The pyrite orebody of Leona Heights

Through historical accident (or fate), I’ve been a longtime reader of the late Oakland fiction author Jack Vance. As it happens, Vance was exposed to geology by coursework in mining engineering at UC Berkeley, and one of the most charming and memorable features of his Planet of Adventure series, written in the late 1960s, was the mineralogical currency of the planet Tschai, called sequins.

In volume 3 of the four-book series, we learn that sequins grow in a locality controlled by the alien Dirdir species, who amuse, enrich and feed themselves by hunting the sequin hunters. Sequins come in a range of colors, the clear ones being worth the least and the rare purple ones the most. I no longer have the text in front of me, but I remember them growing out of the ground, literally cropping out. Over at Tor.com, reviewer Paul Weimer does have (and loves) the text and reveals the additional detail that sequins consist of “a uranium mineral called chrysospine.”

The name is mineralogical fantasy, and possibly misleading in that “chryso-” refers to a golden or light green color. But come to think of it, uranium impurities often turn minerals brown from radiation damage, and radiation damage to an originally clear or golden mineral might result in a fair purple by analogy with “sun ripened” glass. An analogy with ripening fruit, too, is irresistible.

In populating his planet with this precious crystalline substance that grows in the ground like mushrooms, Vance evokes truly ancient geological notions that are natural among people who know nothing beyond the most basic alchemy. Gold Rush California saw a lot of that pre-industrial thinking among the amateur prospectors who scoured the state, and the Cornish miners who worked in the hard-rock Mother Lode mines brought along their own ancient customs and superstitions.

In Oakland, the people who exploited the pyrite in the Leona Heights mining district didn’t have the advantage of magic. But Fritz Boehmer, the canny Prussian immigrant who spearheaded mining in these hills, was apparently prone to dreams of earthly wealth, a deep California trait. He was not especially well educated, having apprenticed in metalworking. When he learned of the ore underneath his ocher deposit — one story is that he was digging postholes for a cattle fence, another that “a Japanese” was seeking water for a large fish pond — he thought he had an iron and copper mine, but the professionals set him straight. The copper was only a few percent (although later it was by-produced in paying quantities) and the iron was waste; the money from pyrite (FeS2) was in the sulfur. He let the Stauffer Chemical Company run the mines and gave scientists of the time free access to them.


Pyrite on quartz

The mines ran, interrupted by fires, for about 30 years starting in the 1890s. There were at least three of them. Records are confusing and I’m still trying to sort them out.

The best ore in Leona Heights was in pods of hard, dark, solid pyrite yielding 50 percent clean sulfur that sat, like layers of frosting in a chocolate cake, within a zone 12 to 30 feet thick that tilted into the hillside. The people who published papers about this district scratched their heads at the deposits. They all concluded that the Leona volcanics (“Leona rhyolite” as they knew it) was so jammed with pyrite that the upper part weathered into iron oxides (which stayed behind as the ocherous “iron cap” or gossan) and iron sulfate, which leached down in solution and was reduced back to pyrite beneath the water table in the so-called vadose zone, where it was exposed to a lot of carbonaceous material.


Fine-grained pyrite concentrated in the Leona volcanics, Campus Drive

The trouble with the kind of intermittent research these geologists pursued in the operating mines is that each person who visited the workings saw a different set of rocks. The Leona Heights mines were also prone to fires, so parts were off limits for years at a time, or abandoned.

Henry Mulryan, in a 1925 Master’s thesis, summarized the previous work and consulted their authors, but with several parts of the mines closed off by fires he failed to find any of that carbon-rich rock in the areas he had access to. Unable to prove anything one way or the other, he was forced to punt, saying he would rather wait and see what further digging revealed at depth. “If the Leona Orebody is derived under vadose conditions, then it is the only one known to the writer and should take its place in the world’s literature on ore deposits.” (I too am skeptical about this carbonaceous rock, but the Oakland Hills are complicated here so who knows?)

That was a hundred years ago, before geologists made huge strides in understanding this class of “volcanogenic massive sulfide deposit,” not to mention a scientific revolution, in the years between then and now. Meanwhile the mines are long closed and will never be reopened. The samples, if they still exist, are gathering dust in obscure cabinets. I’ve read all the contemporary literature (except for some theses — Leona Heights seemed to be a handy subject for Stanford and Berkeley students at the time), which is an absorbing chore because the records are sketchy by modern standards and the terminology has changed. But there are rewards; Mulryan had some good photos of the Leona sulfur mine circa 1924.


Looking west on the Leona Mine. The hook in the road is at the end of McDonell Avenue. The rail line carried ore cars to the crusher, then to a 1600-foot aerial tram that carried the ore to the train in Laundry Farm canyon. Chabot Observatory in the background.

I’m still scratching my head about the Leona Heights pyrite, and I find myself envying Jack Vance’s freedom of imagination. Reality can be tough; you can’t just make up something wonderful.

2 Responses to “The pyrite orebody of Leona Heights”

  1. mpetrof Says:

    The inestimably curious John C. and I went to the area about 8-10 years ago. One particular site was being sealed by the city because of the sulfuric acid run-off. We we’re still able to get in and did find some bits of low quality pyrite. We, John actually, found a site where native Americans had ‘mined’ ochre. There is one decent size on city park land that wasn’t totally bereft of indications of the pyrite extraction although I don’t remember gleaning any samples from there.

  2. Amelia Sue Marshall Says:

    Amazing photo over the mine. Was this taken from the top of the major Leona Quarry, that is now being infilled with dwellings?

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