The Abandoned Keane Wonder Mine at Death Valley National Park is Too Dangerous to Visit
Citing serious safety hazards, the National Park Service has barred public access to the abandoned Keane Wonder Mine site at Death Valley National Park. The old mine site, which has already claimed one visitor’s life, is loaded with hazards of many kinds.
Death Valley has an interesting mining history. It began with prospecting during the California Gold Rush era and included a good bit of mining during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Various mines in Death Valley extracted gold, silver, lead, zinc, antimony, flourspar, cinnabar, epsom salts, mercury, tungsten, copper, borax, talc, sodium chloride and manganese.
Death Valley’s most famous mining operation is the borax mining that commenced in the early 1870s and employed the famous twenty-mule team wagons at the Harmony Borax Works during the 1880s. (I recall the Boraxo soap advertising campaign that used the 20-mule team wagons’ image, and I think I’ve seen at least half of the episodes of the old Death Valley Days TV program – including the ones that Ronald Reagan hosted in 1965-1966.)
Few mining operations in Death Valley proved profitable. The technology employed was primitive and inefficient, water was scarce, fuel was expensive, and transportation facilities were lousy. Most metallic mining was over by 1910, and the last of the silver and gold mines in Death Valley were gone by about 1915. Some mining, most of it small scale, continued at sporadic intervals in subsequent decades.
The last significant mining in the park, a talc mining operation that commenced during the 1940s and was still active in the early 1980s, was terminated when an environmental NGO purchased the claims in 1989 and donated them to the park. No new mining claims have been permitted in Death Valley since Congress passed the Mining in the Parks Act in 1976. However, there are still many patented and unpatented mining claims on park property. These claims are diminishing in number as some are extinguished and others are acquired by the Park Service.
Mining operations have left the Death Valley landscape littered with abandoned mines and related debris that pose hazards to unwary or unlucky visitors. The National Parks Conservation Association estimates that there are at least 2,000 hazardous mine features in Death Valley. That’s about one-third of the dangerous mines in the entire National Park System.
Death Valley visitors have long been fascinated with the park’s abandoned mines. More than just interesting relics, old mines – especially gold mines -- are the visible remnants of a romantic era in American history. People like to wander around the mine sites, inspect the old equipment, poke among the debris, and take photographs. Perilous though it may be, some people even venture inside old mine shafts in accessible locations.
The Keane Wonder Mine, a gold mine that operated in the funeral Mountains from the early 1900s until 1942, was one of the two most productive gold mines in Death valley (the other being Skidoo). The Keane Wonder has been among the most attractive of Death Valley’s abandoned mine sites. The Park Service purchased the claim in 1970, and as recently as this spring, the Park Service offered guided hikes there.
Now the Park Service has decided to bar public access to the Keane Wonder Mine. It’s just too dangerous for people to mess around there. The remains, which include unstable wooden structures and rusting equipment and debris, are in an advanced state of decay and collapse. The area near the ore processing mill has tailings and other materials contaminated with heavy metals and toxic chemical residues. Among the more lethal hazards are crumbling tunnels, exposed or minimally protected vertical shafts, and rock masses susceptible to falling or sliding.
These are more than just hypothetical threats. A visitor was killed at the Keane Wonder Mine in 1984 when he fell down an unprotected vertical shaft. That risk still exists at the site, too. Metal nets have been installed over some of the holes near the parking lot, but others remain completely unprotected.
The closed area actually extends from the junction of the Beatty Cutoff Road and Keane Wonder Road east to Chloride Cliff. It includes not only the Keane Wonder Mine, mill and spring, but also Cyty's Mill and the Big Bell and King Midas mines.
Barring public access to exceptionally dangerous abandoned mine sites is at present the only viable alternative at Death Valley. The park hasn’t the funds to make the sites safe enough for people to visit. And, alas; the money isn’t likely to be provided anytime soon.
Postscript: I’ve accepted an invitation to visit Death Valley National Park with my California cousins in February or March. A visit to the Keane Wonder Mine site won’t be on the itinerary, but that’s OK by me.