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The Rand Desert Museum is open most weekends at 161 Butte Ave. “If you see the flag up, then it’s open.” / Laura Austin Photo

Rand Desert Museum showcases old mining artifacts

By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer

Randsburg is situated in the mountains off Highway 395. Take the drive and go up a piece on the little mountain road, and you will enter the Old West Mining Town of Randsburg. There you can step back in time through a Living Ghost Town. You will find original buildings, interesting shops, great food, great stories, a museum filled to the brim, and a saloon.

A visitor to the Randsburg Desert Museum studies the old mining equipment displays. / Laura Austin Photo

“The Rand Desert Museum is not named after Randsburg, it is named after the mining district,” says recently appointed President of the Museum Board Tom O’Donnell, AKA Ordinary Tom. “It encompasses the history of the Rand Mining District, which is the tri-city region and Atolia.” The tri-city region is Randsburg, Red Mountain, and Johannesburg.

O’Donnell tells us, “I’m not gonna make anything up. I’ll tell you what I know.” He is a storyteller, a keeper of memories; he tells it as he sees it. He doesn’t remember who started the museum but knows it started in 1943. “World War II came, and gold mining ceased in the United States.” The government sent agents to pull the power at gold mines, saying,  “You’re not mining for gold anymore because we don’t need it for the war effort.” O’Donnell continues, “They started to gear up NOTS (which became NAWS), and they needed buildings, so they came up here and took buildings and hauled them all down to China Lake. So that’s why there are some empty spaces up here. They just came and took them. So the guys still up here didn’t want everything just to disappear. They didn’t want any of the history to be lost.” The museum was started and has been run by volunteers ever since.

“For a while, somebody in Bakersfield thought that everything over here should be owned by the county because then it could be protected.” That didn’t last. “ Kern county decided that it was too expensive or too whatever. So then they wanted to get rid of it and give it back to somebody up where the building is. I don’t know all the details of that. But some of the artifacts are still somewhere in Kern County, photographs and stuff like that. Or they’ve been sent off somewhere else. So we don’t know where that went.”

Nevertheless, the museum has great photos from the early 1900s, artifacts, and an extensive mineral collection. “There’s an unbelievable blacklight display of minerals in a little room. They look like rocks in white light, but in black light, holy cow.” There is a complete set of China dishware.  “If miners did really, really well, sometimes their wives weren’t real happy about being out here. So how do you assuage the feelings? Buy a big nice set of China. So then she had a table that she could set with tablecloth and China and a China cabinet and all that.”

Outside behind a fence, there is old mining equipment, including an Arastra, a primitive mill for grinding and pulverizing gold ore. O’Donnell explains how it works, “It’s a round pit in the ground about so deeply. (He gestures about 3 feet). And it’s got a concrete bottom or a really hard bottom.  They had crushers that they could use to crush the ore. They would get it down to a small size and dump it in this little pit.  In the middle was a post with two arms that came out. You tie a burro to each end, and it walks around, and it’s dragging these big heavy rocks over that material that’s in the Arastra, and there’s cyanide and mercury in the pit. As they go around and around and around, some of the gold will be dissolved by the cyanide, and some of it is just crushed really fine, and it adheres to the mercury. And after they did this for however long, they would gather it all up, put it in a retort that we have up there, and they would drive off the mercury, but the fumes are dangerous. They drive the mercury off, and like an old still, the mercury comes up, and the fumes go into the condenser and come out into a bottle. You take that and pour that back in the Arastra and add some cyanide to the whole thing again, but what’s left in the retort after the mercury is driven off is gold. They take that, put it into a crucible (which we have in the museum) that goes in the furnace to heat it all up with some flux, and pour the gold bars.”

There is also a honey cart and a porta potty. “All it has is the seat. It’s a 55-gallon barrel, cut in half with a seat on it. And that’s mounted on a small car on the rail on wheels that goes up and down the rail in the mine. The newest guy in the mine was  12 – 13 years old. He pushed the honey cart down the mine, then he pushed it back out and dumped it out. That’s the honey cart.”

Another artifact inside the museum with a good story is Burro Schmidt’s britches. “This is how I understand it,” says O’Donnell. “They were mining over in Last Chance Canyon. They were hauling all this stuff all the way around the mountain to bring it over to Garlock or Goler. Schmidt thought it’d be a lot better if they just drove a tunnel so they could come up out of the mines and go right through the tunnel and right back down toward Golar or Garlock. I forget which. The mills were in both places.  And that was his thought; he would drive a tunnel and use the tunnel to haul ore. He was working on his tunnel, and all the mines closed. And for some reason, he just didn’t quit. He just stayed at it for about 34 years until they got it done. He would go down to Indian Wells Valley to work on farms, then get his money and go back up there and start working on the tunnel again. He eventually built a house up there.”

Randsburg, California  – an Old West Mining Town, Living Ghost Town just up the road from Ridgecrest.