By: Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun
As Whiskey Flat Days approaches in Kernville, everything Western is being emphasized. Many tales are told from our exciting history of the gold rush, cowboys and ranching, and Native American culture. One lesser known story is about the aerial tramway built here in the 1880s to transport ore and supplies over the rough terrain surrounding the Harley Mine above modern-day Kernville.
This fascinating bit of history from the gold mining days was told on January 31 during a Kern River Valley (KRV) Historical Society lecture given by Tim Kelly, an archaeologist with the Sequoia National Forest. Both the mine owner, Charles Harley, and the builder of the tramway, Andrew Hallidie, were colorful characters according to the state’s history books. They were both born in Great Britain and came to California in the 1850s to make their fortunes.
Harley owned a junk dealership in San Francisco that became large enough to enable him to branch out into the loan business. In 1876, miners from the KRV entered his shop seeking funding for the Bunnell Mine along Bull Run Creek north of Kernville. Harley agreed to build a 10-stamp mill on their site for a half-percent interest in the mine. Within a short time he became a majority owner, and founder Bunnell ended up being forced out.
In his lecture, Kelly stated that there was no written evidence that Harley had spent any time in the KRV, but author Bob Powers relayed detailed information about Charles Harley in his book North Fork Country as was told to him by others. This included a story that in 1876 Harley discovered his own gold strike across the river from the Bunnell Mine simply by accident when hiding out in the mountains after being involved in a shoot-out in town.
The Harley Mine was located near the top of a mountain, later known as Harley Mountain, and just below what is now named Powers Peak. The mine was about 3,000 feet above the river where Harley built his stamp mill just east of Camp Owen in present day Kernville. The high cost and time to carry ore down that steep, rugged mountain on mules forced Harley to find a more economical means of transportation. Enter Andrew Hallidie.
Hallidie had come to California with his father during the gold rush, where he soon learned that his fortune could best be made by providing services to the mining companies. After his father invented and patented a wire rope made of twisted strands of metal wire, Hallidie started manufacturing it for ore transportation purposes. He began building suspension bridges over rivers, then he invented what became known as the “Hallidie Ropeway,” an aerial tramway that transported ore and supplies across mountainsides. These concepts were so successful that in the early 1870s, Hallidie went on to design, patent, and build the cable car system in San Francisco.
In 1878, Harley contracted with the now-famous Hallidie to build an aerial tramway on what was known as some of the roughest and steepest terrain in the Sierras. It was designed with a three-mile-long continuous loop cable turning around two six-foot metal ‘bullwheels,’ one located down at the mill site and the other much higher up at the mine. The cable passed through wooden A-frame supports that were located every 100 yards along the steep slopes. Attached to the cable were iron buckets which carried 100 pounds of ore each; other containers carried supplies, and a two-person passenger car transported miners. The heavy weight of the ore buckets going down provided the power to deliver the empty ore buckets, supplies, and miners going up.
The tramway lasted only about three or four years after which time the system broke down. The account in North Fork Country states two men were killed when the cable broke in 1882, but Kelly remarked it was odd that there would be no newspaper coverage of the deaths which would have generated a great deal of public interest. He said the failure of the system by that time was quite likely since the cables required daily maintenance, and the three-quarter inch cable used may not have been adequate for some of the stresses placed upon it.
One hundred years later in the 1970s, the few remaining traces of the tramway included one wooden A-frame and rock platforms along the mountainside, and the support base for the upper bullwheel. The upper bullwheel itself is now displayed outside the front of the Kern Valley Museum along with two of the ore buckets which delivered both gold ore and gold rush tales still being told to this day.