eerie history, like plot 46, the grave of William Gething.  He died aged 36 in a Black Diamond Mine explosion in 1876, killing him and nine others – seven of the men are buried nearby. Nearby, plot 6, is the grave of Sarah Norton, wife of Noah Norton for whom the town of Nortonville was named. Sarah was a midwife who delivered over 600 babies; at age 68, in route to a birth in nearby Clayton, she was thrown from a buggy and killed instantly.

Another half-mile past the cemetery is the Nortonville town site, though neither Somersville nor Nortonville retain any of their buildings, with many dismantled when the towns were abandoned and others lost to fire. If one stops along the Nortonville trail and gazes over the cemetery, tailings and town site, you can almost hear the voices of miners and their families whispering in the trees.

Back in the valley, fairly short and relatively level hikes take you to the Greathouse Portal, which houses the visitor center within the old sand mine. Nearby is the Eureka Slope, an incline shaft entrance to the Eureka coal mine which produced 150,000 tons of coal out of a steeply inclined shaft descending 300 feet.

Preserve docent and friend await a grade school class to tour the Hazel-Atlas Portal into the old sand mine.

We walked to the Hazel Atlas Portal, another sand mine that operated until the 1940s. We chatted with a preserve docent, who was awaiting a first grade class to tour the shaft, which tunnels horizontally into the hillside for more than a quarter-mile. Tunnel tours are offered on the weekends, by reservation (bring a flashlight and jacket, the old mines maintain a temperature in the high 50s within their confines).

The preserve offers about 60 miles of trails traversing grassland, foothills, woodlands, evergreen forest and exotic plantings of the miners including pepper trees, almond, eucalyptus and black locust. The trails are ideal for hiking, biking or horseback riding (the park offers two backpack campsites).  Take your binoculars and keep a watchful eye for rabbits, deer, raccoons, skunks and occasional bobcat, fox, coyote and mountain lion sightings. Over 100 species of birds make the area home, including rare golden eagles. Mt. Diablo State Park is just miles south, but that trip is for another day!

How to get there: Take Highway 4 west through the Delta, to Summersville Road exit in Antioch. Go south on Somersville to the preserve entrance.

For more information: East Bay Regional Park District, EBParks.org, (888) 327–2757.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in the west!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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