Keane Wonder Mine, Death Valley
In January 1904 Jack Keane, an unemployed Irish immigrant miner, and Domingo Etcharren, “the one-eyed Basque butcher” of Ballarat, wandered into the Funeral Mountains on the east side of Death Valley hunting for silver prospects. Quite by accident, Jack Keane discovered an immense ledge of free milling gold ore a short distance from their original silver claim. His discovery was suitably named the Keane Wonder.
Word traveled fast upon their return to Ballarat and by May, Keane and Etcharren began to receive offers to sell their eighteen claims. Within a few weeks, the Keane Wonder was bonded to Captain Jack R. Delamar in exchange for $10,000 in cash an option to purchase the mine at the end of one year for $150,000. The bond agreement was signed, sealed, and placed in the Inyo County Recorder's office on June 24, 1904.As the one year May 15th deadline, Delamar’s option expired either because he could not or did not want to pay that sum.
With cooler September weather, Keane and Etcharren resumed work on their own producing enough high-grade ore making $28,000 enabling them to employ a half dozen miners. With a bit of good luck, the shipment of occasional high-grade batches of ore would thus pay for the development of the mine on a small scale.
In early 1906 John F. Campbell and his backers bought the Keane Wonder Mine outright, for $250,000, $50,000 in cash, and the rest given in the form of stock in the new company. Jack Keane, held the controlling stock interest and became president, Campbell served as vice president and Domingo Etcharren as secretary. The new company offered stock to the general public with Keane Wonder stock selling for 42¢.
Just when things looked brightest, the great San Francisco fire and earthquake of April 1906 effectively wiped out Campbell's fortune, which had an immediate effect on the finances of the Keane Wonder Company. All development plans for the Keane Wonder came to a halt, and Campbell was forced to find a buyer for the property, which he accomplished in late June to Homer Wilson, president of the Sildman Consolidated Mines Company of San Francisco. On August 10th it was announced that Wilson and his associates had purchased the Keane Wonder Mine. At this same time, Jack Keane and Domingo Etcharren accepted full payment in cash, thus terminating their interests in the Keane Wonder Mine.
With the money from the sale of the Keane Wonder mine, Keane invested in almost fifty claims in the Skidoo District on the west side of Death Valley. Months later Keane's luck ran out. In September, after a night of drinking, he shot and wounded two local peace officers in Ballarat. Shortly after that, he moved to Ireland where he was sentenced to seventeen years in jail for killing a man the fall of 1907.
Wilson’s tenure at Keane Wonder was instrumental to the mine’s longevity and consistent production even in the face of a financial panic that threatened to shut down operations in 1908. Wilson’s work on the property began in November 1906 with his announcement of the construction of the twenty-stamp mill, amalgamation, concentration, and cyanidation, and gravity powered aerial tramway which was expected to cost between $75,000 and $100,000.
All the mine supplies and mill machinery came in on the new Tonopah & Las Vegas railroad into Rhyolite. A wagon road was cut through Daylight Pass from the mine to Rhyolite.The mile-long aerial tramway and cyanide plant added in 1909 was also brought in by rail. Keane Wonder had a gas-powered generator, telephone, and, for a short time, hired a steam tractor, later named “Old Dinah” to haul supplies in from Rhyolite.
The mill and cyanide leaching plant was installed at the base of the Funeral Mountains about a mile distant and 2,000' lower than the major tunnels in the Funerals themselves. The location was chosen for its proximity to a promising water source on the property, which was a requirement of the milling and leaching processes. Work on a water pipeline led the company to buy additional claims and the small townsite at Keane Springs, located 7 miles away from the mill. Although the mill was installed and ready to operate by July 1907, setbacks on the arrival of tramway materials delayed its initial operation. The aerial tramway consisted of two terminals and twelve cable support towers between them. Upon completion of the tramway, the mill was set into operation on October 27, and Keane Wonder’s first amalgam clean-up was valued $40,000 and delivered in Rhyolite on November 12. It was estimated the final cost of the mill was $85,000.
The mine also had a cookhouse, mess hall, bunkhouse, office, and most likely several tents. A huge 25,000 gallon galvanized iron tank was also built beside the railroad tracks in Rhyolite, to be used as a storage tank for the crude oil which would be hauled to the mill. According to the Bullfrog Miner, "This is the largest tank of the kind in the country.” The extreme heat of Death Valley's summer began to take its toll. At the end of July, the company announced that temperatures were often above 124 even at midnight. Daily temperatures were usually up to 112 by breakfast and 124 by noon. Most men slept out of doors, and even eating was difficult, since the silverware was often too hot to handle. Partly to alleviate the heat and discontent of his miners, Wilson made arrangements to put in a small ice plant at the mill.
Keane Wonder was a steady producer between 1907 and 1912 with the aerial tramway running continuously. Then, on February 24th, 1912 disaster struck. The mile-long cable of the aerial tramway broke and several ore buckets fell into the ravines below. All work on the mine and mill had to be stopped while a new cable was restrung and the ore buckets placed back online. The new cable weighed 26,000 pounds, and cost $7,280.
The broken rope also cost a month of downtime. To make matters worse, Keane Wonder shut down just five months later on August 22nd, 1912. The Inyo Register headlines shouted, "NOTED MINE'S DAYS OVER. KEANE WONDER HAS WORKED OUT ITS ORE BODIES." The Keane Wonder mine and mill, after running successfully since November of 1907, had finally shut down.
During 1935 and 1936 the Coen Company bought and leased mining rights to the Keane Wonder and carried out testing. By November of 1937, the Coen Company had ceased operations, and the Keane Wonder mill and its contents were sold to a George Ishmael, who dismantled the stamps and hauled them to Los Angeles. Thus ended the proud history of the Keane Wonder Mill, with the exception of the foundation timbers of the tramway terminals, almost all the mill was salvaged.
In 1938, the Keane Wonder Mine was sold to E. L. Cord, the automobile manufacturer, who in turn leased it to two Denver miners, W. D. Leonard and George Schriber. From 1942 to the present, the Keane Wonder Mine has been idle. E. L. Cord held title to the estate until 1969, when it was sold for $25,000 to the Title Insurance and Trust Company of Los Angeles. The Title Insurance Company, in turn, sold the property to the National Park Service in the early 1970s.
Total production at the Keane Wonder mine and mill has been estimated by various sources at $1,100,000. Of this figure, most agree that between $625,000 and $682,000 was produced in the years between 1907 and 1911, during the most profitable years of the Keane Wonder Mining Company.
Aerial Tramway Facts: