By Peg Bos | Clovis Museum
Mining for gold was not profitable for the early gold miners in our area. Two copper mines were founded in search of alternative riches.
Copper King Mine (the largest) was located in the Tollhouse area and the second one was located near Copper Avenue (between Armstrong and Fowler avenues). It was southwest of Wyatt Mountain (also called Owen Mountain) on a foothill that was near the old stage road.
Prospector James R. McCombs, an early gold miner from Millerton, laid the first claim on Copper Avenue in the late 1860s. His investment was minimal. He dug a prospect hole and posted the claim.
Clovis pioneer John Mitchell Heiskell began working the mine in 1871. John homesteaded a ranch in that area that was called “Old Copper Mine Ranch.”
The International Land Company (home office in England) purchased the mine (2,000 acres) in 1891. It was named Fresno Copper Mine. Extensive improvements were made and a branch railroad line was constructed west to El Prado to the San Joaquin Railroad (later acquired by Southern Pacific). Marcus Pollasky had been commissioned to extend the railroad from Fresno to what is now Friant.
The company added a smelter that processed the crushed ore to convert it from sulfide to oxide. Matte (a crude mixture of sulfides) was the end product. Gross annual sales would average $100,000.
The smelter was closed in 1902. Area residents believed the fumes from the smelter poisoned the vegetation which would lead to severe liver damage when eaten.
The depth of the copper vein ranged from a few feet to 400 feet. The best ore was found at the higher levels. At the peak of production, two shifts staffed by 35 to 40 men were employed. Boarding and bunk houses were constructed and a few houses for families. John Weldon (Clovis Mayor 1956-1958) was born there while his father Luther Weldon (Clovis Mayor 1940-1948) was engineer of the train.
The sulfur dripping in the shafts would destroy a man’s shirt within two days. Some men would wear slickers (raincoats) to protect themselves from the caustic sulfur. The mine shipped five to six cars of ore every day. Initially the ore from the mine was transported by horse and wagon to the Deering shipping yard that was located north of Minnewawa on Herndon Avenue.
Steel Tractors replaced the wagons. They had huge steel wheels with steel treads about five feet wide that produced a grinding sound that was accompanied by the spewing of steam. Youngsters viewed them as monsters.
The mine did not produce the seven percent copper plus any appreciable values in gold that was required to be profitable. Their percentage of copper was two percent and no gold deposits.
In 1908, the State of California issued a mining report that stated copper mining in Central California would never be profitable. The best copper was near the surface and the average quality was rated poor. A geologist estimated that within 50,000 years the copper, along the west slope of the Sierra would become plentiful and would extend to the length of the Central Valley.
The combination of low grade ore and high transportation costs (ore was shipped by train to the town of Selby near Richmond) closed the mine in 1920. Remains of the mine were still visible in the 1960s.
In 1923, an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease infected cattle. Blister like lesions appear on the infected animal. Their infected feet would cause them to sway from side to side. There was no cure. The diseased cattle of Frank Whiton were slaughtered and thrown into the copper mine shaft. Lime was added to hasten their decomposition.
The mine and the families that worked there are a important part of our rich heritage.