County: San Bernardino
Primary Mineral: The mill (arrastra) was associated with at least one gold mine. The main one can be found on the hill above. Another possibly related mine can be found in the next canyon over.
Years of Operation: The builder of the arrastra and the name of the mine(s) is unknown. The National Park Service estimates that the arrastra was built in the 1930s.
Nearest City or Landmark: Near the Pinto Wye (a "Y" shaped merge of Park Blvd). and Pinto Basin Road, inside Joshua Tree National Park
Depth: The two mines possibly associated with the arrastra are both shallow, less than 30 feet deep.
|The actual name of the mine associated with this mill is unknown. There's a second one in the next canyon.|
There are dozens of areas and artifacts within Joshua Tree that the National Park Service doesn’t publicize, in their literature or on their maps. The Pinto Wye arrastra falls into that category. There are no trails to it, and you’ll have to do your homework to find it, but it’s a one of a kind artifact and rare historical find.
|Closeup of the sweep and drag stone. Four of these stones were dragged along the circular floor.|
Actually arrastras aren’t all that rare. You can find old arrastra pits all over the Mojave desert, and a few others within the Joshua Tree boundaries. But finding one with the original wooden wheel and pivot mechanics is rare. And the Pinto Wye “wagon wheel” arrastra is “one of a kind”. The Library of Congress lists it as “the only wagon wheel arrastra yet found possessing integrity of location and construction.”
|Here's what the arrastra once looked like, discovered in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.|
The Pinto Wye arrastra actually has no given name. Nor does the mine associated with it. The "dubbed named" comes from a nearby “wye” or “Y shape” where Pinto Basin Road meets Park Blvd. No one knows who owned it or what the true name of the mine was. According to the Library of Congress it was depression era mill, built sometime back in the 1930s.
|illustration by the Historic American Engineering Record, in association with the National Park Service.|
This mill was discovered in the 1960s and was in fairly bad shape, which you can see by scrolling up a few photos. Since then it’s been repaired and added to the National Registry of Historic Places. Personally I would have preferred seeing it in its original condition, but eventually it would have fallen to pieces, so I understand why the repairs were made.
|This is the mine known to be associated with the arrastra. It's a shallow one, on the hill behind the mill.|
The mine associated with the arrastra is high up on a hillside above the mill. You can see it from a distance if you look for the tailings. On the way to the mine you’ll pass remnants of the old camp. This mine is not a deep one, but would be typical for a small operation using an arrastra as its ore crusher. I’m guessing there were only two or three miners involved in this venture. There’s another small mine in the next canyon over, which may or may not be related. Both mines are crumbly, and I would suggest staying out.
|This was a relatively small mining operation. Ore from the mine was processed into amalgam by the arrastra.|
What Is An Arrastra?
An arrastra, sometimes spelled "arrastre" is an ancient milling device use to crush and process ore. This originates from the Spanish word arrastrar, “to drag along the ground”. Mexican miners sometimes called arrastras “rastras”. Though slow and crude, these mills were inexpensive to build and were often used for small and remote mining operations.
|An unidentified artifact found near the arrastra. A miner's camp was also found, about 1/4 mile from the mine.|
The Mexican method of constructing these units was to lay a circular, level track of stone, with a low wall around the outside.In the center a post sometimes made of a tree was cut off, and another small tree was used to create a horizontal shaft. This arm was attached to one or more large stones, which were dragged around the circular pit by donkey, grinding the quartz into powder. Gold being the heaviest element would naturally fall into the lowest places. Quicksilver (mercury) and water were added to the pulpy mix of crushed quartz causing the gold to become amalgamated. The “gold amalgam” was then collected out of the cracks and low places. The remaining mercury would then be heated into vapor and run through a small tube where it would be turned back into its liquid form, for future use.
