Sulfur mine creek

Lion Creek drains Laundry Canyon in the Leona Heights and Crestmont neigborhoods as well as the former Leona Quarry lands. It runs through Mills College, past Evergreen Cemetery, and into the bay at 66th Avenue — it’s the stagnant creek you see from BART just north of the Coliseum.

This is one strand of its headwaters, coming out of a former pyrite mine at the end of McDonell Avenue. The local chapter of the Society for Industrial Archeology says about this mine, the Leona Heights mine, “From the 1890’s to the mid 1930’s, iron pyrite was mined here and at the nearby Alma mine. It was processed into sulfuric acid at the Stege Works of Stauffer Chemical in Richmond (and other sites).” The photo was taken in 2003; I think it’s a little better today. The orange is iron oxides, not especially poisonous, but it looks awful. As I imperfectly understand it, sulfuric acid in the drainage water drops this mineral as it is neutralized. The acid comes from sulfur-eating bacteria in the mine environment.

Yes, Oakland has its own example of the same acid mine drainage that plagues the Appalachian states and many other lands. Every place the pioneers came to, they began mining everything they could, because that was the only way to build civilization. Sulfur is essential for gunpowder, and pyrite was the readiest source. Coal came from the Contra Costa hills, mercury from San Jose and from points north, lime from the San Mateo coast (and the local shellmounds), rock of all kinds from the Oakland Hills. This place was rich in timber and pasturage, we all know, but rich in minerals too.

26 Responses to “Sulfur mine creek”

  1. Steve Munson Says:

    This is great memory stuff Jim. I too recall some jaunts around the area in the early 70’s. I wonder if all of the clean up is completed on the site above the Lincoln Square shopping center. I would assume so, given all of the development on the site.

  2. Jimmy Rait Says:

    I was born on Mountain blvd in 1949 and spent my childhood hiking in the hills above the “Tunnel” a big cement tunnel that comes out of the hills and meets Mountain blvd next to Belfast ave. A family of mountain lions lived there according to neighborhood legend! Cement Fort was what we called the big aforementioned cement structure with bolts coming out of it. Some said cement fort was an ore crusher for the gravel that was mined out of the open pit we called Devil’s Punchbowl. We hunted lizards, had rock fights and eventually beer busts as high school years became current. There were several old cars that mysteriously went off the cliff on the south end and piled up in the bottom. Alvin and Allen Martinez lived above the sulphur mine. They were close friends of mine but moved and sadly dissappeared with time.. “Red rock” was the big rock overlooking the “ledges”. and red rock cave was the tunnel that went in maybe 40 feet or so in line with the Tunnel about 1/4 mile above it making a pleasant hike in the summer months. There was also Leona creek that came down the hill by the Leona Lodge. We youngsters hiked up the creek to a mansion that was up by todays College . We would choose one from among us to steal cokes out of the machine on their patio to refresh ourselve from the hike. Our generation had our names for all the attractions that sadly have been replaced with tv video games and cell phones. We had Sand bowl, Devils punchbowl, the Monkey Tree and the Creek. I guess you can tell I miss those days and enjoy showing these historic places to the next generation. jim

  3. Andrew Says:

    That footage (thanks for the link!) is from March. I was there a few weeks later, and a crew was busily patching a bunch of small gullies that formed after a little shower. The work looks pretty, and if conditions are ideal I suppose a thick turf could protect the steep slope from gullying. But I’m not optimistic that it will withstand a good rain.

  4. Da Mappr Says:

    Haven’t been up there to check it out, but looks like the remediation work is well underway. Drone footage here:

  5. Andrew Says:

    The Chronicle reports today that the landowner, facing $10k/day fines, will finally abate the nuisance this summer. I hope so, even though I appreciate industrial landscapes in the right places.

