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He Digs In to Unearth His Dad’s Legacy

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Even by Southern California’s standards, this is one strange water fight -- a tale involving a father’s legacy, a 69-year-old court settlement, carob trees and what may be the largest concentration of tin ore in North America.

Near a reservoir serving 18 million Southern Californians, retired theatrical producer and violinist James Holmes is hoping to open a thriving tin mine. Last week, Holmes led a caravan of earthmovers and drilling equipment down a steep dirt road just north of the reservoir’s dam and began drilling for core samples.

Water officials concede that Holmes, 76, owns the mineral rights to land around and under Lake Mathews, southwest of Riverside, but because of worries about the dam, asked him this week to stop work.

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Holmes refused and continues to drill for the maroon tin ore known as cassiterite.

“I feel as though we’re on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral and ready to blast off to someplace wonderful,” Holmes said. “But this is not my story. It’s a continuation of my dad’s story. He would have been very pleased with what we are doing here.”

His father, Lawrence Holmes, was a Norwegian immigrant, actor and inventor who made his fortune by designing a hideaway bed. He used his wealth to plant a carob tree farm -- an enterprise condemned in 1935 to allow construction of Lake Mathews.

“This has been a lifetime dream,” the son said. “If we come up with the quality of samples we expect, we hope a big mining company will want to pursue a joint venture, or buy us out.”

But Holmes says he is after more than mineral wealth. He is “trying to see justice done for my father.”

Lawrence Holmes won the mineral rights to the property in 1937 when the Metropolitan Water District signed a legal settlement ending what was then the longest litigation in state history.

The legal stipulation, approved by the California Supreme Court, granted the elder Holmes 63 acres, water and mineral rights next to and under the lake, and $575,000 -- most of which was whittled away by appeals and legal fees.

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Holmes said he believes that MWD officials were delighted with the settlement, never imagining that his father -- who was 78 and suffering from pneumonia -- would realize his plans to develop a tin mine.

They were right, up to a point.

James Holmes spent years raising funds to conduct exploratory drilling. He said he felt his father’s encouraging presence at the bottom of a ravine when his massive drill roared to life Monday and began taking core samples 5 feet long and 1 3/4 inches in diameter from veins of cassiterite.

Tin sells for $3.57 a pound and is used as a plating for steel, in solder and, of course, for making tin cans.

There is so much tin ore near Lake Mathews that geologists compare the area to Cornwall, England, which supplied much of the world’s demand for 2,000 years.

Tin was discovered in the undulating landscape of low brush in the mid-1800s.

By the 1890s, British concerns had built a mill and smelter. The operations produced about 145 tons of refined tin metal before they were suspended about 1893 in the face of steeper tariffs.

Three mineshafts surrounded by fences rimmed with barbed wire are all that remain of the British operations.

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In 1918, Lawrence Holmes invested $2 million -- nearly $26 million in current dollars -- in a sprawling carob tree plantation near the abandoned tin mines. His 50,000 trees were irrigated with water delivered from two dams he built partly out of discarded automobile frames.

He envisioned creating a community on the property that would introduce California to the trees that produce nutritious food while resisting drought and fire.

It would also use his artificial reservoirs as models for water conservation efforts in natural ravines and canyon lands throughout the state.

All that came to an abrupt end when the MWD condemned his property, then used steam shovels and dynamite to clear out his dams and trees.

At the time of his death in 1950, three days before his 85th birthday, Lawrence Holmes “was actively working on plans to begin major tin mining operations at Lake Mathews,” his son said.

The land remained relatively undisturbed until last week, when James Holmes led $1 million worth of rented equipment to the drilling site.

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The operation first caught the water district’s attention Feb. 23. Reservoir employee Jeff Kaiser pulled over to investigate the dusty scene.

“What are you guys up to?” he bluntly asked, as Holmes’ crew began setting up equipment.

Holmes’ attorney, Shirley Smith, politely but firmly explained that the group was exploring for tin ore on private property.

“Really? No kidding? Oh my gosh,” Kaiser said.

But MWD officials in downtown Los Angeles expressed concerns about the project’s potential effects on the integrity of the reservoir.

“We understand that we gave [Lawrence Holmes] the mineral rights in 1937,” said MWD spokesman Bob Muir, “and we also understand we gave him the rights to the water.

“But it is not our understanding that [James Holmes] has carte blanche to begin this mining operation without taking into account the viability of our dam and our water quality,” he added. “We’d like to discuss that with him. We have a lot of questions.”

Holmes insisted that he has no intention of endangering the public or the dam.

His drill rig, which is mounted on a huge truck, is slanted at a 55-degree angle, facing southeast -- away from the dam -- and about half a mile away from any MWD structures.

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But theoretically, Holmes has the right to drill straight through the lake’s waters to reach the ore.

In the meantime, Holmes and his investor group, Lake Mathews Mineral Properties Ltd., were eagerly anticipating the results of the drilling, which has been progressing at a steady rate of about 10 feet an hour.

Some initial core samples extracted from a depth of 88 feet were sprinkled with needle-like tourmaline crystals, a promising sign of commercial-grade ore.

Holmes’ geologists are predicting even higher grades of ore at depths of 500 feet.

They also expect to hit potentially vast stores of water, including some seeping out from the bottom of the lake, which they could conceivably sell back to the MWD.

Striding alongside a dirt road near the drilling site, Steve Suitt, Holmes’ chief geologist, said: “Minerals are where you find them, and the tin was here long before the MWD.”

“As a geologist, I’m really enjoying this rare opportunity to work at a tin ore site,” he added. “It may be the only substantial tin lode in North America.”

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Holmes figures his property’s water and mineral rights may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gazing out across the weedy hills dotted with protruding clumps of dark tin ore, Holmes said, “If it all pans out, we have some big plans.

“On one level,” he said, “I will have achieved justice for my dad -- that’s been a big goal of mine for years.”

“We would also like to fund cultural activities, including a nonprofit culturally oriented corporation,” said Holmes, who played violin professionally until bursitis ended his career in the 1960s.

“The idea would be to turn creative people loose and produce the kind of films, theater productions and musical performances that you don’t see anymore.”

Holmes also wants to produce a screenplay he’s been tinkering with for years.

“It’s called ‘Locusts and Honey’ and it’s about my dad,” he said, “and moguls who take other peoples’ land and water to make Southern California possible.”

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