Sense of Place: How Mercuryville got its name
Mercuryville is on a ridge near Geyser Peak in northeast Sonoma County. A sign on Geysers Road proclaims, “Mercuryville City Limit; Pop 2; El 2600 ft; ½ mile high city.” The city council must be mighty small.
Gold miners needed mercury, also known as quicksilver, to recover the precious metal. Likewise, it was essential to mining silver from Nevada’s Comstock Lode. Just before the Gold Rush, a rich source of mercury was discovered near San Jose. Named “New Almaden” after a famous quicksilver mine in Spain, it became the single most valuable mine in California.
In the 1850s, the presence of mercury “everywhere on the surface near the Geysers” inspired Colonel Godwin, owner of Geyser Springs, to organize a mining district. But quicksilver’s low price, and a lack of available labor and skill, soon stopped the project. The mines were sold at a sheriff’s sale to pay off creditors.
In the early 1870s, interest revived when mercury climbed to $1 a pound. Mercuryville sprang up in the midst of a “quicksilver rush.” Hundreds of men labored at places like the Rattlesnake, Plutonic and Socrates Mines. The rush died out when mercury fell back to 50 cents a pound, though some mining continued for years afterwards.
Mercury, the winged messenger god of the Romans, was known for speed. As the only metal that is liquid at room temperature, mercury flows and is “quick.” The term “mad as a hatter” comes from the fact that hatters used quicksilver and breathed its toxic vapors. The neurological damage it did caused tremors, incoherent speech and “a desire to remain unobserved and unobtrusive.”
Tucked away in the Mayacamas, Mercuryville gets few visitors these days. It’s not really on the way to anywhere and no one’s in a rush to get there. Other than the sign, there’s not much to see.
Contact historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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