I learned of the Old Swede Mine just as the summer heat began to explode in and around Joshua Tree’s Pinto Basin. For whatever reason the summer wasn’t kind to me this year, keeping me from pursuing extensive hikes and staying closer to established roads. Maybe I’m getting older, or maybe it was just a case of summer burn out. I don’t know. But what I do know is that the idea of getting out to visit the Old Swede swirled through my mind during those few months.
In mid-September with temperatures beginning to wane I decided that it was time to strap my hiking shoes on and make the five and a half-mile hike across a stretch of the Pinto Basin to the Old Swede Mine. The Old Swede Mine is located in a very remote canyon in the Pinto Mountains, there are no open access roads that reach the mine, it is surrounded by the wilderness. The two-track road that once served the mine has been almost completely been taken back by the desert, with creosote and cacti growing up where wheels once spun.
I started my morning early, awaking around 5:30am. I drove out to where I decided to start the hike along Old Dale Road, arriving around 7am. I had hiked in this area before, finding what I dubbed “The Jug Mine,” a couple of miles east of Old Dale Road, but I hadn’t ventured past there. I expected an easy, but somewhat tedious hike. The duration would literally be a straight line across wide open desert until I reached the mouth of the unnamed canyon.
When I left the confines of my Jeep the temperature gauge read a beautiful 78°F, but the temperature seemed to rise quickly as I began my hike across the basin. After passing the hills where the “Jug Mine” is located I was drenched in sweat. It poured down my face, into my eyes. It felt like a hundred fire ants had suddenly descended upon my eyes.
It was about this time that I was able to see my destination in the distance, a bench rose up off of the desert floor and started up the Pinto Mountains. The terrain began changing, no longer a flat even surface, the ground was slathered with various sized rocks that had washed down from the mountains. This made me slow down a bit, the last thing that I needed was to find myself biting rock from being in too much of a hurry. Nevertheless I still managed to bust out the five and a half miles in just shy of two hours.
The closer that I got to the mountains the more alive the desert became. A variety of cacti ranging from barrel, cholla, pencil, and fox tails covered the ground. Some of the largest ocotillo plants that I’ve ever seen were thriving here, many of their branches were as wide as small trees.
The last mile of the trek was up an old road that connects in from a further north up on Old Dale Mine Road. The road appeared at one time to be well used, having been rebuilt in stretches that had given out. These rebuilt sections were reinforced with stone walls. I expected that I’d start coming across scattered rubbish from the mines rather quickly but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t until the tailing pile of one of the three adits that make up the claim came into view on the side of the canyon that I found the location of a tent camp with an array of old rusty cans, one of which clearly read, “Schilling’s Best 16oz.”
Schilling’s was a major importer of coffee, tea, baking powder, extracts, and spices. They began operating in 1881, merging with McCormick in 1946. McCormick continued using the Schilling name in the western states until 2002. I haven’t been able to find anything that has allowed me to date the Schilling’s Best can, but I assume that it is from the early 1900’s.
Along with the Schillings can I found sherds of broken purple glass, a metal bowl, and a slew of discarded cans that are well on their way to disintegrating into the earth.
From the tent camp I followed the road further up the canyon, rounding a bend the road came to an end at the site of where an old wooden building had once stood. Some of the lumber remained standing in place, but most was scattered about. The cabin had sat upon a raised stone platform, sitting in the middle was a rust tinted Majestic Electric Refrigerator, Model 170. Amazingly it was in pretty decent condition considering the length of time that it has likely been exposed to the elements. The latch on the door still worked, and the shelves remained on the inside. Majestic began selling the Model 170 in 1931 for $74.62 (around $1,200 in 2016).
An array of miscellaneous artifacts lay strung around the cabin site, from tin cans, to unbroken and broken glass jars and jugs, and even machinery parts.
I found myself disappointed when I went to check out the mines, all three adits had been bat-caged by the National Park Service in their continuous efforts of creating a nanny state in Joshua Tree. I knew going in that this was a possibility, but part of me suspected that the Old Swede may have eluded the Park Service as some other remote mines have. Not the case this time, unfortunately the mine adits sit just a few hundred feet within the park boundaries. Damn you, Joshua Tree.
I was able to find the following details describing the three adits in a Bat Monitoring Report created for Holistic Wildlife LLC in 2010:
“OP 1 is 225 feet long, with seasonal water flowing into the mine. The mine is very warm and humid with a southern exposure of the opening.”
“OP 2 is 115 feet long, with a short blind offshoot to the left at the 40 foot mark. That may have functioned as a powder room, or simply storage. The portal of OP 2 has a west-northwest exposure. It is a warm mine, but cooler, drier and less humid than OP3.”
“OP 3 has an easterly exposure, and is a warm mine, although it is the coolest and driest of the 3 adits. It is a 2 level mine, with the lower level being 160 feet long. The upper level is accessed by climbing up about 12 feet, at the 40 foot mark of the mine. The upper level is also connected by a stope/shaft about 15 feet down to the bottom level at the 95 foot mark. The upper level continues past this shaft another 15 feet. The lower level continues another 65 feet past the shaft connecting it with the upper level.”
I paused for about an hour and had lunch consisting of a Mountain House, Chicken & Noodle meal. As I was enjoying my rehydrated dehydrated pouch of chicken goodness the sky that had been a bright blue quickly became saturated with clouds, alleviating the intense sunshine, making the trek back across the Basin bearable.
In regard to historic details of the Old Swede Mine, well…there aren’t any to be found. The NPS Historic Resource Study makes no mention of the mine, there are no newspaper clippings, and no mentions in any geological or mineralogy reports that I’ve been able to find.
Based on artifacts at both the tent and cabin sites I assume that the mine was active from sometime in the 1920’s – 1930’s, possibly earlier. Since there was no mill on site, ore was most likely processed five miles east at the Sunrise Mill. It is possible that the mine was operated at least for a period by the Sunrise Group, who during the same time period operated Zulu, Outlaw, and Sunrise, all mines located on the north side of the Pinto Basin.
Despite not being able to access the mines it was still an enjoyable trek into an area that is seldom visited and with a decent amount of surface artifacts.