Death Valley’s Ubehebe Mine is located in one of the most remote portions of the National Park, despite that, it is an easy add-on for those visiting the Racetrack.
The Ubehebe Mine was a bit of a late bloomer in the Ubehebe Mining District, no mentions of it appear before the fall of 1907, likely because it was overshadowed by the highly publicized copper mines of Jack Salsberry. In the October 24th, 1907 edition of the Inyo Register, it simply stated in regard to the Ubehebe Mine, “Messrs. Smith and Watterson of the Inyo County bank [Bishop] have sent in supplies and are about to begin operations on an extensive scale.”
This “push” came after the Watterson’s discovered a large rock that tested to be galena (lead) while doing their required annual assessment on their claim. Further investigation uncovered a four-foot solid ledge of this ore. They put eight men to work, four working the copper, and the other four working the galena. During the assessment work, forty tons of lead ore were removed, running about $60 in silver per ton, a strike momentarily topping Salsberry’s mineral showings.
In February of 1908, it was believed that the lead vein ran through the entire mountain, and the process began to open it up with drifts on both the Racetrack and the Saline Valley sides. This made the Ubehebe the most promising lead prospect in the Ubehebe Mining District.
In March of the same year, Archibald Farrington bought into the mine with a $6,000 investment. The partnership incorporated as the Ubehebe Lead Mines Company. Construction began on a road across the valley to the railroad at Bonnie Claire, when it was completed two teams moved an average of ten tons a day to the railhead.
In preparation for the impending summer, 26,000 pounds of grain, groceries, and mining supplies were hauled to the mine.
The July 11th, 1908 issue of Mining World reported, “Watterson and his associates had organized the Ubehebe Mining Company to operate a group of 5-1/2 claims on which a tunnel had been excavated extending fifty feet and from which 1,000 tons of shipping ore were now available.” One month later the Iyo Register said, “easily the biggest undeveloped property of the kind in California.” Things looked grim with the report that the ore that was shipped to Salt Lake City for smelting only returned $40 per ton. Because of the high cost of shipping, the ore basically didn’t pay.
This brought work at the Ubehebe Mine to a crawl, and for the next several years little was accomplished other than assessment work. Sometime between 1915-1916, the Ubehebe Mining Company contracted Frank A. Campbell to transport 500 tons of ore with his Yuba ball-tread tractor, as a trial run. The trial proved successful, and Campbell and his Yuba ball-tread tractor began running ore across Death Valley for multiple mines in the district.
By 1917, the Ubehebe consisted of two tunnels, an upper one 60 feet long and a lower one 100 feet long, connected by a fifty-foot winze. By April the mine’s three employees had produced 200 tons of 60% lead ore.
In 1928 the Ubehebe property would be leased to Fred Dahlstrom and the Finkel brothers of Tonopah, Nevada. With the new lessees, things really began to turn around. The March 15th, 1928 issue of Mining Journal reported, “After paying $15 a ton transportation costs, the lessees netted $55,453 from twenty-five carloads of lead carbonate shipped to the U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Company at Salt Lake City. The ore averaged about 64% lead, 17 ozs. silver, 704 gold, and 1.7% zinc, and because of its adaptability for flux, gained for its shippers an additional $1 to $3 per ton bonus.” The maximum annual recorded production of lead and silver for mines in the Ubehebe area in 1928 was attained by the Ubehebe Mine, which produced 1,120,343 lbs. of lead, 1,523 lbs. of copper, 15,222 ozs. of silver, and 17 ozs. of gold.
Mining operations continued at the Ubehebe at some level through 1968 by multiple lessees, each with their own varying level of success.
For a majority of the operating period the camp consisted of a main house with two bedrooms and a kitchen. The bedrooms were outfitted with beds for the workers, and the kitchen a coal-burning stove. A second house was partially built, but never completed due to the lack of need.
Death Valley National Park’s Historic Resource Study reports that, “The mine workings consisted of two major tunnels, three short ones, and several cuts and shallow shafts penetrating the steep ridge. The Tram tunnel was located on the opposite side of the ridge from the camp, about 200 feet above the main tunnel. Ore from here was transported to the ore bin at the lower tunnel portal by a single-bucket tramway operated by a ten-horsepower gas engine on top of the ridge. Wheelbarrows brought the ore out of the tunnel to the tramway terminal. The Ubehebe Group now consisted of thirteen unpatented lode claims–the Butte Nos. 3-10 and West Extension Butte #3 in the lead zone, and the Copper Bell and Copper Bell Nos. 1-3 in the copper area to the east–plus the Quartz Spring Claim. No water supply existed on site.”
Today very little remains of the Ubehebe Mining operation, the National Park Service sites “weathering, washing, and obvious vandalism” as the main reasons for the deterioration of the historic mining site. The house that once provided shelter for the workers has collapsed, the only part of the structure that resembles a house is the A-frame roof which is sitting on top of the fallen siding. Part of the tramway can be viewed from below, dangling from the mountain side; while ore cart tracks lead out of the sealed mine shaft below. The tracks lead to a wooden ore bin, which is situated below a massive pile of tailings.
Overall, a large portion of the history here has been erased, which is very sad considering less than 50 years ago the Ubehebe Mine was still actively being mined. For the mining enthusiast it is still a worthwhile stop if you have already made the long and bumpy trip to visit the sailing rocks of the Racetrack Playa, but I wouldn’t recommend a special trip just to visit the Ubehebe Mine.