Digging through history: Looking back at UC Berkeley’s College of Mining

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Maryam Eldeeb/Staff

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When UC Berkeley first opened its doors in 1869, students could choose from five available colleges: the colleges of Mechanic Arts, Civil Engineering, Letters, Agriculture or Mining — all established as mandates by the UC Charter.

While the contemporary versions of many of these colleges are easily identifiable, such as the department of civil and environmental engineering, others are less obvious, such as the College of Mining.

The creation of the mining college was driven largely by industry, in part by businesses interested in mining California gold, according to Chris Kumai, lecturer for the department of materials science and engineering.

“The easy-to-access gold was gone, so any mining could only be done by bigger firms with expertise,” Kumai said. “These firms needed educated mining experts, so that’s what drove the creation of the college.”

Businessman and U.S. Senator George Hearst, father of famous publisher William Randolph Hearst, was “always looking for mining engineers to work for him,” according to Scott Shackleton, an assistant dean in the College of Engineering. Hearst provided financial support for the mining college and what would become the Hearst Memorial Mining Building, named by Phoebe Hearst as a monument to her husband after his passing.

The mining college was popular among students when the building opened in 1907, with one in five male students pursuing a major in mining. Mining at this point was one of the biggest industries in California, as the expansion of the railroad made possible the transportation of large quantities of ore from rural areas.

In 1916, students themselves began construction of the Lawson Adit, a mine dug out of the side of Berkeley Hills, using controlled dynamite explosions to burrow 200 feet deep.

“Originally, they planned to use (the Lawson Adit) to teach mining, but they also hoped it could provide another source of water for the university,” Shackleton said. “They wanted to use the mine to teach students basic mining skills, how to build mines, shore up mines and how to perform rescues in mines.”

By World War I, mechanization meant less people were interested in mining, although around 1939, the Lawson Adit was extended to 900 feet in order to study the Hayward Fault, a 74-mile long geological fault zone.

After that, the mine was primarily used by fraternities as part of their initiation rituals, until a vault door was installed at the entrance to the mine in the late 1980s. Four years ago, a seismographic station was installed in the adit.

Though the study of mining significantly declined after the early 1900s, mining did not disappear from the UC Berkeley curriculum until recently. Around the year 2000, five professors — who have since retired — still taught classes partly focused on mining ventilation, to the chagrin of some students.

“Some students were complaining about having to take a mining ventilation class when they would never have to go near a mine in their lives,” Kumai said.

Study of the practice of mining has now been replaced by a focus on mineral science, materials science and engineering, a big change from the days of students blasting mine shafts.

“It’s a neat piece of history, thinking about the first students on campus blowing up stuff with dynamite, with all the safety concerns we have today,” Shackleton said.  “It really shows how much the world has changed.”

Contact Luke Kopetsky at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @LukeKopetsky.