The Champion Spark Plug mining camp known as Black Eagle, sits 7,550 feet high on the west flank of the White Mountains near Bishop, CA. Mining operations ceased in 1945 but the camp has remained in remarkable condition thanks to a group of volunteers who maintain the remaining buildings and museum for future generations to enjoy.
After my failed attempt to reach the Champion Spark Plug Mine back in November 2015, I decided to try my luck again this past April. This would be a solo attempt without a 4WD vehicle, so I knew I had to get an early start in order to avoid the hottest part of the day, which was expected to reach 84 degrees. I was already beating myself up for not getting out of Mammoth as early as I wanted to but quickly forgot about that after catching a glimpse of Mount Tom as I drove along Hwy 395. The 13,652 foot snow capped peak glowed as the sun began to break over the horizon. The mountain was named after Thomas Clark, who is credited with being the first to ascend the peak in the 1860s.
While the mountain I was about to ascend wasn’t quite as high as Mount Tom, I would still be hiking 7,550 feet up to where the mining camp is located (the brightly colored outcropping in the upper right).
I drove past the hydroelectric generating plant that was once used to power the mining operations at the Champion Spark Plug Mine, just like I had done back in November but instead of continuing along the road that heads up into Millner Creek Canyon…
…I turned left (north) onto a very rough dirt road that ran parallel to Hwy 6. I already knew I wasn’t going to be able to get that far without having a 4WD but I had no idea it was going to happen so quickly.
Fortunately, there was a big enough turnout for me to park my Jeep and prepare for my hike. It also gave me a chance to view the route I would soon be taking, up the alluvial fan and into Jeffrey Mine Canyon..
Let’s do this!
As you can see, the road leading up into the canyon isn’t in the best of shape after a massive storm back in October caused major flooding in the area.
As I looked back at the beautiful snowy Sierras, I could barely make out where I had just parked my black Jeep only a few minutes earlier. (hint: it’s just below the arrow).
After following the road that climbed up the alluvial fan, I eventually dropped down into Jeffery Mine Canyon.
I had hiked a little over 3 miles…
…across several washouts…
…before reaching the former transfer station that was once used for the Champion Spark Plug Mine.
Strings of mules were used to pack the ore down the steep trails to the transfer station.
The ore was then hauled down by flatbed trucks to the sorting tables located near the ranch and later trucked to a loading station on the Nevada & California narrow gauge railroad. At Mina, Nevada, the ore was transferred to standard gauge Southern Pacific Railroad trains and shipped to Detroit, where it was processed to manufacture high temperature refractory materials such as automobile spark plugs and chemical laboratory porcelain.
Electricity for the mining operations was supplied by the hydroelectric plant down by the ranch at the base of the mountain and transmitted five miles up through the canyon to the mining camp. Wire, hardware, and power poles were packed up the steep mountain trail by mules.
The trail for the remainder of my hike would follow along the original route used by the pack trains.
Yeah, it gets pretty steep.
The trail also becomes extremely narrow in certain parts as you get closer to the camp. One false step here could easily send a person tumbling down the steep cliff leading to serious injury. If you have hiking poles, bring them, they were extremely beneficial to me as I traversed this section of the trail.
I named him Sleepy Dog Rock, feel free to say hello if you’re ever in the area.
In years past, the trail used to be so degraded that a wooden ladder was required to get around a particularly steep and dangerous section of it. The ladder remains but is no longer needed after a more stable route was built to bypass it.
Black Eagle Camp is nestled within this canyon surrounded by tall Jeffrey Pines. The camp is hidden so well, that it’s hard to make out the seven structures that still remain…
…until your right next to them.
“Welcome to the Champion Mine, Black Eagle Camp. All labor and materials to repair and preserve this camp are provided by volunteers (Forest Service can’t spare funds in current tight budget) Cabins available on First Come, First Served basis. Please help us keep camp clean. Hike to High Camp if you have time (Well worth the effort) Hope you enjoy your visit 🙂 – The Champion Volunteers.”
The upper mine workings are clearly visible as you enter Black Eagle Camp. To reach them requires another two mile long hike, with a 1,500-foot elevation gain along a deteriorated trail that ascends up to 9,000 feet.
This was about as close as I was going to get to the upper mine on this trip.
In the 1920s, the Champion mine was the only commercial source of andalusite known in the world. The rare mineral was sought after in the early 1900s because of its properties and ability to resist high temperatures. It was used for hard ceramic porcelain, laboratory ceramic and spark plug insulators. A large deposit of the rare aluminum silicate mineral was discovered here by Dr. Joseph A. Jeffery in 1916.
