History of the Keyesville Area


Today the historic Keyesville townsite in the Kern River Valley of the southern Sierra Nevada is little more than a ghost town, but it played an important role in the early mining and settlement of California. Although the townsite is located on private land, there are many historic resources in the surrounding area that can be visited and include Indian mortars holes, placer and hardrock gold mines, the Walker cabin, cemetery, Keyesville village, and the old Keyesville fort.

Before the arrival of the White Man, the Kern Valley was home to the Tubatulabal Indians. They left behind many bedrock mortars, and there is a nice collection of their artifacts in the Keyesville museum. However, most were eventually run off their lands by miners and settlers. Although no full blood Tubatulabal remain today, some of their descendants still live in the area and on the Tule River Indian Reservation.

Joseph Walker, who led one of John C. Fremont's expeditions over Walker Pass in 1834, became the first white man to enter the valley. An exploration party sent by Fremont on one of his later expeditions discovered gold in a cave at Greenhorn Creek near the Kern River in 1851 and opened the door for settlement of the area. The town of Petersburgh, near the summit of Greenhorn Mountain, was built about 1858 and became an important overnight stop and supply point for miners and settlers passing through the valley. The earthen Keyesville Fort was built during the Tule River Indian War of 1856 to protect newly arrived settlers, but never saw action.

The discovery of placer gold in the Kern River in the spring of 1854 set off the Kern River Gold Rush of 1854-55. However, Richard Keyes, after whom Keyesville is named, had actually discovered a vein of gold two years earlier and was already working the Keyes mine when the gold rush started. Soon afterward, Captain Maltby discovered the nearby Mammoth mine. Abia Lightner constructed the first stamp mill in the area about this time, and five water-driven mills with 22 stamps were operating by 1858. However, floods during the winter and spring of 1861-62 destroyed them all. The town of Keyesville, which sprang up near Keyes' mine, had 50 to 60 permanent residents in those days and boasted eight houses, a saloon, and crude hotel. A 20-stamp mill was erected in 1865 on the Kern River, but proved inefficient and ran only a short time.

The Keyesville mines were idle for many years in the late 1800s, until an 1897 revival when a 5-stamp mill was erected at the Keyes mine and a 10-stamp mill at the Mammoth. Both mines worked off and on until about World War II, when the high cost of underground mining and the small size of the ore bodies led to their closure. Nonetheless, the Keyes mine produced $450,000 worth of gold and the Mammoth about $500,000. Some placer and small-scale underground hard-rock gold mining continues today.


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