By Debbie Teofilo
Special to the Sun
It’s hard to imagine what the now isolated and fragmented town of Keysville was like during its gold rush heyday packed with thousands of temporary workers and residents. The many colorful stories and descriptions of their hard mining life came to life during a combined lecture and field trip arranged by the Kern River Valley Historical Society and the Bioregions Festival on April 26-27.
Archaeologist Tim Kelly with the Sequoia National Forest, an expert on the history and culture surrounding the gold mining industry in the Kern River Valley, described Keysville’s place in history at a lecture on the first day and showed physical remnants of its rise and fall on a field visit the following day. He stated that surprisingly little has been written about the day-to-day life in historic Keysville besides tidbits in old newspaper clippings and family letters. But its importance to California gold rush history is legendary.
When the ‘easy pickings’ of the Northern California gold rush ran out and the state economy was on a downslide, rumors that gold nuggets had been found along the Kern River in the Southern Sierras created another gold rush in 1855. In a few short months, Keysville became the largest town within 90 miles as gold seekers flooded into the area trying to strike it rich by simply finding loose gold along stream beds. Instead, most of them quickly returned home empty-handed and the region got the reputation for what we now call ‘fake news.’ “Keysville closed the curtain on this type of California gold mining,” concluded Kelly.
Kelly stated that some people did find success in Keysville, but there was not enough to support the 5,000-10,000 miners who were looking for easy money. Perhaps about $1 million in placer (loose) gold came out of Keysville, and another $1 million was excavated out of the commercial Keyes and Mammoth Mines over an 80-year period. Those rewards came with hard work and continual rebuilding after fires and floods. These conditions caused drastic reductions in the population and the mining industry, particularly after the flood of 1861.
During the walking tour, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Archaeologist Amy Girado described the current town of Keysville as being a privately owned 5-acre parcel containing the old general store, a former post office or assay office, and a possible boarding house. Other town buildings have been relocated to Silver City Ghost Town in Bodfish. On BLM property is an 1800s cabin of the Walker clan who had a reputation for shootouts and skullduggery. In a nearby Keysville cemetery, the headstones of the Walker family were originally placed outside its fence as an indication of their unsavory reputation, but over the years the fence was expanded to include them. A small rise to the east of town contains remnants of a small fort which was hastily constructed to protect the town after rumors surfaced of a possible Indian uprising which never materialized.
As an historical side note, Girardo discussed an ongoing controversy regarding the two spellings of the town’s name. Her research shows that Keysville was its first recorded spelling which was named after the prominent miner, Richard Keys. Girardo explained that in later years an extra ‘e’ was mistakenly added to the name of Richard Keys’ mine by a new owner. Over time, the spelling of the town and even the name of the original mine owner was reflected in most records and newspaper articles with the extra letter that matched that of the mine. BLM is using the original federally recorded name of Keysville on all further references to the town and the area, but the commercial mine will still be the Keyes Mine and this spelling will continue to be associated with mining operations in the area.
During the most extensive part of the walking tour, Kelly described remnants of the historical mining industry and discussed ongoing modern recreational mining. Mining activities permanently changed the environment, primarily due to the scarcity of water which was used as a tool to locate and extract gold. Water from the river and creeks was diverted to the gold working areas by digging ditches and building dams so water would flow to the desired sections. It is easy to see the altered landscape from both historical gold mining operations and work on current recreational mining claims.
The most unexpected sight on the walking tour was the view of the famous Keyes Mine. After the extraction of $1 million in gold from the combined Keyes/Mammoth tunnels, all that now remains is a small hole at the bottom of a hill with a trickle of water running out of it. Adjacent to the mine are the ruins of a stamp mill from the 1890s which was used to crush the ore to extract gold, and a metal shed with machinery that had powered some of the mining equipment.
The lure of gold continues to this day in Keysville which is a prime area for recreational gold prospectors searching for placer gold. BLM issues public mining claims in the Keyesville Recreational Mining Area for an annual fee of about $150 and proof of continual use of the claim. Other prospectors engage in gold panning along the Kern River and nearby creeks.
In order to preserve the Keysville area and its history for public enjoyment, BLM has approved a strategic plan for infrastructure improvements that will make it a prime destination for families yet protect its cultural treasures. A sign at the town cemetery states: “As you recreate on these public lands, please keep in mind that Keysville is home to a variety of historical and prehistoric resources. Your help is needed to protect and preserve them!”