Welcome to Black Eagle Camp.
Since I didn’t see another living soul on my way up the mountain, I wasn’t expecting to find anyone at the camp…
…and I didn’t. It was just me, 7,550 feet high, all alone in a pristine ghost camp.
Even though I wouldn’t be staying overnight this time, I still wanted to check-in to The Champion Hilton, the #1 cabin in the camp.
No reservations required.
The man, the myth, the legend himself, Dr. Joseph Jeffery. Dr. J was actually a dentist who discovered the sillimanite/andalucite ore while searching for a better material to build dentures from. He was also the president of Champion Sillimanite, Inc., makers of Champion Spark Plugs.
The view out the south facing window of the Champion Hilton looks over one of the old storage magazines, that was once used to store explosives for the mine. It was later modified into a sauna but was accidentally burned in a fire in the 90’s. Fires are a real danger up here, all but one of the original buildings that used to be located in the upper mine area were destroyed by fire in January 1987.
Believe or not, most (if not all) of the cabins have working wood burning stoves inside of them.
The one inside the Hilton was even stocked with wood.
Thankfully a fire wasn’t needed while I was there but it was nice to see some basic fire safety information posted next to the stove.
The Hilton had some really cool drawings of some of the cabins and surrounding area that were done by previous guests who have stayed at the camp.
Even the clock was accurate, which reminded me that I needed to get out and explore the rest of the camp before it got too late.
I’ll be back.
My first stop was to the nearest outhouse.
There are three of them in the camp…
…but the one closest to the Hilton just happened to be the best one.
Just make sure to leave it clean and odor free.
Next up was a building that was once used as a bathhouse for the miners.
It’s definitely seen better days…
…but when you consider how long these buildings have been here and that the camp has sat idle for the most part since 1945, it’s pretty amazing that most of these are even still standing.
The bathhouse usually has a working shower inside of it, however it wasn’t working during my visit. The water is piped into camp from a nearby spring.
The view from the changing area next to the shower sure was nice but it probably gets a little cold in the winter without a piece of glass in it.
Next door to the bathhouse is the mess hall…
…where a massive kitchen comes with just about anything a cook would need.
Including a large industrial sink…
…a commercial size cooking range and a walk-in refrigerator – all hauled up over 3,000 vertical feet on the 4.5-mile switchback trail. Poor mules.
The “Black Eagle Resturant” has very limited hours…
…but comes with a nice family style table to enjoy your meal at.
And if you eat too much at dinner and can’t make it back to your cabin, you could always spend the night there.
Just make sure to keep the door latched tight.
Just when I thought the camp couldn’t get any better, I came across the museum.
The Black Eagle Museum was started by Margy Fraser.
Don and Margy Fraser started coming to Black Eagle in the 1960s in search of a mineral known as rutile. Within a few years they began to notice that some of the buildings were starting to get vandalized, so they started bringing up tools and supplies to repair and maintain the site which in turn brought other volunteers up the mountain to help preserve Black Eagle Camp.
If you decide to visit someday, please continue to respect those that came before you and those that will come after you. Follow the unspoken code by respecting the space and leaving no trace.
The museum is filled with historical photos, business cards, old log books, vintage Champion Spark Plug advertisements, samples of rare earth ore specimens and tons of other interesting artifacts.
In 1994, ASM International designated the Champion Spark Plug Mine as an important site that contributed to modern technology.
Really people? Please don’t be an asshole.
Please support BEM!
The camp is HUGE, so please forgive me for making this post so long.
This is the only building left at the lower camp that still has wood siding.
These side-by-side cabins further up the camp each have their own fire pits out front.
Most cabins come with two twin beds…
…but this one included a full/queen plus a twin. Perfect for a small family.
None are as homey as the Champion Hilton but most of them at least come with a little art on the walls and cute curtains.
No matter what cabin you end up in, you’re never really that far from a shitter…
…although this one may be a problem for those who want/need a little more privacy when they’re doing their business.
Further exploration behind the lower camp lead to what I thought could be a portal into a mine…
…but it was most likely just a storage locker or another explosives magazine.
After a a few hours of exploring the camp, I did one last check to make sure everything was latched up tight, swept out my cabin, donated a few items that could be used by future guests and checked out of The Hilton.
This place is special, lets keep it that way.
Time to get back to the real world:(