Ghosts of Old New Almaden

Petra and Pascal Michel, my grea-great-grandparents from Sonora

The Michels, my great-great-grandparents

While I’m hardly a genealogy nut, I do consider myself the keeper of the keys when it comes to family history, and I try to keep opening old doors whenever I get the chance. One research trip that’s been on my list for way too long is a trip down to the New Almaden Mining Museum south of San Jose. According to my mom, her great-grandfather Pascal Michel worked there in the 1850s as a mining engineer, and I’ve always wanted to check the payroll records and get the full story. A few years back I phoned the museum and they confirmed that they had tons of records dating back to the early days, but they told me I’d have to come down and do the research myself – and only on a Saturday or Sunday.

Weekends are tough for me, since I usually work – but finally the planets lined up and I had the time, so I hit the road for the 90-minute drive down to the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the way down, munching a chorizo burrito and blasting Los Cenzontles to get me in the mood, I reflected on what I knew about Pascal Michel. A French Mexican, he was either born in or emigrated to Sonora, where he married Petra Murillo, an eductated girl from a good family in Hermosillo.  Mining was the family business, and he plied the trade in Sonora for some time before heading north. According to the stories, he and Petra started a family together down in Mexico, but all the kids from that first batch were wiped out in an epidemic, which had a lot to do with their decision to start over in Alta California.

Main Street, New Almaden

Main Street, New Almaden

Unike the majority of 49ers, Pascal was a mining professional, and as far as I know never tried his hand up in the Mother Lode with the amateurs. The Nueva Almaden was a hard-rock cinnabar mine, producing all the mercury that was used to refine all the gold that was pulled down out of the Sierra, and then some – it didn’t shut down until the 1940s. Unlike the typical 49er, Pascal brought his wife with him, and settled down in the Bay Area – still a frontier zone but considerably more civilized than Gold Country. They had four children who lived to adulthood: three sons and my great-grandmother, Loreto Michel Taber, who was baptised at Benicia in 1859 and schooled by the sisters at Holy Names in Oakland.  Pascal never got rich, but the salary must have been pretty good – in the 1860s he bought some property down in Lemoore, where he lived out the rest of his days as a gentleman ranchero. 

Of course my Google directions were a bit off, and I was briefly sidetracked by a wrong turn in Willow Glen, but before long I was winding my way south through the Almaden suburbs and up into the hills. It was a clear, breezy day and the poppies were still in bloom, with green grass on the hills and the jacaranda trees covered with purple flowers.  Finally the two-lane road became the main street of an old town, lined on both sides with 19th century buildings, and on my left, a large construction project with a sign on the chain link fence reading: MINING MUSEUM CLOSED FOR REMODELING.

IMG_3572Oh, imagine my surprise. And yes, I did check the Interwebs before I embarked, but somehow failed to notice any mention of a closure. Oh well. I guess the family research will have to wait until next summer. But the trip was not a complete waste of time. I had a nice hike in the hills, through the old grounds of what was once a vast, sprawling operation, now mostly overgrown but still studded with old buildings and mining infrastructure. It turned into a contemplative day in the hills, marked by reflections on the elusiveness of history and the uneasy value judgments it sometimes invokes. I couldn’t help but remember reading that nearly all of the mercury contamination in San Francisco Bay was a direct result of the New Almaden operation, which despite its park-like environs is still a Superfund site. Mercury poisoning remains an all-too-common occurrence for people who fish from the bay and either can’t read the warning signs or are too hungry to care. Knowing that my great-great-grandfather may have been a gross polluter had a similar effect on me as when I learned that another ancestor had been a slave-owner,and that most of the people who share my surname in this country are descendants of African slaves. On the one hand, it’s hard not feel a little shame when you uncover such things. But on the other hand, it’s futile and arguably ridiculous to judge the past by today’s ethical standards.

America's most beautiful Superfund site?

America's most beautiful Superfund site?

Those men were what they were, and did what they did, and like it or not I wouldn’t be here today if they hadn’t. I hope that my own descendants will someday be able to look back on me with the same moral relativism, and not judge me too harshly for anything I may have done – or not done – in my years on Earth.

I’m looking forward to going back to New Almaden next year, and combing through those old payroll records. The exact year of the Michels’ arrival from Mexico is still unknown, along with Pascal’s actual role (if any) at the mine. I also owe the sisters at Holy Names a visit, to see if I can find out more about my mama-grande Loreto’s school years.  California’s early history was so chaotic, and so many records have been destroyed by fires and earthquakes, that I can’t hope to ever know all the details. But I can keep digging, even when the search leads to a Superfund site, and try to leave my grandchildren a more complete story than the one I grew up with.

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2 Responses to Ghosts of Old New Almaden

  1. Gaelyn says:

    I like it. Btw, I’ve been meaning to ask if you’ve been to the California history meuseum here in the city? I don’t know much about it or if it’s any good… But worth mentioning

  2. Erik Salmonson says:

    I am going to come back from Korea just to get you into the Clampers for that. You easily know more about California history than half of the drunken bastards.

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