Musings of An Old Man

by Brian K. Moore

Azucar Mine

In early summer 1935, a mere 75 years ago when I was 16 years old, I spent a week working as a helper to my 21 year old brother Joe in the Azucar Mine, which was located at the end of a dirt road 9 miles out of Daggett. It wasn’t a real road, but rather just tracks through the creosote and sage where vehicles had been driven.

At the time 21 year old Joe took the job at the mine, he was dating 31 year old Marge, the divorced older sister of Walt, one of the guys Joe hung out with. The job on the mine made dating difficult for Joe and Marge and forced them to find unusual ways to see each other now and then.

The name “Azucar,” so I was told means “sugar” in Spanish. The Azucar Mine was a “hope so” gold mine. It was owned by 5 business men located in and around Alhambra and South Pasadena. They had financed the prospecting, which had turned up an outcropping that indicated the presence of a gold bearing vein; they had filed a claim and started excavating a shaft to expose the vein. At the time when I spent my week on the job, the shaft was down to a depth of about 20 feet on a slope, and then straight down about 15 more feet. My brother Joe was the only worker on the mine at this time.

While Joe was working on the mine he stayed there full time. He lived in a small one room wooden cabin. There was a Coleman gasoline stove and a small sink that drained on the ground outside. The sink was supplied with water, usually warm, that came from a tank which was set up on legs to provide a little pressure to make the water flow. A water truck came once a week to fill the tank.

There was a shower head with a valve, piped to the bottom of the tank.

We took our showers by standing under the shower head and turning on enough water to get wet. We turned off the water, to conserve it, while we soaped up and then turning it on again for rinsing. The water in the tank, with the desert sun was, just about the right temperature for a shower.

The cabin facilities were adequate, but the flies were a nuisance. We had a unique way of reducing their numbers. We would sit on our bunks and shoot at them with a 22 rifle! The rules were: don’t shoot at them if they are on the ceiling. That would make the roof leak. The walls can stand a few small bullet holes.

Joe’s pay for working on the mine was 60 dollars a month plus room and board. Room, meaning he could stay in the cabin and board meaning once a week some of the owners would visit the mine and they would bring some canned food and dried food and what fresh stuff would last a couple of days without refrigeration. My pay was just the room and board. That was OK as I was there just for the experience.

The men, who owned the mine, were financing the whole project on a shoestring. One of these men was the owner of an auto repair facility and he had made most of the equipment being used at the mine from old automobile parts and various pieces of iron welded together. He had built a little railroad down the slope using wood rails topped with strap iron. The homemade ore car was pulled up this track by an old Dodge engine and transmission, turning a homemade winch. When the ore car reached the level track at the top of the slope, it was disconnected from the cable and pushed by hand to either the “ore dump” to the “muck dump.”

The ore vein was about two-feet thick but the horizontal shaft had to be about four-feet square in order to allow working room. So the top half of the shaft was dug in the ore and the lower of it was dug in the adjoining rock which was referred to as “muck.” Once a week a guy would come with a shovel and a dump truck, and load up the ore and take it to a stamp mill at Barstow to have the gold extracted. The muck was left where it was dumped from the ore car.

A typical day at the mine went like this: We would get up in the morning about sun up, fix and eat breakfast and clean up dishes etc. and walk a couple hundred feet up to the mine.

We would then walk down the slope where the ore car rails went and would let ourselves down the vertical portion of the shaft in the ore bucket and move a short distance to the end of the new horizontal shaft that we were working on. We would “muck out,” which means remove the results of yesterday afternoons blasting.

For the muck out procedure, one of us would be at the bottom of the hole to load the 30 gallon ore bucket with a shovel, while the other would be at the top of the vertical shaft to raise the ore bucket with a hand cranked windlass. The ore bucket would be dumped into the ore car.

When the ore car got full, it would be pulled up the track on the slope with the winch driven by the old Dodge engine. We would then drill six one inch diameter holes, 18 inches deep in the ore vein, which was the upper half of the horizontal shaft. The drilling was done by hand with “star drills,” using an eight pound, one hand sledge hammer. The drilling operation took 2 to 3 hours.

