One of the sealed entrances to the Yaeger Mine, 2012. The small openings allow bats and other animals to still get in and out.

One of the sealed entrances to the Yaeger Mine, 2012. The small openings allow bats and other animals to still get in and out.

Jake Yaeger - Orange County Miner

Jim Sleeper called him “Orange County’s most persistent optimist.” For more than 40 years, Jacob Yaeger tunneled away in upper Trabuco Canyon, hoping to get rich.

Born in Germany in 1861, Jake Yaeger came to Anaheim in 1880 where he sold wagons, buggies and agricultural implements. By 1889 he was in Fullerton, where he ran a blacksmith shop. But mining was clearly in his blood. By 1886 he had discovered the Trabuco Country. Out on a hunting trip, he noticed signs of gold. He filed his first mining claims there in November 1887. Over the coming years he filed many other claims, eventually zeroing in on nine main claims. Working mostly by himself, he started digging. A rather melodramatic newspaper feature from 1922 relates:

“Despite the ever present menace of snakes and wild beasts of all kinds, whose numbers were legion for many years … notwithstanding the necessity for day after day of back-breaking manual labor, followed on each successive day by the doing of his own housework, cooking, washing, wood chopping and the hundred and one other little things that are necessary when a man is ‘batching it’; in the face of all these things which would make a less determined man give it all up as not worth the effort, ‘Jake’ Yaeger has always seen in the dim future the positive promise of success, and because of his determination to successfully accomplish that upon which he has started, he is now on the road to what appears to be the realization of his dream of years.” (Fullerton Daily Tribune, Aug. 17, 1922)

Yaeger’s workings were located on the south side of Trabuco Canyon, about two miles beyond Holy Jim Canyon (not on Yaeger Mesa, which towers above them). He had a little cabin nearby under a big maple tree. But little is left to mark the site, and the mining openings were all closed in around 2009 (see photo).

Yaeger did find some gold there. In 1897 he put in a small two-stamp mill to process the ore. With proven returns, he was able to find a buyer for his mine. The sale price was reported as $120,000, but only a small down payment was ever made. The deal fell apart, “the parties to whom they were offered being dissatisfied with the results of the assays.” (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6, 1897)

Undaunted, Yaeger vowed to develop his mine himself. He often worked alone, blasting his way back into the hillside inch by inch. Trabuco Canyon pioneer Ed Adkinson recalled in 1923:

“Dozens of others have prospected and mined all over these mountains, but nobody stuck to it like old Jake. Finally, he settled down to tunneling under the mountain just down the canyon. He told me a short time ago that he was in 2,000 feet. He runs a little cart back and forth, and hauls the rock out by hand. It takes him thirty-five minutes for a trip, to bring out two five-gallon cans of material.” (Santa Ana Register, July 6, 1923)

The Fullerton Daily Tribune (Aug. 17, 1922) credited him with even more digging: “He has built over 5,000 feet of tunnels, including 120 feet in cross-cut tunneling and a big shaft. He is mining at 250 feet below the surface level.” As Yaeger went in further, they report, water seepage became a problem, so he dug a 1,900-foot drainage tunnel.

Exact details on the production of most small mining operations are hard to come by. For example, on July 11, 1897 the Los Angeles Herald wrote that Yaeger was “reported to have struck it rich, as he is working rock that is paying from $1000 to $2000 a ton.” But just a day later they reported his ore was running “several hundred dollars to the ton.” Both figures are surely exaggerated.

Like most miners, Yaeger gave his many claims a variety of colorful names, including the Salvation, the Cleveland, the Company, the Climax, the Grand Sight, the Hope, the New Hope, the Black Bear, the Black Bear Extension, the Grey Cat, the Helena, the Lillian, the Margaret, the Stella (his wife), the Rattle Snake, the Fullerton, the Julian, the Silver Slide, the Lakeview, the Potrero, the Trabuco, the Trabuco Extension, the Cold Springs Extension, the Poison Oak, the Kit Carson, the Washington, the Lincoln and the Sunset. A typical claim was 1,500 feet long and 300 feet wide. Many of Yaeger’s claims were co-filed with a variety of other family members and – presumably – grubstakers, who were putting up some of the cash. In 1922, Yaeger claimed to have spent $125,000 developing his mine.

Eventually Yaeger settled in on nine adjoining claims, including the Julian, the Climax, the New Era, the Salvation, and the Black Bear.

After nearly four decades, Yaeger began the process to convert his claims into actual ownership. His claims were only valid as long as he worked them every year; a patent (deed) from the federal government would give him full ownership of the land and its mineral resources.

The Forest Service objected, saying the area was more useful as recreational land and arguing that Yaeger had not mined enough gold to prove his mine was valuable enough to warrant a government patent. Not surprisingly, Yaeger didn’t give up. He began a long legal battle with the Cleveland National Forest to obtain his patent.

Yaeger continued working his claims as he fought. He was there alone in May 1928 when paralysis struck his right leg. He was taken out for medical care, but died less than three weeks later at age 66. “He was the only man [here] ever to receive clear title to his claims by patent,” Jim Sleeper noted in his 1968 article on the Trabuco Tin Mine down the canyon. “This is, he would have had he lived three days longer. After grubbing for … years, Jake died on June 3, 1928. His patent came through on June 6.”

Yaeger’s daughter Lillian and his son Fred took over, but lacked their father’s resolve, and the mine was abandoned. After remaining in private hands for many years, Yaeger’s 185-acre tract was eventually acquired by the San Bernardino Mountains Land Trust, which finally transferred it to the Forest Service in 2009.

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(For photos of the mine shortly before it was sealed, visit the Holy Jim/Trabuco Canyon cabin owners website.)