John Cushenbury aimed to hit it big, and looking back, he did. A prospector and miner in 1860, Cushenbury discovered silver in the limestone deposit where Mitsubishi Cement Plant, located six miles south of Lucerne Valley, is now situated. After making his discovery, John Cushenbury the miner, and hopefully the next silver baron in California, set up a mining camp at the springs below his deposit.
When word got out about the discovery, a silver rush of relatively small proportion occurred, and the local desert was alive with dreams of grandeur. A small group of shacks soon sprang up in the vicinity of the springs. For apparently obvious reasons, It was called “Cushenbury City.” The above photograph depicts the original Cushenbury house in 1900.
Unfortunately, the silver contained galena, or lead, and was hard to separate. The boom turned to a bust and most of the miners moved on. At about the same time, the Civil War began, and many miners in the area had Confederate sympathies. They met secretly at Cushenbury to plan how they could help the confederacy. These miners were called “The Knights of the Golden Circle.” They planted a circle of seventeen cottonwood trees which stand today.
The Springs are a large, beautiful riparian area alongside Highway 18, just before you get to the Mitsubishi Cement Plant. The area is a very historic spot. It was first inhabited by local Native Americans, possibly Serrano Indians. The springs are pretty close to Old Women Springs, which were unsurprising named for some elderly native women found there at about the same time. Then came the miners of which we speak, and then for years a large turkey and chicken ranch operated by George Rodgers. Rodgers sold the ranch to the cement company. They removed the buildings in the 1960s.
The main ranch house was moved to Daggett, to the Muir Ranch. A mountain and ice man, Muir didn’t go willingly to the California desert. Rather, it was the health of daughter Helen that forced him out there in his final years. Muir lived on the Van Dyke Ranch, one mile East of Daggett. The ranch was owned by Theodore Strong Van Dyke, a well-known outdoor writer of the day who shared Muir’s sympathy for nature. For more information about Daggett and John Muir, please see our prior article titled: Daggett, California: The Tiny Town That Changed Perceptions of the Mojave Desert
Renowned industrialist Henry J. Kaiser originally developed the Cushenbury limestone quarry to supply his steel making operations in Fontana, California. During World War II, Kaiser steel helped with the war against Germany and Japan.
In an ironic twist of fate and facts, while Kaiser helped win the war, Mitsubishi, who purchased the Cushenbury plant, built the deadly Japanese Zero during that same conflict.
Where the area resounded with the activities of prospectors digging for gold in nearby mines, a new kind of excavation project is going on in the Cushenbury surroundings today. Going up is a 12 million dollar Permanente Cement Co. plant, one of San Bernardino County’s newest industries… The Daily Sun 10 Jan 1957
The facility was modernized in 1982 and the Japanese-owned Mitsubishi Cement Corporation purchased the plant in 1988 for $185 million in cash. Walnut Creek-based Kaiser Cement, a division of Hanson PLC in London, signed the agreement with Mitsubishi Mining & Cement to sell its Lucerne Valley plant together with distribution terminals in Long Beach and Phoenix.
Mitsubishi, headquartered in Tokyo, paid another $10 million for cement on hand when the sale was completed, said John H. Wimberly, Kaiser’s president and chief executive. Today the Mitsubishi Cement Corporation Cushenbury Plant is one the leading industries in the Victor Valley. Mitsubishi Cement manufactures all of the major types of Portland and Specialty cement used in the California, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah markets.
Cement is manufactured by baking crushed limestone ore and certain additives in a kiln at 2,700 degrees, allowing the mixture to cool, and then stirring in gypsum. The result is a gray powder that is mixed with sand, gravel and water to make concrete for construction projects.
The Mitsubishi website reports the Cushenbury facility employs 174 people and produces about 1.7 million tons of cement per year. It pays about 1.3 million per year in property taxes to San Bernardino County and 15 million per year in employee salaries. About 20 million is spent each year with High Desert suppliers for materials and services.
Mitsubishi Cement Corporation makes annual donations to 65 High Desert clubs and organizations and 23 Schools for more than 155 causes and events in the High Desert and surrounding mountain communities. Like most Japanese operations in the United States, they take great effort to hire local help, and to provide services to their employees.
In December 2016, an environmental organization called a proposal granting a cement maker a 120-year-long permit to mine high-grade limestone in the San Bernardino National Forest “unreasonable.” The National Forest and San Bernardino County sought public comment on a proposal by Mitsubishi Cement Corp. to build a 128-acre quarry and a 1.8 mile road. Both of those would be located “almost entirely” on public land in the San Bernardino National Forest, the Forest Service and San Bernardino County said in a combined statement.
The expansion is needed because the East Quarry, started in the 1950s, “is getting close to the end of its life,” said Austin Marshall, plant manager. A permit for a West Quarry was approved in 2004. But that low-grade ore would need to be blended with the high-grade ore from the proposed South Quarry to make cement, Marshall said. The plant employs about 130, he said.
“Mitsubishi Cement has been a great asset to Lucerne Valley and the County of San Bernardino, offering much needed jobs and economic growth,” San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Chairman James Ramos, said in a statement. In another pleasant twist of fate, Supervisor Ramos is, himself, a local Native American with deep ties to the mountains and desert we call home.
Mitsubishi has an open-door policy. They have always invited the public and school groups in for tours of the entire plant. For tour information contact MCC Environmental Manager David Rib at (760) 248-5184
Just north of the cement manufacturing facility, the Cushenbury Creek surfaces year-round at Cushenbury Springs. Today the springs are home to hundreds of plant and animal species. An annual bird count by the local Audubon Society verifies more than 40 different bird species, including Golden Eagles. Mitsubishi Cement Corporation is preserving Cushenbury Springs as a prime habitat area.
Next to the cement plant, and across Highway 18, several abandoned homesteads can be seen from the highway. A dirt road leads the way to a couple of the former homes but the largest one with its impressive stone foundation is barricaded. Unfortunately, all of them have suffered heavily at the hands of man and nature.
Did these homes once belong to miners or factory workers? Or were they part of the homestead act in the 1950s, where abandoned tiny houses still pepper the desert landscape. To look at these structures today is to see dreams from long ago, now buried in the sands of time.
In San Bernardino County, Lucerne Valley’s area is also identified as County Service Area 29. While Lucerne Valley’s “town limit” signs are within 2 miles of each other, the County Service Area Limits are much larger: in the west to Joshua Road (unpaved road east of Milpas Rd. on Hwy. 18), to the north at the 4,000 feet height of Ord Mountain on Highway 247, to the south at the entrance to Cushenbury Canyon on Highway 18, and at Old Woman Springs Ranch as the eastern boundary.