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Mercury, Mining and Menlo Park
November 19, 2007, 12:00 AM

There is a lot of talk these days about mercury poisoning and the pollution of San Francisco Bay. Mercury was a vital part of gold mining in our early days and some of today’s pollution is left over from the 1850s.

After the initial wave of miners collected the surface gold in the Sierras, more sophisticated technology was employed.

Mercury was added to sluice boxes containing dust or small particles of gold. The two metals would bond and easily separate out from lighter material.

When heated, the mercury evaporated, leaving the gold. Fortunately, since mercury was expensive, some effort was made to reclaim the vapors in a retort to condense for reuse. Much of it still went down the streams to contaminate riverbeds and the Bay.

As more complex technology was employed, mercury amalgamation was still part of the process.

Santa Clara County’s New Almaden Quicksilver Mine was the oldest and most productive quicksilver mine in the United States.

The local Ohlone natives had used the red cinnabar ore to ornament their bodies for centuries.

In 1845, a Spaniard familiar with quicksilver mines in Spain and a trained metallurgist, geologist and chemist realized the value of the ore.

He and the local property owners began mining the quicksilver.

In 1847, shares of the mine were sold to Barron, Forbes Company an English Industrial firm.

They named the mine the New Almaden after a mine in Spain that had been operating for centuries. The name "Almaden” comes from the Arabic for "the mine.” The Barron, Forbes Company ran New Almaden until 1863.

Eustace Barron and J. Alexander Forbes were British expatriates living in Mexico and operating cotton mills as Barron, Forbes Company.

Mexico was in a state of chaos just then. It was through some questionable maneuvering that the quicksilver mine came to be owned by them.

William E. Barron was a more fun loving nephew of Eustace Barron. He decided to go into business in San Francisco as a commission merchant.

Alexander Forbes thought this an excellent idea, as Barron could also act as agent for New Almaden. A man named James Bolton joined young Barron as Bolton, Barron Company.

They built an office building at Montgomery and Merchant Streets that survived the 1906 earthquake.

A rift developed between Bolton and Barron, and Barron bought Bolton out. He reorganized his business as Barron and Company, with Thomas Bell as the other member of the firm. William E. Barron eventually became one of the partners owning New Almaden.

W.E. Barron was also one of the original members of Ralston’s Bank of California. Barron had become friends with Ralston back when they were both in Panama.

With friends and business associates like William Sharon, Alvinza Hayward and Darius O. Mills, Barron was in on many of the investment bonanzas of the times.

One of the first stately homes built in today’s Menlo Park area was the home of William E. Barron. He vacationed there and hoped the climate would help to restore his failing health.

He sold it to Senator Milton S. Latham and moved back into San Francisco. Barron died in 1871 at the age of 49.

His funeral was the largest San Francisco had seen to date. His house accidentally burned down during Latham’s renovation. Latham rebuilt on the same property, but all vestiges of the Barron place were lost to history.

Rediscovering the Peninsula appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal. For more information on this or related topics, visit the San Mateo County

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