Signs of the old Alma Mine

I devote a chapter of my upcoming book to Leona Heights, where I review the human history of this much-disturbed area and introduce the geologic history of the much-disturbed rocks.

There were three waves of digging in these hills. The Ohlones started it thousands of years ago, harvesting ocher for a thriving regional trade. In 1891, Fritz Boehmer resumed ocher mining in earnest to supply his paint factory. Then the Realty Syndicate, trying to make a few bucks from its vast land holdings, opened a rock quarry where Merritt College sits today. That was in 1896.

Finally Boehmer, whose ocher operation had ended when his factory burned down, found amazing deposits of pyrite ore next to Redwood Road and got into the pyrite business in 1900, opening a mine that he named after his daughter. The Alma Mine produced ore for the next 21 years, one of several pyrite mines in these hills.

Records of those mines are scant and confusing; some appear to have changed names with new owners, and all the shafts and adits (well, almost all) have been sealed. But I’m pretty sure about the Alma Mine: where it was and what it left behind.

Supposedly the first tunnel was dug near Fritz Boehmer’s roadhouse on Redwood Road, which appears to have been where the Lincoln Square Shopping Center sits today. I’m going to show a bunch of maps now. The shopping center’s next to the Warren Freeway, route 13, at the upper left corner of the next two images, a 2006 aerial photo and a blend of the digital elevation model with streets half-superimposed.

The 1915 topo map shows Redwood Road as it used to be, with a symbol where the mine was. It’s where the gas station is today, or under Terrabella Way.

An old-timer told the Oakland Tribune in 1950 that “friction set fire to the ore about 1908. The shaft was blocked off and the company moved operations further around Redwood Road, digging another tunnel to hit the same deposit at right angles.” Plagued by repeated fires from pyrite dust and the mining collapse that followed World War I, the Alma Mine ceased business in 1921.

The next edition of the topo map was issued in 1947, after Redwood Road had been rebuilt, and there was no sign of the mine, or any other structure, from the earlier map.

But aerial photos from the intervening years show what happened. This image from 1939 shows the old course of Redwood Road and the wasteland of tailings left below the first mine site. The second mine entrance was to the east, at the point of the sharp bend in the road. There appears to have been an ore transport line going from there straight southwest down to the old train tracks that used to run beside Lion Creek.

A year later, the area was being rebuilt as a Key Line streetcar route was pushed up Redwood Road, driving residential development past the upper Laurel toward the future Crestmont neighborhood.

This 1947 airphoto shows the new configuration of Redwood Road along with the ghost of the old road. The former mine pit was being mitigated and the new road exposed a lot of fresh rock; at the same time, land was being cleared along the big curve for new structures. (A ground-level photo from 1949 shows the rugged walls of the old pit.)

The 1958 topo map, with updates to 1980 in purple, shows how thoroughly the area was transformed after that.

Which brings us to today. Here’s a closeup of the 2006 imagery with the locations of the following photos I took last week.

The pavement entering Terrabella Way is deeply eroded by acid runoff from the exposed rocks, which are still full of pyrite.

And the iron oxides left behind continue to form fresh ocher.

The 1940s roadcut below Terrabella Place is strongly colored by iron oxides. It’s why this area was rich enough to support a mine.

It will take a long time for vegetation to cover the scene of the old mine.

The pit is really rather deep here. Now it holds the Redwood Reservoir, a big steel tank. I could definitely come back and spend an hour with these rocks.

And then there’s down below, on Geranium Place, where the old mine tailings plus the road construction have left bad ground. That caught my eye a few years ago, and it’s just as bad as ever.

When it comes to mines, especially pyrite mines, the past is never really past.

It’s a bit frustrating reaching the limits of the available information. There are surely other records out there I could consult, but not during a pandemic.

4 Responses to “Signs of the old Alma Mine”

  1. Karl Hans Says:

    Pyrite, as the historic source of sulfur, was used to make sulfuric acid
    at the former Stauffer Chemical Company (then former Zeneca site) in Richmond, CA which started manufacturing sulfuric acid in the late 1890s using pyrite from the Leona site. They later switched their primary source to the Iron Mountain (near Redding) Richmond Addit. The Stauffer site became one of the top ten “toxic hot spots” in the SF Bay Area, cleaned up under the Bay Protection and Toxic Cleanup Program in the early 2000’s, mostly due to the pyrite cinder leachate (in addition there was mercury from the former neighboring California Cap Company, probably sourced at the south bay New Almaden mines). Pyrite cinder acid leachate is a worldwide problem as sulfuric acid is one of the top industrial chemicals produced for multiple uses.

  2. Andrew Alden Says:

    For a few decades, pyrite was the main source of industrial sulfur. Then they discovered the deep sulfur beds on the Gulf coast and elsewhere, which could be mined just by drilling a hole and injecting steam to melt it, and that was the end of the pyrite mines.

  3. Michael Thomas Garrison Says:

    Hi Andrew. Nice article about the old Alma Mine. Back in 1981 when I was working for the USGS I came across the adit symbols for the mine on a geologic quad map covering this part of Alameda County. The site geology was ideal for pyritization of deeply weathered volcanic rock (Leona Rhyolite), so I paid a visit to the tailings pile at Germanium Place. There wasn’t a fenced enclosure back then and the surface was mostly free of vegetation, so collecting samples of the tailings was easy. I found a lot of massive pyrite weathering out of what appeared to be several poorly exposed vein deposits, as well as numerous small (0.5 to 1.5 cm diameter) nicely formed pyritohedrons as float. I returned to the site several times during ’81 to see if there were any better specimens to be had, but had no luck. I kept some of the better quality pyrite crystals… still have ’em. Along with the Bear Peak amygdaloidal basalt (nice agate nodules) and the selenite gypsum crystals at the Black Diamond Mine, the Alma pyrites were a favorite nearby collecting opportunity.

    Mike Garrison Lawrence Livermore National Lab — 808-463-8488

  4. Michael Says:

    What is the product made from pyrite?

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