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Mine touring at Black Diamond.

In the 1850s, the discovery of California's largest known coal deposit spurred a small rush to the hills south of Antioch. From those hills, some 40 miles northeast of Oakland, a cluster of mines disgorged $20 million worth of "black diamonds." Along with the mines, a number of tiny towns--including Somersville, Nortonville, and Stewartsville--sprouted, then wilted when coal mining ended in 1906. The area stirred again in the '20s when sand was mined for making glass, but the revival declined, and the towns became ghosts.

Today, the area is part of 3,809-acre Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve. Now through June is a fine time to visit, before searing summar heat comes. In the next few weeks, wildflowers will begin to show. A new entry road makes access easier. Mine tours now operate year-round, and hiking opportunities extend into the park's recently acquired Nortonville section.

You might want to begin your visit with the 1/2-mile walk to Rose Hill Cemetery. Broken gravestones tell sad tales of the harsh--and often short--lives of the miners and their families. Many of them had come from Wales, so a number of inscriptions are in Welsh Gaelic.

The 4-mile Stewartsville and Ridge Trail loop leads up past high tailings, then along the hillcrest for views of the communities nestled around Mount Diablo. More evidence of mining lies along the 2-mile Black Diamond Trail. A free park map-guide explains the techniques used.

Tourers gear up with helmets and flashlights (provided) for the 1 1/2-hour walk into the Hazel Atlas Mine, a silica sand mine active in the 1930s. The almost 1/4-mile shaft is studded with high-ceilinged rooms; it stays dry but a chilly 55[deg.], so dress warmly. Tours run weekends at 10 and 1; to reserve space, call the park at (415) 757-2620 at least three weeks ahead. Cost is $1.50 for adults, 50 cents for sniors and ages 7 to 11; under age 7 not allowed for safety reasons. Other weekend programs include stargazing, nature walks, and history walks (occasionally led by a ranger in period costume).

The East Bay Regional Park District is slowly restoring mining artifacts and remains of the ghost towns. Three ramshackle buildings from the old towns are now relocated around the park entrance; they'll soon quarter offices and a small nature center. An underground mining museum is also being developed.

To get there, take State Highway 4 to Antioch and exit at Somersville Road; follow it 3 miles southwest. There's a weekend parking fee of $1.50.
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Date:Feb 1, 1984
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