tucked away in the hills east of San Francisco is the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. you wouldn’t know it by looking at it now, but it was once the population and economic center of Contra Costa County.
the regional preserve of today is made up of much of the original mining district — mines and towns — that blossomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. at first it was coal which drew immigrants from all over the world and helped power California’s increasing industrialization. later, after the coal mines closed up due to cheaper alternatives, sand mining, which was used for glass manufacturing, gave the area new life from 1920 to 1949.
other than the mines and the old Rose Hill Cemetery which dates to the 19th century, there’s not much left. the first wave of miners (the coal ones) upped and left when the mines closed, either taking their homes with them, or burning them down to collect all the nails (which were handmade, and thus expensive). still, it’s definitely worth a visit. there are lots of hiking and biking trails and without much exertion (well, ok, just a smidge) you can get to the old cemetery and see some of the old mines — and even get a tour of one: the best $5 i’ve spent in a long time.
sidebar: getting there from points west, take Highway 242 to Highway 4, get off on Somersville Road. make a right and just go straight for about three miles (past gas stations and a Starbucks in case you need to refuel) until you reach the entrance to the preserve. everything is free, except you will need to pay $5 for parking on weekends and holidays during high season, and $5 for the guided tours of the mine, which take place several times during each high season weekend. i recommend reserving the mine tours via the website before going.
Rose Hill Cemetery
a short hike up the rolling hills and you’ll get to this fenced-off (but open) patch of land that was used as the area’s cemetery in the 1800s. the people here all died very young — i learned on the mine tour 42 was considered a long life. many children are buried here; most died during infectious disease epidemics. though the mining community was very diverse, there are a lot of Welsh immigrants interred here. unfortunately many of the tombstones were vandalized or stolen, but the ones that are there (many have been returned and restored) are very sobering.
the only creature i saw was a lizard, but i have heard there are rattlesnakes as well — keep an eye out!
i never knew people actually mined sand, but i suppose where else would they get the silica used to make glass? glass, by the way, which helped in making California an agricultural powerhouse thanks to the ability to now package goods via locally-sourced containers to transport across the country. the $5 guided tour is a definite must-do; a visit to the preserve without a tour is a visit wasted. either book via the website, calling in, or there are also first-come first-serve tickets available at the visitor center, which itself it worth a peek in (free, first picture below is the off-limits part; exhibits and a gift shop take up the first half). (note, right outside the visitor center is the only place where i was able to get a decent Verizon signal.)
the tour lasts about an hour and a half and starts out with a very informative slideshow (much more interesting than it sounds), then you get a hard hat, flashlight, and a jacket if needed (which you’ll want in the summer; it’s constantly in the upper 50s in the mine no matter how hot it is outside and your shorts and a T aren’t going to cut it).
you’ll get to walk through several tunnels and look up and down into the stopes (steep slopes and chambers) that were dug into the hillside. even though there are 8 miles of tunnels, you only get to walk 1050′ of them, but they’re amazing.
our guide was so cool and our group so small (just three of us!) he gave us a ride back down to the parking lot on his golf cart, saving us a 10-15 minute hike!
oh, and here i am attempting to take a hard hat selfie, but i think i look kinda derpy…