Mine: Monument to Milk Mogul's Mistake
By: Robert M. Gettemy, Times Staff Writer
May 13, 1974
TRABUCO CANYON -- It's not certain how news of a vaunted rich tin strike in Trabuco Canyon traveled across the continent to New York milk magnet Gail Borden around the turn of the century.
It is certain, however, that some five years and $1.5 million later Borden, president of the milk company that bears his name, had learned the hard way that tin mining, as he went about it, was not a game for tinhorns.
Now, nearly 68 years after the machinery of the Santa Ana Tin Mining Co. rumbled to a final halt, county supervisors have ordered a study to determine if the old mine is worthy of preservation as a historical site.
It must be said it looks historical with weathered buildings, ore carts and scattered machinery serving as graphic reminders that life once pulsed there.
J.A. Comer, a Geologist, started the chain of events that let to formation of the mining company in 1901 when he announced he had discovered rich tin ore in Trabuco Canyon.
On the basis of his record as locater of one of the famed 20 Mule Team Borax mines in Death Valley, Comer's statement had some weight.
He must have believed it for within two years he and his brother, L.C. Comer, had filed 54 claims in the canyon.
About the time Comer made his "strike," Borden and his fellow milk producers were in a bind due to a new decree by the U.S. health agency that all milk containers must be covered and sterilized. That meant wooden buckets commonly used to transport milk were now unlawful. This was before the era of bottled milk.
To heighten the problem, no tin was being produced in the United States to make containers.
So perhaps Comer's "strike" struck Border as the solution to his dilemma and he set about forming the Santa Ana Tin Mining Co. with himself as secretary, J.A. Comer was general manager.
Although there had been some mining in the canyon since 1887 when Jake Yaeger, a Fullerton wheelwright, started mining his quartz claim, there never had been such a whirlwind of activity as that produced by the new mining company.
The mill, which still stands, ran its lofty way up the mountainside and was solidly planted by 26-inch thick redwood beams more than 30 feet high.
Other one-story buildings, also still standing, sprang up around the mill commissary, assay office, blacksmith shop and office.
About a half-mile below the mine Surprise City, a cluster of miners' cottages, was build, but the dwellings were washed away in the flood of 1916.
In the mill a 40-ton Llewellyn stamp mill was installed along with a 75-horse oil-burning Atlas engine, dynamo cyanide digesting tanks, hoisting machinery, a rock crusher and a compressor.
More than 1000 feet of shafts and tunnels were burrowed into the mountain around the area.
Despite all this activity, by 1903 the only tin in Trabuco Canyon was in the form of food containers from the grocery store.
And the investment had run to about $1 million which made Border decide his company had been milked long enough.
More capital was sought by selling stock to the public at $1 a share and the riches of the mine were praised in a 32-page brochure which contained such fascinating historical facts as "Queen Isabella's cat and Emperor Frederick's hunting birds ate from tin eating dishes."
Questions arose later as to the richness of the tin ore and the validity of the company's land title which shook the buying publics faith.
Nevertheless on May 15, 1906, the serenity of Trabuco Canyon was shattered with the ear-splitting roar of machinery at last processing the "rich" tin ore.
Probably the most terse record of a mining operation was inscribed over a doorway. It read:
"May 15, 1906
"May 17, busted
"May 24, started
"June 24, stopped."
That meant the mine was in actual operation 34 days at a cost of about $45,000 a day, considering the $1.5 million investment.
Borden might have been wiser to have sought other metals in the canyon.
The January, 1925, edition of "Mining in California," covering the years from 1888 to 1923, lists gold, silver, lead, zinc as among the metals found in Orange County.
Despite J.A. Comer's trumpeting of a tin strike and Borden's $1.5 million worth of faith in him, the book announces:
"No ores containing tin were discovered."
Jim Sleeper at the last remaining tin mine building - 1993
Photo by OC Register
Tin Mine Today
The tin mine was standing until the mid 1970's and was in surprisingly good condition with offices still stocked with supplies. The bunkhouse table still had a tablecloth on it.
Since the 1920s, a man by the name of Glen S. Gunn, has maintained a mining lease on the old diggings by performing some work each year.
However, this claim was called into question. The Forest Service referred to the mine was an "attractive nuisance."
The Orange County Planning Commission called the mine "a historical site worthy of preservation." Unfortunately, the supervisors decided that this piece of Orange County history was not worth keeping and all that remains today is a rock wall.
Information above courtesy of:
William Schreiber, Daily Pilot Staff
Remains of the tin mine.
Photo by Johanna Browne