Journey into the Devil’s belly
Challenge fate by exploring the mines of Mount Diablo in Antioch, California.
THEY call it a portal but, really, it’s more like a gaping maw. The opening’s steel- enforced gates, padlocked, take on an almost predator- like aspect, a gangster’s grill- work sneering back at you. A dozen of us stood before this threshold, awaiting entrance, staring at the concrete portico bearing the chiselled inscription, “1930,” and trying not to obsess over minute cracks in the foundation.
Our guide for the morning, Mickey Rovere, sought to reassure us – and by us, I mean just me and maybe that wary eight- year- old in the back – of the safety of the Hazel- Atlas Mine, a long- dormant operation that extracted first coal, then silica, from the foothills abutting Mount Diablo. But, in the very act of assurance, in his repeated furrowed- brow recitation of preventive measures and liberal use of the phrase “structural integrity,” Rovere only heightened my anxiety.
“We have modern- day miners in here maintaining these mines every day,” Rovere said. “They are testing the integrity of the rock to ensure that where we’re going to be walking is going to be safe. But it is a state requirement that we keep hard hats on. Remember, this is a real mine. The hard hats should be a reminder that you are definitely underground, OK?”
Gulp. I have a thing – irrational, I know, but so be it – about enclosed spaces. I fear depths, not heights, harbour debilitating entombment fantasies, imagine all sorts of worst- case, buried- alive scenarios, akin to what those 33 Chilean miners faced a few years back. Sure, the opening of the shaft looked secure enough, inviolable even, as we peered in while Rovere fumbled with the padlock and opened the double- steel gates with an eerie creak. Structural integrity, I told myself. Structural integrity. It became a mantra, a lullaby to combat the decanted cortisol, that toxic stress hormone, flooding my neural pathways.
No one else appeared the slightest bit fazed, not even the eight- year- old. Their fascination with getting a glimpse of history about a bygone energy- extracting industry, as well as gawking at glittering sandstone rock 50 millions years in the making and fossil remnants from what once was the ocean floor, seemed to override any deep- seated angst. After all, people have been touring the mine at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve for two decades, not counting that closure from 2007 to 2012 after storm damage threatened the ( wait for it ...) structural integrity and necessitated extensive repairs under rigorous mine- safety regulations.
Once inside, donning hard hats and clutching flashlights like life preservers in the pleasant 13.9° coolness, we prepared for a 90- minute trek 950ft ( 290m) into the bowels of Diablo’s foothills to observe the geology and learn how, from the late 19th century to the late 1940s, miners blasted into the rock to scrape away first coal and then, when that rich vein ran dry, 1.8 million tonness of silica from the sandstone to ship to Oakland for making glass.
But first, Rovere gave us the lay of the inland via a slide show in a room chiselled out from the main shaft. In a feverish 10- minute presentation, the peppy, fast- talking Rovere took us from the early Cenozoic Era when Mount Diablo was ocean floor and through tectonic upheaval and formation of coal deposits. Then he segued into the entrepreneurial forays in which 4 million tons of coal were pounded out by workers, some just kids, for about US$ 3 ( RM 13) a day, while risking black lung disease, boiler explosions and spontaneous combustion. Then came the sand- blasting stope days of silica mining, where seven layers of parallel tunnels snaked more than 7 miles ( 11.26km), connected by railroad tracks.
By the time he got to the mine’s closure, Rovere, almost as an aside, told us “the reason we became a park,” which did nothing to quell my anxiety.
“These mines produce gases – methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide – and, after the mines closed, a lot of young explorers wandered into them and couldn’t find their way out. These gases were overwhelming. So ... ( the East Bay Regional Parks District) came in for public safety, sealed off all of these coal mines, using special foam and concrete and opened this one making sure the structural integrity was sound.
“What I like to call this is an 89- yearold sand castle ... except we don’t have a tide that comes in and washes us away. We have state- certified miners who come in and gently tap on these walls and ceilings – we call it scaling – all week long to test the structural integrity. OK, any questions?”
There’s always one in every group, some dolt who holds everyone back from actual exploring with an alarmist question. That person happened to be me. I asked about earthquakes.
“We’re actually going to walk right through a fault,” Rovere said. “In 1989 ( the Loma Prieta quake), we had just one rock fall.” “Oh, that’s nothing,” I said, relieved. “It was a 317.5kg rock, so it wasn’t nothing,” he said. “It came out like a loose tooth right over there.”
He pointed to a spot near the portal, saying, “It crushed all our ( equipment). That’s why this area is all reinforced concrete, to protect walls.”
But as we trudged ahead about 9.14m through the tunnel, about 2.44m high and 3m wide, the concrete and wood reinforcements ended. We were surrounded by sandstone. I brushed my shoulder against a pillar and sand crumbled down my arm. Such porousness didn’t inspire confidence in, well, the structural integrity of the walls.