Boothite: Oakland’s own mineral

This is the story of two Germans and their meeting long ago in Leona Heights.

Fritz Boehmer was a Prussian, born in 1831 in Magdeburg and trained in ironworking in his father’s foundry. In 1848, word arrived in Europe about fabulous deposits of gold in California, on the opposite side of the world. Europe was bursting in liberal-led revolution that year, shaking the continent’s political foundations from end to end and overseas. It was a restless time. When Fritz’s brother Eduard joined a group planning to sail to the gold country, Fritz begged leave of their newly widowed mother to see his brother off in Bremerhaven — and then climbed aboard himself, landing at San Francisco six months later as the world rushed in. In 1851, a shrewd and lucky man just twenty years old with a small fortune in gold, Boehmer bought a 160-acre plot in what is now downtown Oakland and embarked on a busy life that did not end until his death in 1910 and burial in Mountain View Cemetery. He was known for his generosity, good humor and love of song.

Boehmer was a founding father of the city of Alameda and had his home and main business there, a grocery, but he took a keen interest in his 92-acre holding in the hills east of Oakland along the old road to the redwoods, in the headwaters of Lion Creek behind the scenic grassy valley long known as Laundry Farm. He liked to call his place Friedrichsruhe, after Count von Bismarck’s country lodge near Hamburg, and his parties there were reported in the newspapers. (The papers and Boehmer’s 1904 reminiscence are where I learned most of the information in this post.)

Boehmer cast a shrewd eye over his land on Redwood Road, particularly its springs. He seized upon a story about Lion Creek told by an old Indian, who recalled that Lion Creek had roared with water after the major Santa Cruz Mountains earthquake of 1838. Although this phenomenon is now widely known among earthquake geologists (and my regular readers), Boehmer took it to mean that his land held a large underground river, and if he could tap that reservoir he could enter the water business.

In the 1890s his attention turned to the large natural deposit of ocher on his land, formerly a major resource for the Ohlone tribes and their trading partners. Soon he erected a mill at the site and launched a factory in Alameda that turned the ocher into “a good article of domestic paint.” The mill burned down a few years later, but by that time the deposit was nearly played out. Besides, he was busy subdividing his land and managing a hotel by Redwood Road, which he had paid to reroute at a lower grade. (If you can believe it, the old “blue road” was even steeper than today.)

Boehmer continued to keep his eye on the ground. In 1898 he was showing people chunks of rock from underneath the ocher, bearing veins of yellow metallic minerals, and spoke of mining gold and copper. That was the year when Laundry Farm was rebranded as Leona Heights by real-estate schemers with a plan to run an electric rail line there and sell lots to individual homebuilders.

By 1900 he had opened the Alma Mine, named for his daughter, and was selling trainloads of pyrite (the yellow mineral in question) to a chemical company that manufactured sulfuric acid from it. The professors of geology and mining and chemistry at UC Berkeley were visitors to his mine, and that’s how he met the second German.

View of Redwood Road from the west, 1949. The Alma Mine entrances were north of the road, between the two clumps of trees and in the pit at rear right. Oakland Library History Room image.

Waldemar Schaller was actually German-American, an Oakland native born to immigrant parents in 1882 and still living at home while he attended the Cal mining college. He undoubtedly spoke German at home. Later he described his early years: “As a boy I found my greatest pleasure in roaming over the hills around San Francisco Bay, collecting minerals and rocks, making many trips to Tiburon Peninsula hunting for lawsonite . . .” It was Andrew Lawson himself who nurtured his interest in geology, and Edward Booth of the chemistry department who introduced him to the Alma Mine.

Fritz Boehmer in 1901; Waldemar Schaller in 1939 (S. F. Chronicle/Mineralogical Society of America)

The brilliant young student of mineralogy got along well with the jovial old mine owner, who gave Schaller the run of his specimen collection. In 1903, still an undergraduate, Schaller published a 17-page paper in which he described the crystallography and chemistry of a dozen different copper and iron sulfide and sulfate minerals (plus red and yellow ocher) from the mine.

One of them, a delicate sky-blue hydrated copper sulfate, was new to science, and after providing a full description of its characteristics Schaller gave it the name boothite and established the Alma Mine as its type locality.

Later that year, Schaller won a position with the U.S. Geological Survey and remained there for the rest of his long and illustrious career. He described and named an impressive 41 minerals before his death in 1967. Boothite was his first — the kind of early triumph that can put someone on an epic path of achievement.

A few specimens from this historic locality are still extant. Maybe some have been handed down to living Oaklanders.

3 Responses to “Boothite: Oakland’s own mineral”

  1. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    This posting is a wonderful Solstice gift to your readers, Andrew! I was unfamiliar with the history of Boehmer and did not know that his daughter was the namesake of the Alma Mine. And the picture of Redwood Road is priceless.

  2. masseyferguson Says:

    I have often wondered about the “Blue road,” also called the “Blue Hill road,” and what its route might have been. I have an idea. Here’s some articles which mention it:

    The “blue” has to refer to serpentinite, yes? I’m also digging into what the McNally road was. Related, I think.

    There’s a nice chunk of serpentinite that recently fell down from the road cut, two turns up Skyline from Joaquin Miller:


    [Yes, the “blue road” undoubtedly was named for the serpentine rock along the ridgetop and downslope toward the Bay. — Andrew]

  3. evanosky2014 Says:

    Very cool. Thanks, Andrew.

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