Pausing in his boulder-to-boulder leaps up the steep Joe Creek drainage at the base of the Blue Ledge Mine, Dana Hight took a long drink from his water bottle and caught his breath.
"Smell that sulfur," he said, wrinkling his nose at the rotten-egg odor. "It seems a lot stronger than when we were up here five years ago."
U.S. Forest Service geologists say sulfuric acid is leaching from up to 50,000 tons of waste rock left behind at the long-closed mine once heralded as the copper king of Southern Oregon.
The agency was notified April 10 that $8.5 million in federal stimulus money has been earmarked to clean up the abandoned site in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
Officials are scrambling to come up with plans for what is expected to be a challenging project.
Hight, 34, a self-described history buff who has spent hundreds of hours researching the area, stood looking up at a yellow swath of stone several hundred yards long, much of it partially coated with a reddish brown rust.
Immediately above him was an old log dam installed to halt the movement of the waste rock. Behind the dam was a small pool of water whose bottom was covered with brown sludge.
The water tumbling below his feet, however, was clear, having melted from the snowpack visible on the rim above.
"I fully understand why they need to clean this up, particularly considering this is spring water," Hight said. "I just hope they don't mess up the historic area, including where people once lived downstream from the mine.
"Getting to understand the kind of people who lived up here is why I came up here in the first place," he added. "The hardest-core families lived here. You look at the old pictures. Everyone had a rifle because they hunted right here. There is a lot of history here."
Located about four miles south of the California state line in the upper Applegate River watershed, the Blue Ledge is a gold mine of history. The mine was named for the characteristic blue sheen of weathered chalcopyrite taken from the site.
The base of the mine is about 4,000 feet above sea level. At the head of Joe Creek just south of the mine stands Copper Butte, which rises to 6,194 feet above sea level.
During its heyday from 1906 through 1919, the mine spawned a sprawling camp near its base that had more than two dozen dwellings, although years ago they were burned or dismantled and hauled off to build other mining shacks.
Farther downstream from the mining camp was another community known as Eileen that boasted a hotel, store and other structures. While you couldn't purchase booze at the company-owned mining camp, you could pick up a bottle down the hill in Eileen, named for the daughter of Dr. J.F. Reddy, a mine official. The boarding house, known as the Hotel Eileen, offered steam radiator heat and light from gas chandeliers.
Another community in the area, known as Joe Bar City or Hutton, was located some three miles downstream from the mine at the confluence of Joe and Elliott creeks. Unfortunately, five buildings in Joe Bar, including an old saloon, burned to the ground during a fire on April 20, 1940.
The picturesque hamlet of Joe Bar still exists, however, with several residents living on the island of private land surrounded by national forest. One local resident with a long white beard, noting he had lived in the area for 35 years, told a Mail Tribune reporter this week that the environmental work was a waste of taxpayer money and could release materials that would contaminate his drinking water.
In January, a heavy metal gate was installed on Joe Bar Road — Forest Road 1050 — to reduce vandalism in the remote area. Residents have access but visitors wanting to pass through the gate must obtain a key at the ranger station near McKee Bridge.
Before Forest Road 1050 existed, there was a wagon road leading from the Blue Ledge to Jacksonville and Medford. Freight wagons pulled by teams of six and eight horses hauled machinery up to the mine, Ashland writer Marjorie O'Harra penned in her 1985 book, "Southern Oregon: Short Trips into History."
The Blue Ledge Mining Co. spent nearly $2 million developing the site and hired hundreds of workers, she wrote.
"The monthly payrolls grew to $17,775 in February, 1907, and remained relatively steady through 1908," O'Harra wrote, citing company ledgers from that era. "Freight bills ran $3,000 to $4,000 per month. Groceries and supplies (including such items as $5.75 for liquor and $6.30 for washing) were duly noted."
Summer 1909 at the Blue Ledge Mine sparked a romance between employees Maude Byrne of the Applegate Valley and Englishman Harold Watson, said Evelyn Williams, 82, a longtime upper Applegate Valley resident.
Byrne was Williams' aunt. Williams' father, John Byrne, also worked at the mine that year.
"She worked in the cookhouse that summer," Williams recalled. "She had taught school during the winter and worked up there in the summer. Harold, who was from England, was working in California and had heard about the mine. He went up there to work."
The two met, fell in love and were married, eventually moving to San Jose, Calif., where they had a family and lived to ripe old ages, she said.
"We just loved Harold — he was a wonderful guy," she said.
The historic McKee Covered Bridge over the Applegate River was also the result of the mine, said Williams, whose great uncle Adelbert "Deb" McKee donated the land for the bridge when it was built in 1917.
"They were having problems with the ore wagons crossing the river," she explained.
Williams, who has one of the mine's ledger books dated from 1906, recalls visiting the Blue Ledge in the late 1940s.
"There were still a few log buildings up there then," she said.
The mine was an important part of local mining history, said Jeff LaLande, retired forest historian and archaeologist. But in the broader picture it was dwarfed by copper mines in places such as Bisbee, Ariz., or Butte, Mont., he said.
"In the overall scope of things, mining in the far West, whether copper or gold, particularly in Southern Oregon or Northern California, when you step back and look at everything, was really pretty small potatoes," LaLande said.
"I'm not trying to negate the significance of the Blue Ledge Mine," he added. "It was a significant piece of our history. It was big for our area. And it was very instrumental in helping boom the local economy."
There were several copper mines in the region, including the Alameda Mine along the Rogue River a few miles downstream from Galice and the Queen of Bronze Mine near Takelma in the Illinois Valley, he noted.
"They were all about the same time," he said. "The Alameda Mine had a small smelter. The fumes from the smelter killed trees in the area."
Like Hight, he believes action should be taken to stop the waste rock from leaching sulfuric acid and other toxins into the watershed.
"Those adits up there have some real rotten rock," he said, noting its crumbly nature. "It would be good to close them off with gates. Let the bats go in and hang out."
The adits were punched into a rock outcropping high above where Hight was standing near the log dam. He pointed to the remnants of a structure once used to harness a cable system that hauled equipment and supplies up the mountain and ore back down.
"You can still see where it is anchored," Hight said. "Right behind it is the old track that went into the mine."
Hight, co-owner with business partner Abe Nesbitt of Deliver De Cuisine, an Ashland restaurant delivery service, was reared in the state of Jefferson. A 1993 graduate of Mount Shasta High School, he explored the Blue Ledge area with a high school friend.
"As a kid, I spent a lot of time in areas of old mines," Hight said of his love for things old. "I'm an avid hiker. My family likes to get out and see places where there is some history."
But he and his family leave the places they visit intact, he stressed.
"My wife and I want our children to enjoy it and share it with others down the road," he said. "You have to leave things where they are."
At the Blue Ledge Mine, there is still a strong sense of history, he reiterated.
"From the pictures we've seen and the stories we've heard, this was an amazing place," he said.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.