The time was March, 1863 and the Civil War was raging in the South. War not only costs lives, it costs money, something both sides desperately needed in order to continue their respective military campaigns.
On the opposite side of the country was a prospering mercury mine in the middle of what is now Almaden Quicksilver County Park. A cash-conscious President Abraham Lincoln was aware that the Supreme Court had just judged that the original claim to the mine was fraudulent and therefore invalid. The president therefore decided to “jump claim,” sending the following writ to the US Marshall in San Francisco:
“I, Abraham Lincoln, do order you to take possession of the New Almaden Quicksilver Mine for the United States.”
With those words, General Wright detailed the cavalry and an infantry detachment to San Jose and things began to heat up.
Meanwhile the mine’s owners, believing Lincoln’s order was illegal, dug in their heels and decided to stay put. As always happens in business, politics, and in war, strings were pulled. General Henry Halleck, General-in-Chief of the Army, a man who must have had a vital pair of parts made of solid brass, sent a telegram countermanding the President’s order.
At the same time the collector of the Port of San Francisco, Frederick Low, telegrammed Lincoln directly. He warned the president that the rumor mill had begun cranking in full force and that the miners of California and Nevada were now assuming that the U.S. Government planned to seize any mine that was on public property.
It wasn’t hard for Lincoln to realize that continuing to go after the Almaden mine could push California toward secession from the Union. He retracted his writ and the troops withdrew.
The mass of history balances, tilting first one way, then the other on such events. Long after Lincoln lost that particular battle the mine remains in the Almaden hillside, along with a museum and a small plaque marking the place where the outcome of the Civil War might have changed forever.
If you go
New Almaden Quicksilver Mine
21350 Almaden Road, San Jose
Phone: (408) 323-1107
Open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays 12-4pm, Saturdays and Sundays 10am-4pm. Closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.