When the six holes were drilled and cleaned, we would load them each with dynamite. The last piece of dynamite to go in the hole would have a fuse attached. The fuses were about three feet long, with each fuse being cut longer than the preceding fuse, so that the shots would go off one at a time, and could be counted. We would pack the dynamite in the hole tightly with a wooden stick.

At this point we would light the fuses and get out of the hole and go down to the cabin and fix lunch. We would eat while counting the shots to make sure that they were all fired, and then we would take about an hour rest to let the smoke clear out and the dust settle. We would then go back and repeat the morning’s operation, except that we would be excavating muck instead of ore. We got two rounds a day.

One evening we had a frightening experience. We had lit the fuses and came down to the cabin to fix dinner, eat, clean up and go to bed. We were counting the shots while we were eating. We counted 5 shots with the normal delay between. But there was no 6th shot! We waited and listened. Still, no shot. We theorized that maybe two went off at the same time? Not very likely.

Maybe flying debris from one shot cut the fuse of another shot? Well maybe. We got ready for bed and we’re about to retire, when about an hour and a half late the last shot went off!

The scary thing is: If this had been the noon shots instead of the evening shots, we could have very well been back in the hole by the time this shot went off! Whether we would have had sense enough to stay out until at least the next morning, I’ll never know.

Friday night of my week at the mine we had gone to bed about nine o’clock. About one o’clock I was awakened by a pounding on the outside of the cabin and a ghostly wailing! It was spooky and scary. We were so far from anyone!

When Joe wakened, he recognized that the wail was wailing:

Joooe—Joooe—Joooe---, he opened the door and standing there scared to death was his 31 year old girlfriend, Marge. She rushed in and they embraced. She was crying.

She had decided to pay Joe a visit and had started out in her 1932 Packard convertible in time to get to the cabin by sundown. After going over Cajon Pass and through Victorville she was on highway 66 heading for Barstow when her car started misbehaving. It got worse as she went, but she was able to nurse it along until she got to Barstow. The repair shop at the gas station was closed for the day, but she was able to make arrangements to have the car repaired the next day.

At that time a man, who was traveling through, entered the conversation. He asked where she was going and she told him she was going to see her “husband” who worked at a mine outside of Dagget. He said he was going that way and he offered to take her there. I doubt that he knew how far out of outside of Dagget it was. Marge accepted, not realizing at the time that she might be placing herself at considerable risk.

As time and distance wore on she became more and more concerned that his interest might not be entirely benevolent. Whatever his interest, what he got was a “thank you” from Marge and Joe and he started his way back on the nine miles of dirt toward the highway.

Joe knew that some of the owners would be coming out the next day, Saturday, to check progress on the mine and bring supplies. He knew about what time they would come and he knew that they must not find Marge there. So a little while before the expected arrival time, he took Marge out among the big rocks to hide out until they left. He told her “You can get a suntan.” She dressed in shorts to facilitate the tan. The place he took her had no shade and by the time the owners had come and looked at the mine and visited and gone she had a really bad sunburn.

The following day, Sunday, we had more company. Joe’s friend Walt, who was also Marge’s brother, and his wife Bobbie came to visit us. Walt, who was a known rascal and conniver had rented a 1934, almost new, Ford V8, disconnected the speedometer, (in those days the charge for rental cars was, an initial charge plus a mileage charge) and made the trip to the desert. He evidently enjoyed the touted stamina of the Ford V8. His remark about traversing Barstow was, “We went through Barstow like a hot turd!”

They arrived close to noon. Joe and I finished our drilling and got our morning shots off, and took the rest of the day off to entertain our guests. We did this in part by cutting sticks of dynamite into pieces about an inch and one half long and shooting at them with a 22 rifle from about 75 feet. This was the same rifle that we shot flies with. We found that at times we could put a bullet right through a stick of dynamite and not set it off! Most of the time it did go off and it made one Hell of a bang.

Our guests left in time to get home and wash the desert dust off the rented car, reconnect the speedometer and return it, paying no extra mileage fee.

This was my last full day on the job. The next day I worked the morning and went home in the afternoon. It was a memorable week. It made memories that lasted 75 years! Not like most weeks that quickly fade into oblivion.

An aside to this story: Marge, who scared hell out of me by wailing in the night, became my sister-in-law in less than a year, and she became my mother in law! seven years later, when her, then, 11 year old daughter had grown to 18. Marge was one of my best friends for the rest of her life!