Anyone that has regularly read this publication has learned of the brief history of gold mining in the Mount Baldy area. A lesser-know but possibly equally successful endeavor for a short period occurred between 1912 and about 1930.
Near the west end of the San Sevine fire road where it exits just below Mt. Baldy village, there is a wild, overgrown canyon that winds steeply up towards the west side of Ontario Peak. A small creek races wildly down the boulder-choked canyon echoing off the sheer walls that are covered with moss and fern. All this makes an excellent habitat for Big Horn sheep, deer and bear.
In the early 1900s, hardy explorers trudged up Cascade Canyon, following the trail of Lapis Lazuli rock found in San Antonio creek. Lapis, a semi-precious, deep blue stone having small amounts of pyrite in it, is found in the United States only near Mt. Baldy and in a small mine in Colorado. Jewel-quality lapis is normally found and exported from Afghanistan. Because it is a relatively soft stone, it is easily worked and lends itself to many lapidary uses. The Egyptians highly valued lapis, using it extensively for carved scarabs and other jewelry as far back as 5000 B.C. The same mines in Afghanistan that supplied the Pharaohs are still being used today. Lapis from Cascade Canyon contains more pyrite and graphite and is much denser ;but beautiful pieces can still be found and worked into nice jewelry and other projects. Stones containing good lapis, weighing nearly 30 pounds have recently been found in the upper reaches of the canyon, but they are rare.
The early miners forged up Cascade Canyon until they found a vein of lapis high on the south wall of the north fork.
Although no written history of their mining activity can be found, all equipment: cable, drills, explosives and other mining gear and supplies had to have been hauled up the canyon on the miners’ backs – a truly daunting task. Remnants of mining equipment still wash down the stream. The miners would blast into a vein and remove the purest stone. A great deal of stone had to have been blasted across and down into the canyon, with the not so desirable pieces being discarded, eventually washing down the stream to become buried in the stream bed and banks, leaving much for the amateur collector to search out.
Cascade Canyon is aptly named. As you struggle up the steep canyon over successive water falls, you need to take time to admire the quiet beauty of the surrounding area. In winter, the overgrowth of Columbine flowers, Indian Paint Brush, Nettles, Alder tree saplings, Bay trees, Blackberry patches and the ever -present Poison Oak lose their leaves or die back, clearing an easier way up the canyon. As the water level in the creek subsides, pieces of lapis lazuli can be found in the stream bed. Anytime of the year, you can search the canyon for this stone, but in he late spring and into the summer, the canyon becomes overgrown, the water level is high, the blackberry brambles choke parts of the canyon and it becomes increasingly difficult to traverse.
For those hardy souls that care to look for lapis up there, don’t expect instant results. Occasionally you may glimpse a walnut-sized bluish pebble reflecting in the stream, or tease a baseball-sized piece out of the side of the bank, possibly washed there decades ago when the canyon flooded during spring thaw. The farther into the canyon you hike, the steeper it gets, and as you near the remnants of the mine site, you may find it necessary to use ropes to maintain safety. I recommend only very experienced hikers try probing high into the canyons.
For the skilled hiker, pieces of lapis ban be found in San Antonio Canyon, even where the stream crosses the fire road after a heavy rain and after the spring thaw. Stories exist of a large piece found near the San Antonio dam. After all, this stone has been washing down the canyon for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
If you should be fortunate enough to find pieces of lapis, count yourself lucky. Years ago a friend showed me an adz she and her husband found in the stream bed in San Antonio Canyon. A very nice tool that had been made by ancient local Native Americans and in excellent shape. It was very nearly jewel quality, deep blue with just a trace of pyrite. That discovery set me on my quest for the source. It took me several years and lots of help from others that were better acquainted with the area. I have since made numerous forays up Cascade Canyon and have been rewarded with some very nice specimens. For those readers that enjoy rock-hounding, the sight of bright blue peeking our of an embankment or stream bed is exciting. For the novice, just having a small piece of Lapis Lazuli might give you a sense of connecting with history. Happy hunting and stay safe.