In Search Of Fun And Precious Metals On The California-Nevada Line
As talk of rich strikes at Virginia City, Bodie and Aurora spread, adventurous prospectors from California's Gold Country flocked to the Eastern Sierra and high desert. By the 1870s, the Sweetwater Mountains on the California/Nevada border crawled with fortune seekers. These mineralized mountains skirted California's Bridgeport Valley, the Antelope Valley, and Nevada's bustling "Esmeralda" mining district.
California's Gold Country crept from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valley floors to approximately 5,500-foot elevation on the west side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. By contrast, the Sweetwater's riches nestled beneath high peaks -- more like the legendary mines of Colorado. Mining camps like Star City and Belfort rested between 10,000 and 11,000 feet. Even Virginia City, notorious for its harsh winters, stood at a mere 6,200-foot elevation, and Bodie lay at 8,300 feet. Determined to find riches, eager miners spent July through October plying the canyons and timberline zones of the Sweetwater Range.
Over time, the larger mines ran deep into the mountainsides, clambering for silver and gold. While production in the Sweetwater Range was a mere fraction of the nearby Bodie, Aurora, and Masonic deposits, there was enough ore to keep smaller operations functioning through the Great Depression Era.
Among the mines that yielded silver, the Silverado Mine was most notable. At one time, the Silverado earned status as the largest silver producer in California. Today, a wooden head-rig and eroding cement structures stand as testament to an epoch when mule-powered ore wagons, then primitive chain-drive trucks, rumbled up and down the steep canyons and switchbacks of the Sweetwaters.
One could very easily drive past these canyons and never suspect their history. The mining is long gone, and Nevada Highway 338 is a solitary, sparsely traveled route. Cresting the Sweetwater Summit at 7,120 feet, the two-lane road connects Smith Valley, Nevada, with Bridgeport, California. At the California state line, Highway 338 turns into California Route 182, which winds along the East Walker River and ends at Bridgeport and U.S. Highway 395.