After gold was discovered in 1848, people from around the world flocked to California, hoping to find a new life in the bottom of a river bed.
While the Mother Lode would become an integral part of Northern California’s rich history, San Luis Obispo County — not generally known for its Gold Rush past — also played a part in that chapter. Its mercury mines, after all, were established to help prospectors sort gold. While those now abandoned — and toxic — mines still exist as a reminder of the county’s golden past, nearby vineyards reflect the area’s current role in the state economy.
Curious to dig into North County’s past, photographer Joe Johnston and I set out for the little town of Adelaida recently, hoping to add a worthy detour in our local road trip series. While we did see one of the mines, we were more impressed with some of the other visuals offered by our little jaunt.
Driving west from Paso Robles on Nacimiento Lake Drive, our trip began on Chimney Rock Road, aptly marked by Chimney Rock, a large rock that looks a little bit like the head of a breaching whale. From the rock, you’ll enjoy the winding country road, lined with moss-covered oak trees. You’ll also see lots of creeks and boulders, conjuring a Yosemite-area feel.
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Eventually, we came to the Adelaida School. Built in 1917, it’s the only viable structure that remains from the town’s earlier days. The Adelaida Historical Foundation has worked hard to restore the school, which, unfortunately, was fenced off so we couldn’t get a better look. But according to the sign out front, the school operated on old gas lanterns until 1948, when electricity finally arrived. The building, used as a school until 1964, now acts as a community center.
Near the intersection of Chimney Rock and Adelaida roads, we found the Adelaida Cemetery. Today, most county residents associate the Adelaida Cemetery with the legend of “the pink lady,” also known as Charlotte Sitton, a 19-year-old buried here in 1890. According to the story — typically recalled during Halloween — Sitton’s ghost wanders the cemetery every Friday night.
There are plenty of old graves in this cemetery, some of them marked with nothing more than a piece of now-decayed wood. For reference, names of the occupants are posted outside an old outhouse. One of the most common surnames you’ll see is Dubost.
Auguste and Pauline Dubost arrived from France in 1882. Auguste, a blacksmith, became a postmaster in Adelaida. A plaque in front of an Adelaida Road house — where Dubost once moved the old post office — tells the history of the town, which once supported six schools, three post offices and two stores. Auguste, according to the plaque, ran a general store and cofounded the Adelaida Rural Telephone Company while accumulating 4,000 acres of ranchland.
Of course, much of the town’s rise is attributed to the mines, located on nearby Klau Mine Road. While gold diggers were panning creek beds up north, miners in Adelaida were hunting for mercury, which would help gold miners. The heavy quicksilver liquid, after all, clung to gold within their pans, making it easier to find.
On Klau Mine Road, there are two abandoned mercury mines — the Klau Mine and the Buena Vista Mine. We drove up to the Buena Vista Mine, the first on this stretch, but I was a little creeped out by all the EPA-posted warning signs, noting that the area was toxic. (The mines are currently undergoing an EPA-led cleanup.) These defunct mines caused a significant amount of pollution.
Looking at the old, rundown buildings and abandoned mining equipment, I had to wonder how many miners wound up at the Adelaida Cemetery earlier than expected due to mercury exposure.
Some of the red, mercury-laden water still flows into Lake Nacimiento, posing problems there. And there has been concern that contaminated dust from the mines threaten neighbors to this day. But the California Department of Public Health has concluded that merely being in the area does not pose a threat to one’s health.
Just don’t eat any fish caught here.
After our quick look at the mine, we found ourselves on Cypress Mountain Drive, which featured scenic meadows and barns that would please any plein air painter.
We wound up headed in an odd circle, so we eventually wound up back on Adelaida Road, which brought us to the Halter Ranch. Now a winery, the ranch features a beautiful Victorian ranch house built in 1885. The old MacGillivray house had its 15 minutes of fame when it was featured in the 1990 movie “Arachnophobia,” starring John Goodman and Jeff Daniels.
Since this area is so heavily populated with wineries and vineyards, Joe convinced me that we should stop for a quick wine tasting. So, as we ventured away from Adelaida, we pulled off at the Thacher Winery on Vineyard Drive.
Located on the Kentucky Ranch — once a large horse breeding operation — the Thacher Winery is home to a large, 90-year-old barn, which on this day hosted a sleeping owl high on the rafters. Inside the tasting room, Sherman Thacher introduced us to a few of his wines, including the viognier, zinfandel and the rose.
I’d resisted the idea of stopping at a winery because I wanted to keep moving — and wasn’t particularly in a mood for interacting with anyone. But, as we drove through the vineyards, I couldn’t help but consider the historical shift that had taken place. Once a hotbed for mining, the grapes have taken over these parts, breathing new life into a once forgotten community.
Driving through the vineyards, I sensed that Auguste Dubost, the enterprising Frenchman, would approve of the changes. Dubost was always on the lookout for a new opportunity to serve his neighbors — and, therefore, himself. In fact, before the Klau Company bought the Klau Mine, it was the Dubost Mine.
While Dubost died well before North County became a wine industry, he surely would have gravitated toward grapes. He apparently passed his entrepreneurial spirit on to his ancestors, who today operate Dubost Winery on Chimney Rock Road.