Black Diamond Mines dates back to the 1800s.
One of my biggest surprises at the Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve was finding the Greathouse Visitor Center underground. Then again, this was once a major coal producing area in California. When I visit this Contra Costa County park in Northern California, I love to explore the Nortonville and Stewartville Trails, as well as the shorter loops near the visitor’s center. Clamber into an old mine tunnel, read the tombstones in an old-time cemetery, inhale the scent of eucalyptus and almond trees, and watch a golden eagle soar overhead. The trails of Black Diamond Mines offer naturalists and historians something to smile about.
History of Black Diamond Mines
South of downtown Antioch and adjacent to the Contra Loma Regional Recreation Area, this area was once shared by Native Americans from the Ompin, Volvon and Chupcan tribes. With the arrival of Mexicans and Europeans came cattle ranching. Then in the 1860s coal was discovered, turning the area into the Black Diamond mining operation. It was called black diamond because the coal was shiny, black and worth plenty of money. Coal mining lasted until the end of the 19th century. Sand mining, intended to supply Oakland’s Hazel-Atlas Glass Company, lasted from the 1920s until 1949. In 1991, Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Nortonville Trail 0– West End
The Nortonville Trail begins near the Greathouse parking lot at the tip of Somersville Road. Stretching 0.6 of a mile, it was originally an old wagon road. It leads west to the mine’s Rose Hill Cemetery, in use until the mid-1800s, and the Nortonville Townsite. The graves of some 200 people are still in that cemetery. Suitable for hikers, bikers and horseback riders, the trail is unpaved and considered moderate to difficult. It connects to the Black Diamond Trail leading you to Jim’s Place, the remains of an underground home with a square skylight, the remnants of a shelf and a round hole where a stovepipe would fit. Pedestrians may take the optional Coal Canyon Trail to Jim’s Place, which also connects to the Nortonville Trail. Both routes are less than a mile, one way.
Stewartville Trail – East End
The Stewartville Trail is on the eastern end of the park, stretching 2.4 miles from Fredrickson Lane past what was the town of Stewartville to the Greathouse Visitor’s Center. It is an easier climb than the Nortonville Trail and is used by hikers, bikers and horses. This trail passes by Prospect Tunnel, created by miners in the 1860s. Bring a flashlight and explore the first 200 feet of the tunnel. The rest is blocked off. The Star Mine Trail connects just south of the tunnel. It leads to the Star Mine Group Camp, available by reservation to educational groups, and the remains of the Star Mine, closed to the public. The Stewartville Backpack Camp near the Stewartville Townsite offers 20 tent camping sites by reservation only. Each site has a picnic table and the campground offers a pit toilet. Water is available for horses, but it’s not potable for humans unless treated. The upper Old Canyon Trail leads to a scenic overlook, a little more than a mile from camp.
Short Hikes Near Greathouse Visitor’s Center
The Manhattan Canyon Trail, Lower Chaparral Trail and the Chaparral Loop Trail all originate near the Greathouse Visitor’s Center. These pedestrian only trails lead you past parts of the original mine. The Eureka Slope was the entrance to the coal mine that operated from 1860 to 1895, reached by the Lower Chaparral Trail. Nearby is the entrance to the sand mine that operated from the 1920s until the end of the 1940s, called the Hazel Atlas Portal and found along the Chaparral Loop Trail. Also along this same trail is the Powder Magazine, where they once stored explosives used in the mines and the Stope, a chamber created by the mining of sand and rock. Somersville Road leads into this south-central area of the park. The Railroad Bed Trail mirrors the roadway, and allows hikers, bikers and horses.