  6. Leo Hunt Says:

    As I understand, the mine will be reclaimed (capped) and revegetated, but not with trees. As far as who will pay for it, this will cost more than the current owner can reasonably afford, so I think there are laws concerning mineral rights and legacy ownership. Therefore, you may own the land, and not be responsible for the toxic discharge. Probably the Stauffer Company and its holdings were sold off to a larger mining company who also inherited contaminated sites like this one and forgot about it (probably intentionally to avoid remediation). You’d have to be pretty leagally savy to figure out that one. Development on the mine site is probably not going to happen. I don’t understand how anyone could think of buying such a property. By the way, there are cinnabar rocks and tailings all within the overflow parking lot for Leona Lodge.

  7. Kevin S Says:

    Growing up in that area I used to wander around the fire trail and in the mines. Several people, all who I ma sure have passed away told me about the area. We always knew that it was owned by Stauffer Chemical, Once my buddies and I found what we thought was a mine shaft entrance that was sealed off with iron. We also found several smaller tunnels (mine shafts) but they didn’t go in very far before that became blocked.There are two cement structures up there. The one nearest Mtn Blvd was the SP spur. Up on the fire trail was a railway station, the ruins could be seen from the road up to the college. The rocks were broken down there and then sent down by rail to the SP spur. People told us that is was a small narrow gauge rail line. The Devils Punchbowl is where the college and home are now. There were several hills and canyons up there. There used to be BMX Races there on weekends.

  8. gard meddaugh Says:

    Around the end of WWII we used to hike thru Mills’ campus, past green lake [Lake Aliso], up the Leona Heights RR right-of-way, past Leona Park where control-line gas airplane models were flown, up Leona Creek/Laundry canyon to “big rock” and then up to “devil’s punchbowl” which I guess was the gravel mine on the ridge. We passed several mine entrances with obvious sulpher tailings which were marginally braced [how did we judge the quality of the bracing at the age of 7-10?] and didn’t go far in.

  9. Andrew Says:

    Thanks for that!

  10. Steve Says:

    Alma Mine Information, from “Report XVII of the State Mineralogist, April 1920”.
    This property, opened in 1892, is operated by the Stauffer Chemical Company, 624 California street, San Francisco. The ore body lies 1 mile north of the Leona Mine and strikes northwest and southeast, varying in width from 12 to 18 feet. It has been developed by over 5000 feet of tunnels and drifts. The old workings caught fire and were abandoned, and a new adit was driven to cut the ore body at a lower level. Gravity trams are used for hauling ore to a small crushing plant and bunkers alongside of the railroad. The ore is used by the Stauffer Chemical Company, in their plant at Stege, Contra Costa County, for the manufacture of sulphuric acid.

    Before the houses were built above the gas station at Lincoln square, I remember one of the entrances to the mine shaft. It still produces a nasty runoff when the hills get saturated by rain as no house could be build on that site. One of the shafts was right at the corner of Redwood Rd and Terrabella way. BTW – McDonnell Ave is named after President and General Manager D.A. McDonnell of the Leona Chemical Company.

  11. Andrew Says:

    Thanks, Caz. That all looks very ambitious.

  12. Caz Says:

    The residents received a copy of the amended Cleanup and Abatement Order (CAO) issued by the Water Board which includes a time table for the cleanup (complete during dry season 2013) and cleanup requirements. I found a copy of it here:

    Click to access CAO.pdf

  13. Andrew Says:

    Stacy, what does the notice say?

  14. Stacy Yglesia Says:

    The residents on Mcdonnel have received legal notice of mine clean up. They have till 4/15/13 to respond. Curious as to whether this a new housing development?

  15. Russell Yee Says:

    Here’s a fantastic map by Steve Mix.

    And this great list of historic quarries:

  16. Andrew Says:

    Douglas, what sort of tailings were they?

  17. Douglas Hawes Says:

    So where was the Alma Mine actually? My theory is that it was in the hillside located directly behind the gas station near the bottom of Redwood Road, across from the current Ethiopian Church. I think the old entrance was obliterated long ago – – but the tailings were still visible up until the 1980’s. Any theories out there?

