On a warm spring day in 2008, Guy and I hiked to the seldom visited King Midas Mine high in the Funeral Mountains of Death Valley National Park. Located near the world famous Keane Wonder Mine, the King Midas often gets overlooked due to its short production history, a more modern mining period and little written history.
The King Midas Mine was relocated and worked between 1949 and 1955 by Michael Joseph Harris who at one time called his mine the Keane Wonder Extension. Little is known about previous work at the mine, which dates to the 1930’s and maybe earlier. With the help of his wife Patricia Lea Brown Harris, and his son James (Jim) Edgar Harris, Mr. Harris built a small cabin and constructed an aerial tramway from the mine down to the canyon floor. No easy feat, and work that was usually completed by a crew of capable mining men and mules, the Harris family single handedly constructed the 3,000 foot long tramway that descended 1,100 feet from the mine site down to the canyon floor. The tramway originally consisted of galvanized cables, steel base towers, and a 4 cylinder Ford engine that severed as the main hoisting apparatus – much of which is still in place today; though the power cable, tram buckets and lower tram terminal have vanished due to time, the elements and scrappers. Water and supplies for the mine was hauled in by truck from Beatty, NV were Mrs. Harris also worked at a restaurant to earn money to buy food and help with expenses at the mine.
For the adventurous few who hike the mule trail to the mine, you will be rewarded with a memorial to Mr. Harris and a brief history of the Harris family’s struggle to mine the King Midas.
For more photos from this trip, check out Guy Starbuck’s King Midas Mine trip report.
Unfortunately, as of 09/11/2008 the National Park Service has closed access to 4,250 acres surrounding the Keane Wonder Mine, which includes access to the King Midas, due to ‘safety concerns’ regarding unstable ground, toxic waste and collapsing structures at the Keane Wonder Mine. For more information about the closure, visit the NPS website: http://www.nps.gov/deva/historyculture/keane-wonder-mine.htm
Greene, Linda W., and John A. Latschar. A History of Mining in Death Valley National Monument. Denver: Historic Preservation Branch Pacific Northwest/Western Team, Denver Service Center, National Park Service, United States Dept. of the Interior, 1981.
Parsons, Virginia. “Michael Joseph Harris.” Message to the author. 28 June 2013.
Transcription of the hand written letter from Michael Joseph Harris to his son James Edgar Harris:
Jan. 16, 1950
Yes it was heart Breaking to pull the teeth off the gears of the hoist, but that isn’t only the beginning if you know what I mean. I worked all day fixing the teeth back on the gear then packed it up, re assembled it and started pulling up the large cable. When the large cable was within about 800 ft. of the top the pressure busted the end out of the Hoist Drum, it busted the casting around the Ring gear and also the hub, but it hasn’t completely fallen to pieces yet. I’ll go to Las Vegas Wednesday to have new parts made for the hoist.
We tightened up the main line cable today, and then we filled the little bucket at the mine with ore and sent it to the bottom, Earl helped it around the arms of the towers tho, we sent the bucket down on a snatch block. If you do come down you will see that we have accomplished quite a bit since you were here. O yes, the concrete foundation at the mine set ok, I think it is good solid concrete.
I think we will get the 2 phones on send you the money and let you get them for us. If they aren’t too heavy you might bring them if you come down next week.
We didn’t tighten the big rope quite enough yet on account the busted hoist wouldn’t take it, but tight enough to serve the purpose of transporting the new pieces for the hoist up there. Any means of transportation is better the a persons back.
No, the Engine only leaks oil at the Valve inspection cover, the gasket is no good but then I’ll get a new one in Vegas Wednesday.
The old ford Eng, seems like new, boy, what compression. Yes its loosened up a lot. The generator burned out each end bearings on it, so I’ll have to rig up the Plymouth generator on it.
Well I think I’ll go o bed as its 9:35.
Come down when ever you can and write often.
Looks like daddy said it all so as I write this AM I’ll skip it this time. Along with your letter we got another from Luana. [His younger Daughter in whose arms he died (She is a Nurse)]
Transcription of the typed note explaining the letter and some Harris Family history of the mine:
This letter was written by Michael Joseph Harris (Born Oct. 8, 1905 at Hamburg, Louisiana) to his son James Edgar Harris (Born Sep,. 8, 1930 at Huntington, Utah) who was attending Sacramento Junior College at Sacramento, California. Jim was majoring in Mechanical Engineering, graduating in June of 1956 after a four year in The U. S. Navy. This letter is a placed here as a memorial to my father. It tells of the struggle to erect the tramway and get this small mine into production. The hoist drum he mentioned was a weldment which we carried on our backs for the bottom of the tramway (It was Heavy!). We used the trail that was used by the pack mules when this mine was operated in the mid-1930’s; hence the name of “MULE TRAIL”. The trail that was the working trail and followed the route of the tramway was known as the “GOAT TRAIL”. The aircompressor (Ingersoll-Rand, 105 cubic feet per minute) and its’ engine, a four cylinder gasoline (starting fuel) and switch to diesel fuel or stove oil after it was warmed up, were taken apart and sent up on the tramway on March 4, 1950. Many things went wrong on this project but after much hard work it was placed in operation; just as we went flat broke. We needed money to buy a heavy duty rock drill…This is very hard, abrasive rock and it takes a lot of closely spaced holes full of high strength dynamite to blast it loose. Such a drill would have increased the productivity a great deal. Because of the Korean war, Jim joined the Navy (To keep out of the Army) and Dad mined this mine alone. His wife, Patricia (Lea Brown) of 54 years (They were married June 16, 1928 in Salt Lake City, Utah) helped him from a cabin we built at the canyon at bottom of the tramway. She would send his lunch, supplies, etc. up to the mine, and in general helped him in many ways. She even got a job in Beatty, Nevada at a resturant to earn money to buy food and help with expenses in the most barren of times. This mine was operated from 1949 to 1955. The first steel tower has a “1949” marked in small stones in the concrete (Jim did this). During the operation about 500 tons of ore was sent down the tramway (Some being spilled as the bucket jumped the track-cable; and what a job to get it back up ind repaired!). The ore averaged about 2.1 ounces of gold, 1.0 ounce of silver and about 3% lead per ton. The lowest value of ore that we mined was about 6 tons of 0.75 oz. Gold–one shipment of oxidized ore that was taken by our small; 1-1/2 ton 1942 Dodge dump truck to the American Smelting and Refining smelter at Selby, Calif–near San Francisco. The best ore to be shipped was an 18 ton of 3.1 oz. gold ore that was the last shipment made by the Harris family.This was by and large one most unforgetable experience…. As the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible tells of the toil of men under the sun, to work so hard to get ore out, processed, have the gold refined and then take it back to Fort Knox, Kentucky to bury it back into the ground!! All to put bread on the table. LET THIS BE A LASTING MEMORIAL TO MY FATHER, MICHAEL JOSEPH HARRIS, WHO DIED ON AUGUST 14TH *  at Yuma, Arizona. He is burried in The community cemetery at Huntington, Utah. Placed here for only a few brave people to read. July, 1983.