Our Desert Home
Native American and Spanish explorers used High Desert minerals long before the arrival of the white man. The discovery of gold in Holcomb Valley in 1860, near Big Bear Lake , brought hundreds of prospectors to the High Desert and the San Bernardino Mountains. In fact, the various gold discoveries of the Victor Valley actually led to the discovery and mining of the limestone deposits that would later support the important cement and calcium carbonate operations.
The Holcomb Valley “gold rush” attracted many of the experienced “49er” prospectors from Northern California who did not strike it rich up north. One of these prospectors was John Cushenbury who discovered silver in the limestones that supply the present Mitsubishi Cement Corporation’s Cushenbury plant. These prospectors began exploring the High Desert and in 1870, established the Oro Grande (“Big Gold” in Spanish) Mining District located north of Quartzite Mountain . Gold was produced from the Oro Grande and Oro Fina mines. Miners working in this area discovered the limestone deposits, which now provide the raw materials for the present TXI Riverside Cement Plant. In 1910, the Golden State Cement Company began mining limestone near the old Carbonate Gold Mine in the Oro Grande District, on the western slopes of Quartzite Mountain . This event began the transformation of the High Desert from a gold district to a major supplier of limestone products in California .
Southwestern Portland Cement Company began mining limestone on the east side of Quartzite Mountain in 1916, and moved to Black Mountain in 1942. Victorville Lime Rock Company mined limestone from deposits located north of Victorville and east of I-15 in the early 1900s. The limestone was used in glass manufacturing, as filler material and as a variety of construction materials. One of these quarries is the Piercy Quarry, named for Rick Piercy’s grandfather. Rick is director of the Lewis Center in Apple Valley .
The Sidewinder Mine, located north of Apple Valley , opened in the 1880s and operated until World War II. The underground portion of the mine was used as a bomb shelter and civil defense storage site during the cold war of the 1950s and 1960s. The miners at the Sidewinder Mine discovered the limestone deposits that would become first the Southwestern Portland Cement Plant and later the CEMEX Cement plant.
Today, the CEMEX’s Black Mountain plant is the largest Portland cement facility in the United States . The High Desert mining industry boomed after World War II. Many returning GIs moved to California creating a need for additional infrastructure. These new families needed homes, schools, roads, etc. This building boom needed limestone for the required construction materials; cement for concrete, fine grind limestone for glass, roofing products, paints, adhesives and stucco. Limestone is also important as a filler plastics and paper and is important in pharmaceutical products such as toothpaste and medicines. People like Henry J. Kaiser were instrumental in building the current mining industry in the High Desert .
Kaiser built the Kaiser Steel mill in Fontana and sent his geologists out to find a source of metallurgical limestone for the steel furnaces in Fontana . The Kaiser geologists identified many of the active Lucerne Valley limestone deposits. The Kaiser Cement facility was constructed in Lucerne Valley in 1957 to mine the local limestone deposits, originally mined for silver by John Cushenbury. Mitsubishi Cement Corp. purchased the plant in 1988. The Lucerne Valley limestone deposits support two other major mining operations, Specialty Minerals Inc. and OMYA. SMI and OMYA produce high grade fine-grind limestone products. This California population boom also created needs for other High Desert industrial minerals. Borax from U.S. Borax, rare earth minerals from Molycorp, specialty clays from Elementis, sand and gravel sources for concrete are some of the non-limestone minerals mined in the High Desert . From early gold mining to the present production of important industrial minerals, the High Desert has evolved to be a major producer of the raw materials that fuel California’s economy. High grade fine grind limestone products from SMI and OMYA, cement from Mitsubishi Cement, CEMEX and TXI, clays from Elementis, and construction aggregate from High Grade Materials, Cemex, and other producers are the raw materials that keep our economy strong. The High Desert can take pride in a rich mining history that began in the 1860’s and continues today.
Doug Shumway is the environmental director at the Mitsubishi Cement Corporation. Dinah Shumway is the Principal Geologist at TerraMins, Inc.