Perched nearly 7000 feet up on the rugged eastern face of Mount Baden-Powell and overlooking the historic East Fork of the San Gabriel River, sits one of Southern California’s largest abandoned mines.
I’ve explored tons of mines over the years but never made it to Big Horn. I finally got my chance to see it after a friend invited me along to one of his group hikes. This special hike was led by a very young avid mine explorer that he had recently met at a local historical society meeting. Our original plan was for him to lead a group hike of about 12 people to the mine. After the official tour of the exterior was completed, my friend would lead everyone back while a couple of us stayed behind to explore the inside of the mine. Our guide has been exploring local mines for many years and is quite knowledgeable about Big Horn. He’s done so much research and exploration, that he’s been able to create this hand drawn map of its inner workings.
Our group met up at the Vincent Gap Parking Area near Wrightwood, CA. Note: A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 per day or $30 per year) is required to park here.
The trailhead to the nearly 5-mile round trip hike is located near the aforementioned parking lot several miles past the Mountain High ski resort. This is a general parking lot for many other hikes in the region, including Mt Baden-Powell and the PCT. Be sure to take the trail heading left.
The old road winds around for a quarter of a mile before it divides into two separate trails. If you want to see Vincent’s Cabin (the original miner who discovered the mine), head left. If you don’t want to see the cabin, head right and follow the trail all the way to Big Horn Mine.
It was a hot day but the hike was fairly moderate with only a 500-800 elevation gain.
There were a few hairy areas along the trail that were heavily eroded but nothing we couldn’t get around.
There are several nearby smaller tunnels that are not connected to the main complex. The longest is the so-called Fenner entrance, named after a former owner, located about a quarter mile below Big Horn Mine. This gated off tunnel contains about two feet of water throughout its 402 foot length.
On the way to the mine one can find traces of the old miners community that included a store, assay office and post office.
A photo of the buildings that once stood here.
After about two miles, Big Horn comes into view. Chareles “Tom” Vincent was reported to have discovered the Big Horn Mine around 1895 when hunting for Big Horn Sheep. The area, which included East Fork and other canyons, had been active with gold mining operations for decades. Placer operations started in the district as early as 1838. Prior to his find of gold on Baden Powell, Vincent had tried his luck looking for gold in the East Fork of the San Gabriel Mountains. With the help of two friends, Tom Vincent dug Tunnel #1 deep into the mountain and found more gold. Unfortunately, they could not afford to get it out and crush it. They worked this claim until approximately 1898. He and his partners would later sell the mine, but continue to work for its new owner for a short period. He kept two other nearby claims called Blue Cat Mile and Little Nell Mine but eventually gave the title of these two mines to Levi and Dorothy Noble of Valyermo, CA.
Colonel F.C. Fenner bought the Big Horn Mine in July of 1901 and attached his newly acquired mine to his Lowell and California Mining Company, which was an Arizona corporation.
Tunnel work began anew in 1902 as the lode was cut by tunnel #5, and a 2-stamp mill operated for a year and a half. 1903 brought the creation of tunnel #6 and a 10-stamp mill began producing in the summer of 1904. The Big Horn MIne was hopping by 1907, after tunnels #7, #8, #9 and #10 were built. Between July of 1904 and October of 1906, 15,564 tons of ore was mined and treated by the 10-stamp mill. At $2.25 a ton, it brought in over $39,720.
Colonel Fenner died in 1917, and even though his wife Cora kept the mine in order, operations at Big Horn Mine remained idle until 1934. In that year, Mrs. Fenner granted a lease to R. Huffman of The Big Horn Mining Company.
Epic views down the upper canyons of the East Fork of the San Gabriel River toward Mount Baldy and Iron Mountain.
By 1934 Big Horn Mine resembled nothing of what Tom Vincent and his partners started thirty-six years prior. It consisted now of fifteen claims and two patented mill sites.
Between high grade metamorphic rock and medium-grade metamorphic rocks, Huffman’s company found a 25 foot quartz vein. The find promised an average market value of $4 dollars a ton. At least 25 employees worked at the mine as a diesel plant and a compressor was installed, as was a 50 ton flotation plant.
The temporary employer settlement on the southwest portion of Baden Powel was improved to a permanent one and a power line was installed to the mining property. Upgrades were also made on the property’s outbuildings and the old mill building and the road leading to the property was improved. The company was now ready to tackle the reinvigorated Big Horn Mine operation.
But everything went sour before long. The Huffman Company relinquished the property in 1936 when they were unable to get into a continuous production routine. In 1937 the property was leased with the option to buy by the American Metal Company Limited of New York.
This company conducted a massive examination of Big Horn Mine that included geological mapping, tunnel surveying, obtaining channel samples and drilling eight exploratory tunnels.
This company’s role in Big Horn Mine production was short lived. The mine opened only briefly and was closed. In 1938, Big Horn Mine was sold to Security Industrial Corp. (SCI), which was owned by H. B. Chessher. A Nevada based company, SIC transferred the Big Horn Mine to an associated company named Siskon Corporation in November of 1966.
Activity by this company was general maintenance and minor exploration and sampling in 1980 and 1981. There was still gold in them hills, it just took too much time, money and effort to get it out to make it worthwhile.
In April of 1981 Siskon Company and all its assets were sold to Hanna Mining Company-also known as M.A. Hanna Company. This company was home based in Cleveland, Ohio. Usually a company that mined ore in the Midwest, they expanded their operations to include silver and gold mining in the southwest.
In 1984, Inspiration Mines, under the supervision of project manager Sherman Quayle, conducted the first phase of a two-phase operation to extend the mine’s existing tunnels and determine the possibility of re-opening the mine to full operation.
With dynamite they enlarged the mine, while helicopter-portable drilling rigs operated above… drilling vertical shafts. It was hoped that the project would prove to be an endeavor that would cause an economic boom in the area and jobs for many local people, which the company planned to hire.
Sadly, bringing up the gold from the Big Horn Mine was too daunting of a task to be feasible. By 1985, Hanna Mining Company realized that at the current price of gold during that time did not make it worthwhile to continue mining the Big Horn Mine. Wanna see what’s inside one of Southern California’s largest mine? Check out my post, “Inside Big Horn Mine.”