Erased by Time
A remote valley near Livermore once buzzed with two towns and California’s booming coal industry
When Dan Mosier visits the nearly empty landscape of Corral Hollow Canyon near Livermore, which once bustled with two towns, a major coal mining operation, and a railroad, he says he can’t help but feel the energy of what once was. He even thought he spotted an apparition in a deserted mine tunnel one time—but admits he didn’t stick around long enough to investigate fully.
Mosier isn’t the kind of guy who believes in ghosts. As a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, he deals with the hard facts of science and the material world.
He has been documenting the history of remote Corral Hollow Canyon and its two towns, Tesla and Carnegie, since he passed through it on a bike ride more than 30 years ago. He’s also written a book, History of Tesla: A California Coal Mining Town.
Hiking with Mosier through the canyon one blisteringly hot day this past summer, it was easy to get a spooky feeling—if only because the canyon is proof of how a human community can almost entirely disappear. Mosier points out that the mine at one point operated 24/7 and that the miners worked eight-hour shifts. “Hard to imagine in this heat, isn’t it?” he asks.
As Mosier spoke, all that stirred was the knee-high grass bending in the breeze and a ghostly pale barn owl flying through the trees. What remains of the towns southeast of Livermore are one shack and a bunker, the occasional piece of metal or railroad tie, mounds of mining waste, and scattered, crumbled foundations.
The Tesla coal mine and the two com-pany towns were created by James and John Treadwell, Canadian brothers who in the late 1880s struck it rich in Alaska by processing large amounts of quartz that contained just trace amounts of gold. They landed in the Bay Area in 1889, married sisters Louisa and Fredrika Graner, and moved into a mansion on Broadway in Oakland (now the administrative office for the California College of the Arts). Soon, John learned of coal in the hills east of Livermore and, longing for greater riches, began buying up property in Corral Hollow Canyon.
John wasn’t the only entrepreneur digging for coal in the East Bay hills, but he was the most ambitious: The Tesla mine eventually became the largest coal producer in California, and the railroad he and James built from Tesla to Oakland eventually connected to the Missouri Pacific Railroad, allowing the two companies to form the Western Pacific Railway Company in 1903.
At their height, Tesla and Carnegie were full-fledged communities. Tesla, the larger of the two with more than 1,500 people, boasted a school, churches, library, market, baseball diamond, tennis courts, sewage system, and even a Chinatown. It also had a saloon, even though John Treadwell was an ardent prohibitionist. “At first he turned away the liquor wagons coming from Livermore at the edge of town,” says Mosier.
But in time, the miners—many of whom were young, single, and probably starved for entertainment—went right ahead and erected the saloon. “They built it across the creek from Treadwell’s house,” Mosier says with a laugh.
The Treadwells had their fingers in many pies. The citizens of Carnegie, named for 19th-century industrialist Andrew Carnegie, weren’t just mining coal; they were producing brick from the red clay dug up out of Carnegie and Tesla. A terra cotta plant in Carnegie employed artisans who created beautiful trim for buildings around the Bay Area, while another pottery plant, located halfway between the two towns, manufactured sewer pipes.
Alas, the coal market crashed in the early 20th century after oil found in Southern California became the West Coast’s favorite fuel. Then a massive flood in 1911 wrecked much of Carnegie’s infrastructure and threw the Treadwell brothers into bankruptcy. Carnegie’s primary competitor—Gladding, McBean & Company—bought up the ruined town and dynamited it to prevent further competition. The Tesla mine also ceased operation in 1911.
California’s Department of Parks and Recreation bought Carnegie and 1,540 surrounding acres in 1979 for $1.2 million and turned it into an off-road vehicle recreation area. It is considering doing the same with Tesla. However, activists, including Mosier and the Sierra Club, want to preserve the area for historic purposes.
Although the scant remains of Tesla and Carnegie don’t technically qualify as ghost towns, some claim that the sites contain “psychic energy.” A man who says he’s sensitive to such things told Mosier that as he walked through the former Frytown neighborhood of Tesla, he could feel the energy of people and hear their voices. In any case, the human presence is still very real to Mosier: “Now I know so much about [the towns] and have heard so many stories that I feel like I see it all here again.”