The Sulphur Mines – A Return…#18 (the 50’s)

Mike and his adherent sister Nan

A summer day,  the East Oakland Hills beckoned and a attentive young boy listened, Mike discerning their incessant plea of assiduity.   A plan was in the making, he would approach his younger next door neighbor Milton Pepitone, better known as Babe, asking if  he would be interested in joining him in an hike to the reaches of Skyline Blvd.,  East Oakland’s highest view-point overlooking the vast bay-area.   It was agreed upon,  the two boys starting their 2 mile march, crossing Mountain Blvd. upwards towards the first lower summit, a familiar climb for both having been there before.   Looking back Mike noticing a young unpretentious figure following in their footsteps, it was his youngest sister Nancy.   On many occasions  she was tenacious in meandering behind him when she ascertain he was going up into the hills.   In the past he had tried everything to dissuade her from following him,  from yelling at her,  to actually throwing rocks, with  no intent to hit her,  only to coax her from continuing her undertaking.  But alas, once again it was to no avail,  her persistence prevailing so with no other options he invited her to join this quest.

Milton (Babe) Pepitone

Looking east, Destination – Skyline, the furthermost peak

The three reaching the crest of the first hill, heading down into a familiar shallow valley with what resembled a road having been bulldozed long ago, going past the abandoned stables he had explored during a previous journey. The three following the hollow north for a quarter-mile before  addressing another trail upwards. The ascent was slow, the three finally reaching a summit overlook, the pavement of Skyline Blvd lying  about a fifty yards beyond.  The three travelers continued on a disassembled trail that paralleled the road, soon passing above the familiar Oakland hillside landmark. the  Gallagher and Burk Quarry.  Mike thought about continuing on Skyline and going down Redwood Road, but instead asked Babe and his sister if they wanted to see the Sulphur mines.  The three making their own trail descending down from skyline in the direction of  Devil’s Punch bowl and the Sulphur Mines.

Sulphur Mines tailings


Skirting passed Devil Punch Bowl, descending down to the remains of the McDonnell Mine excavations.  The glimmering yellow of the pyrite containing the valued ferrous sulfide that encased the surroundings and permeated the atmosphere with its ever-present pungent smell of sulphur.   The rustic relic of the old central shaft its pilings standing like a monument in commemoration of days gone by.   Several foreboding tunnel entrances boarded up as if to imprison the  memories they still held  rather than to prevent access to unwanted  visitors,  their  warning signs still posted,  weathered and neglected.  Mike entering an aperture,  exploring the  encasing walls with his hands,  the yellow crystallized material cleaving to  his fingers.  In the light provided from the opening,  he stood within, absorbing the ambiance of the moment, its reality and a feeling of deja vu, to visualize the arduous undertakings of these  unearthing craftsmen of old.

what memories lay burried

what memories lay buried

A exploring comptempuous sister

Having immersed in refection, it was time to move on.  Stepping back into the sunlit terrain Mike looking about,  Milton was present,  but his sister Nancy was nowhere to be seen.  He had  instructed her not to enter any of the tunnel openings,  but he knew how obstinate she could be.   He conveyed the question to Milton about Nancy’s  whereabouts to no avail.   He knew how adamant his sister could be in her determination to explore these underground caverns having  some of the same intransigent traits that he had,  so it was no surprise what was transpiring.    As suddenly as she had disappeared,  she emerges with a contemptuous grin on her face.     Mike could say nothing for he could identify with her pretentious act as she could proclaim that she had succeeded in doing something few of the populace  would undertake,  let alone accomplish.

Mills College Lake Aliso better known as Green Lake

Departing from this wondrous extrication area, the threesome journeyed along the path above Leona Creek reaching to where it became subterranean crossing  beneath Mountain Blvd and emptying into a body of water commonly referred to as Green Lake.  In reality it was Lake  Aliso, initially constructed as a flood control measure situated on the Mills College Campus and because of its green algae hue when viewed from Overdale Ave, a shortcut north around the college to access MacArthur Blvd, the  name Green Lake  prevailed.   Pressing onward they marched homeward bound, not journeying on Mountain Blvd but on the eucalyptus tree-lined dirt road  at the base of the hills culminating at Keller Ave.

Mike remained engrossed with Leona Heights and Laundry Farm Canyon.  His dad having mentioned that as a kid growing up in Oakland he had ridden the street car to Leona Heights and was aware of the sulphur mine and the quarry’s but never had the initiative to see them first hand.   Mike didn’t press the matter, knowing that his dad as a youth was a ward of the state, raised during the depression by an Italian/Spanish family only because the state provided twenty dollars a month.   He wondered if one up-close look may have introduced a whole new chapter to his Dad’s life,  just as hearing Steve Graham tell about Laundry Farm Canyon had spurred Mike’s interest, leading to his first brief visit and aspirations of fulfilling youthful fantasies and adventure.


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