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Mining Old Dutch Cleanser

Cudahy Mine, Last Chance Canyon

From 1923 to 1947, miners extracted very fine-grained volcanic abrasive from a layer of white pumicite, a clean and only slightly lithified volcanic ash that dips at a 45˚ angle below the desert floor at Last Chance Canyon in the El Paso Range just north of California's Garlock Fault. There are two main workings, western and eastern, perched on the lip of the canyon, the western originally accessed by an inclined rail tramway to the canyon bottom until a road was finally graded to the eastern. 

There’s an interesting background to this mine.  Irish-born brothers, Patrick and Michael Cudahy were in the Milwaukee meat business in the 1860s. There, they met Phillip Danforth Armour, following him in the meat packing business to Chicago in the 1870s. In 1887, with Armour's backing, the Michael Cudahy started an Armour-Cudahy packing plant in Omaha, Nebraska, operated by Michael and his nephew, John.  Three years later, they bought out Armour's interest, creating the independent Cudahy Packing Company.

Patrick and brother John remained in Milwaukee. In 1888, the Cudahy brothers purchased the Milwaukee meat packing firm of Plankinton and Armour. Variously named Cudahy Brothers Company and Patrick Cudahy, Inc., the firm was sold in 1971 to Philadelphia-based Bluebird, Inc. and after several corporate buyouts, was purchased by a Chinese meat packing company from Smithfield Foods in 2013.

Michael’s son, Joseph, became president of the Omaha Cudahy Packing Co. Interested in a supply of fuel for his family's meatpacking plants, he became involved in the Oklahoma oil business. In 1897, his associated firm, Cudahy Oil Co., drilled the first producing well in Oklahoma, on the present site of the City of Bartlesville. His oil leases and refineries at Coffeeville and Muskogee were eventually amalgamated into Sinclair Oil and Refining in 1916, with Cudahy becoming vice-president of the Sinclair Oil and Gas Co., president of the Sinclair-Cudahy Pipeline Co, and vice president of Cudahy Refining.

In 1905, Cudahy Packing Company was looking for a way to use animal fat in the manufacture of soap. Instead, it became the first company to market scouring powder when it introduced Old Dutch Cleanser. The initial source was a mine in Meade County, Kansas, where pumice was mined for use in cleaning the floors of slaughterhouses in Chicago.

Cudahy Packing Company began operations at the Last Chance Canyon mine in 1923. Twelve men were employed to produce 100 tons of pumicite per week. Ore initially was lowered 475 feet down a rail tramway to loading bins in Last Chance Canyon. From there it was trucked seven miles south to a Southern Pacific siding at Saltdale, where it was loaded on rail cars for delivery to Los Angeles.  The mine produced 120,000 tons of pumicite before it was closed in 1947. That's a lot of cleanser.


Easternmost portal of the Cudahy Mine


So meatpacking, oil production and the marketing of one of the best-known scouring cleansers became related. We can add table salt to the mix. In 1904, Joseph Cudahy married Morton Salt heiress Jean Morton. In 1914, the millionaires built a mansion in Lake Forest, Illinois. Based on a palace in Monaco, it was designed by architect David Adler and remains a private residence. Thus pork, petroleum, pumicite and sodium chloride all became united in one family. Would you have guessed? 


One of the inclined shafts that follow the tuff layer down at a 45˚ angle

In the home and in the mine

Getting to this mine is easy, if you don’t mind dirt roads. No trees to fall and block the road, no sand traps and no deep mud, and plenty of off-roaders out there exploring to lend a hand if you get stuck, somehow.




February 24, 2019 by RC de Mordaigle
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