The Town on the Hill, New Almaden

Artist: Carleton E. Watkins (American, 1829–1916)

Date: 1863

Medium: Albumen silver print from glass negative

Dimensions: 39.7 x 52.3 cm (15 5/8 x 20 9/16 in.)

Classification: Photographs

Credit Line: Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1989

Accession Number: 1989.1083


In 1863, Carleton Watkins was hired to make a photographic survey of the quicksilver mining operations in New Almaden, near San Jose, California. Quicksilver (a form of mercury) was essential to the goldmining industry, and the mining of quicksilver itself became a profitable enterprise. Watkins' clients hoped to use his photographs to convince potential investors of the promise of the New Almaden site, the region's first mining operation, established in 1845. To this end, Watkins made numerous stereographic views documenting minute details of the mining process, as well as mammoth views that were meant to show the town to its best possible advantage. Capitalizing on the calm of the hazy early morning and a picturesque vantage point, Watkins portrayed the mining camp as a charming mountain village possessing an appealing tidiness and an air of perfect tranquility.

Today the once toxic industrial site is a National Historic Landmark district and county park-its miles of underground tunnels sealed and hidden beneath forests and open meadows crisscrossed by hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers from nearby Silicon Valley.