The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1993, Volume 39, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Modest Fortunes: Mining in Northern Baja California.

By Donald Chaput, William M. Mason, David Zarate Loperena. Los Angeles: Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 1992. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Glossary. 244 pages.

Reviewed by Armando A. Arias, Jr., Founder of BESTNET or the Binational English & Spanish Telecommunications Network, and, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Texas A&M University, Kingsville.

Modest Fortunes can only be described as an extremely well documented historical analysis of “the adventures” of miners in Northern Baja California, during the late 1800s and very early 1900s. At first glance the book is deceptive and appears to be written for general geologists, hydrogeologists, hard rock geologist, and geographers. It turns out to be a well written liberal arts-historical science study for anyone with the slightest interest in mining or geology. There are numerous geological profile sketches and pictures of early mining technology, as well as full view pictures of mining sites. For this reason it would be a good text for introductory geology courses (especially for non-science majors), including physical geology, environmental geology, and even oceanography (due to the study’s sites or proximity to the ocean).

The true value of the book is the way in which the authors actually “marry” the arts and the sciences through their perspective on the historic importance of mining and mining exploration. It appears to be a major contribution to existing scientific knowledge in both history and geosciences, especially in terms of mineral resources and Baja California.

Hence, beyond the geoscientists, this book will be of great interest to historians, journalists, political scientists, sociologists, economists and perhaps demographers. The authors display an uncanny ability to “dig up” historical documentation from a variety of sources. Rarely is a book so well researched. Their study is enriched by newspaper articles from the Lower Californian, the Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Daily Union and others. They present enthnographically rich data through newspaper articles, copies of mine deeds, and letters between “politicos,” based on first hand observations and experiences. Some of these include the history of “filibustering adventures” and “Yankee takeovers” all part of the earliest political activity in Baja California — which to a large extent centered around the rapid proliferation of mining claims. Many of these accounts are printed in Spanish. Thus, not only does this add to the bilinguality of the book, but at the same time preserves the integrity of the data presented. This is also true of the Glossary which provides mining terms in both Spanish and English. The Glossary could be enriched by an addition of slang terms of the day. My hunch is that the authors established a list of these as well. The study certainly promotes interdisciplinary studies.

“The Twentieth Century” chapter (last chapter) of the book gives the reader a lasting sense for the history of mining efforts in Baja California. The authors summarize their work in some of the great last attempts to explore and mine the region. One of the cases they cite is that of the Pedrara Onyx Co. and its contract to provide onyx to build the Spreckels Theater of San Diego. This turned out to be the largest onyx contract of its time, as the authors point out, “The entire lobby, including box office, elevator recess and stairways, are finished in Pedrara onyx on both walls and ceilings, making one of the largest contracts ever executed for onyx. Some of the largest single slabs of polished onyx ever cut may be seen on the face of the pilasters in the lobby of this theater.” Its no wonder why as a young boy I frequented the “Spreckels” to purchase a foot long hot dog and gaze “marble eyed” at the scathing sheets of onyx. Little did I know of the mammoth, often life threatening efforts put forth by the Mexican laborers of the El Marmol quarry.

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