  18. Douglas Hawes Says:

    I think the big concrete block with bolts alluded to above, directly adjacent to Mountain Boulevard, is an old support structure for the tramway system that brought down buckets of crushed rock from the Devil’s Punchbowl quarry. This quarry was located high above – – where the large Merritt College parking lot is currently located on the north side of the campus. The tramway brought down the crushed rock to waiting hopper cars lined up at the end of the Leona Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad. This five mile spur was torn up sometime in the 1930’s.

  19. Dennis Evanosky Says:

    Here’s a different version of the story you alluded to in an earlier post. It looks like it was a lot more than 3 x the amount.

    Somewhat Odd’ Land Deal Raises Questions for Community College
    April 5, 2010, 12:49 pm

    By Scott Carlson

    The Peralta Community Colleges District, in Oakland, Calif., faces questions over a land deal in which it gave up rights to a vacant lot to a developer in 2003, only to buy them back in 2008 for $300,000.

    The Contra Costa Times, a local newspaper, reports that “district officials issued a quitclaim deed on the half-acre lot near Merritt College to Dr. Collin Mbanugo, an Oakland surgeon and developer, on Dec. 1, 2003, noting that maintenance costs of the lot exceeded the land’s value. County records listed the property’s 2003 value as $5,722.” However, the college soon wanted the land back, “with administrators seeking approval to spend $300,000 to purchase the land from Mbanugo.”

    The Metropolitan Greater Oakland Democratic Club has questioned the deal. The newspaper’s reporter had difficulty getting officials from the college to respond to his own questions. Sadiq Ikharo, a vice chancellor who negotiated the 2008 purchase, did not respond to interview requests, and trustees either abruptly cut off conversations or did not return calls. A former state deputy attorney general who teaches land-use law at the University of California at Berkeley said the land deal was “somewhat odd” and “would pique my curiosity, let’s put it that way.”

  20. jason Says:

    Along the fire trail there is an odd struture, well the leftover foundation of it, with large bolts that come out of the concrete slabs. Does anyone know anything about this spot? Other than it seems to be a popular grafitti spot.

    [Yeah, I featured it here a while ago. — Andrew]

  21. Teresa Says:

    That property had a choice between high density housing and a huge solar array to provide power for Oakland. The sad decision backed by Oakland to put in housing to add to the tax base.

  22. oakruss Says:

    Went running up here along the fire road and noted a large amount of recent tree trimming and brush clearing, as if somebody is getting ready to build something. While the area is no worse than many of Oakland’s other steep & forested areas that have been developed, it’s certainly no better. I cannot imagine who would want to live in the existing, newer house that is directly adjacent to the mine runoff, including a huge pile of tailings right next to the property.

  23. Andrew Says:

    And now I see in today’s Tribune that the owner was also involved in a curious deal wherein he acquired an odd parcel of land from Merritt College and sold it back for many times the price — but the college never actually owned it, Ridgemont did. The owner is Collin Mbanugo. With the Trib’s archives locked behind a paywall, I won’t post a link, but you can look it up. Elihu Harris is implicated again, at least indirectly.

  24. Andre Says:

    Ridgemont development owned the land prior to the current owner. They were able to develope the land and were not asked to clean up the acid mine runoff.

  25. Andrew Says:

    More background information about the Leona Heights Sulfur Mine, in connection with water board hearings this week, starts on page 45 of this agenda. The mine’s owner is clearly stalling on doing anything to abate the blight. (h/t poster “Hayden” on A Better Oakland)

  26. Andrew Says:

    Last Tuesday’s Oakland Tribune had an item about this mine: the landowner is being threatened with fines for not carrying out his plan to deal with the acid drainage, part of his effort to develop the property. Apparently this steep, inaccessible, fire- and quake-prone land is zoned for disneyfication. Given the state of the housing market, it sounds like the owner is bailing out.

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