|A sculpted rock next to the miner's camp. There's a rock shelter nearby that I didn't know about at the time.|
While most arrastras were powered by mules or water wheels, a small number used steam, gasoline engines or even electricity. The one you see on this page was powered by a four-horsepower International upright gasoline engine, which rotated a highly unusual bull wheel, made from two stacked wagon wheels surrounded by a circular frame. The arms that pulled the drag stones along the stone floor were called sweeps. and the outer wall was called coping stone. An arrastra of this size would have processed about five hundred pounds of ore at a time. This was a very slow process, the wheel turned about eight revolutions per minute. At this rate it would require from three to four hours to grind one batch sufficiently.
|Old bed springs found at the miner's camp. There were also numerous cans and a few broken dishes.|
Water was added to the stone floor as the ore was ground, which would eventually turn into a pulpy mix. About 3/4 of an hour before a batch was thoroughly ground, quicksilver (mercury) was added. Depending on the richness of the quartz, five hundred pounds of tailings would contain about three quarters of an ounce of gold. Using the right amount of quicksilver was somewhat of a science. which had to be kept free of grease to insure a proper distillation retort (heating into a gas form), a recovery method to retrieve the mercury for its next use. The final mix of gold recovered was called amalgam. Arrastras were mainly used for gold ore, but sometimes for silver.
|An old tobacco tin found near the miner's camp. Remains suggest that this was a very small mining operation.|
|This is a second mine I found in a nearby canyon. I'm not sure it was related to the same mining operation.|
In one famous case, a hat maker named Boston Corbett who became a soldier in the Civil War was sent out to track and capture John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Troops were given specific orders to take Booth alive, but Corbett disobeyed orders and, during what he described as a religious vision, killed Booth. Corbett was considered a religious zealot. He had castrated himself with a pair of scissors years before, to curb his labido. After the war he went back to the hat making industry, and eventually ended up in a mental asylum after threatening a group of people with a gun. He disappeared from the facility and was never found. It is my opinion that long term exposure to mercury led to the strange behavior, health problems and eventual death of Johnny Lang, who once owned the nearby Lost Horse Mine. You can read Lang's story by clicking here … Lost Horse Mine
|A view from inside the second mine. This one is crumbly and I would recommend staying out of it.|
There’s something about desert towns. They seem like something out of yesteryear, as if time stopped in the 1950s. Old buildings never get torn down, and weird abandoned shacks dot the landscape. The Joshua Tree area has always been a magnet for artists and other misunderstood outcasts. Most people who live out here are either somehow related to the military, broke and looking for solitude, or working in the creative fields. Each time I drive down Twentynine Palms Highway something new and strange catches the corner of my eye. A randomly placed WWII bomb mounted on a concrete slab, welded dinosaurs standing watch next to the road, a giant cowboy next to a service station. It goes on and on. Stopping to take photos isn’t always easy, there’s not always a good place to pull over. And the people who live here aren't always friendly towards outsiders. Slowly and surely I’m putting together an album of the oddities I've come across throughout the Mojave and other California deserts. You can see the beginning of my collection here ... Desert Oddities.
|One of many roadside oddities on Twentynine Palms Hwy. This desert is a magnet for creative people.|
Pioneertown - Revisited
|Pioneertown was a western movie set built in the 1940s. Today it's open to the public with no admission cost.|
This town had one of the oldest continually running bowling alleys in California, called Pioneer Bowl. Roy Rogers himself rolled out the first ball in 1949. The bowling alley finally closed in 2010. Every episode of Gene Autry’s show was filmed there. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame and other notable musicians frequently played inside a building called Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace. Today Pioneertown is an actual small town, with a population of 350 people. It nearly burned down in 2006 during the Sawtooth Complex Fire, but firefighters were able to save it. There’s no admission charge and it’s open 365 days a year. Click here for more photos of Pioneertown.
|A randomly parked western buggy found beside the road near Joshua Tree. I think it's an ad for Pioneertown.|
|A makeshift memorial for Gram Parsons at Cap Rock. The Park Service occasionally sandblasts this site.|
|Gram died of a overdose at this inn, which event began a series of events. including the theft of his body.|
|This concrete slab was originally located at Cap Rock. It was eventually relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn.|
Additional Photos - Pinto Wye Arrastra
All watermarked photos are copyrighted and cannot be used without my consent.