• Stephanie Brown

36. Mr. Butterworth's Mine


Almaden Quicksilver County Park, Santa Clara County, CA, 2020 (personal photo)


While we count down the hours til WPI's promised release of the new volumes of the Gauguin Catalogue raisonné, we have been exploring new hiking trails. Last Saturday saw us at the Almaden Quicksilver County Park. Bear with me: this is part of our ongoing Six Degrees of Paul Gauguin game.


Almaden County Park is south of San Jose, just over 4,000 acres in the hills of the Capitancillos Ridge. The park is on the site of what was California's first mercury mine, incorporated in 1863. Mercury, for those of you who haven't brushed up, was used in mining gold and silver. The mine at New Almaden produced mercury that miners in the Sierras used during the Gold Rush. It was named New Almaden after the Almadén mercury mine in Spain.


Carleton Watkins, The Works and the Mine, New Almaden, 1863, J. Paul Getty Museum


Mercury mining is toxic: it poisons the ground, it poisons the water, it poisons anything that grows in or out of the ground or the water. The Almaden Quicksilver County Park became a park after it had been declared a Superfund site: after decades of mining operations, it was unfit for habitation. You can fish in the reservoir, but you can't eat what you catch because it will make you sick. There's still mercury contamination leftover from the mining.


Hiking the trails of the park on a cool December day it's difficult to imagine the hillsides as they were over a century ago. The hills are covered in oaks and bay trees. There are views out across the Santa Clara valley; it's possible to imagine what the valley looked like before the cul-de-sacs and the red-tiled, stucco housing developments. It's harder to imagine what the land looked like while the mines were active. What remains are some concrete footings, rusted tracks, and crumbling wooden trestles. Poison oak and blackberries are doing the work of erasing the memories of what happened there.





We took the Randol trail, named for the mine's second superintendent, James Butterworth Randol. James took on the job when his uncle Samuel, the founding President and Manager of the Quicksilver Mining Company, retired. Samuel Butterworth, a native New Yorker, had trained as a lawyer and practiced in Mississippi in the 1840s, where he met and married Mary Emily Amis. The couple had seven children; two lived to adulthood. They moved to New York City in the 1850s and Samuel organized the U.S. Assay Office and become its first superintendent. What's an Assay Office? To assay means to test the purity of precious metals. If, in 1854, you weren't convinced that the silver dollars that your grandmother left you were actually silver, you could have brought them to the assay office on Wall Street for testing. Butterworth stayed at the Assay Office until about 1863, when he moved to New Almaden and took up his role at the Quicksilver Mining Company. The family stayed in New York; Samuel wrote regularly to his daughter Blanche, describing his California life:


"What do you think I eat for breakfast? Figs and cream, buttered toast and tea. This is a fruitful country, the figs are large and the best I ever saw, you never [saw such] nice ripe blue figs, they are delicious with cream..."


Butterworth's annual salary at New Almaden was $25,000 in 1863 ($516,327 today). He could afford plenty of figs on that salary; his workers earned about $624 ($14,762 today) if they had a good year. I don't know what they ate for breakfast, but it probably wasn't figs and cream. Butterworth mostly stayed in San Francisco. His employees lived in hastily thrown up shacks on the ridge.

Carleton Watkins, The Town on the Hill, New Almaden, negative 1863; print 1868–1872, J. Paul Getty Museum


Butterworth retired from New Almaden in 1870. When he died five years later, his estate was valued at about $7,000,000 ($165,600,272 today). His daughter Blanche Butterworth was grown and married to Louis Terah Haggin, whose family had also made millions in the Gold Rush. Blanche inherited much of her father's estate and she, in turn, left it to her only child, Eila Haggin. And with some of it Eila bought, in 1929, our own Flowers and Fruit. The money that came out of the New Almaden hills bought this, and many other, paintings. We can look at the art (online, someday again in person), and we can study it, think about it, write about it, but we still can't eat the fish, and I would hesitate before I planted tomatoes in a bed at the foot of those hills.


I was thinking about this in the last week or so while avoiding articles about the Sackler family testifying on their role in the opioid crisis. If you haven't heard about it, congratulations for missing that particular bit of bad news. The Sackler family have argued, mostly, that they didn't know that the drugs that were making them fabulously, Butterworth-level wealthy, had any relationship to the lives overturned by addiction. They have pointed, over and over, to their philanthropic donations to cultural institutions from the Met to the Freer-Sackler. Look at the good we've done with our money, they seem to say; don't look at the way we came by it.


I expect that if Butterworth had been required to testify on the miners poisoned by mercury fumes at New Almaden, he would have said the same. And so would most, if not all, of the wealthy industrialists behind American museum collections. So where does that leave us? I have no answers. I'm glad I came across Flowers and Fruit; I wish it could have come to California without capitalists like Samuel Butterworth exploiting workers and wreaking environmental destruction.


There's a movement in the museum world now that insists that museums are not (and never have been) neutral. The argument is that everyone has a perspective. The most anodyne label on the most anodyne painting represents a series of choices. This and not that. Don't mention that, mention this. The stories we tell, tell us who we want to be, who we want to think we are. Telling the story of Flowers and Fruit involves a long chain of choices. And one of them is to mention the connection between this painting, pleasant to look at, delightful to explore--and the Sunday afternoon fisherman who throws his catch back into the Almaden reservoir.



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