Markleeville’s Mercury Hill

There’s a peculiar red streak in the cliff just south of Hangman’s bridge. Blink and you’ll miss it; today, most people drive by without a glance. But to Markleeville old-timers, this was where a valuable mineral resource was mined.

Look for the distinct red stain in the cliff. Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire

Back in the day, homes were roofed with simple wooden shingles. Jacob Marklee himself is said to have covered his entire cabin using shakes hewn from the local sugar pine. Wooden shingles were cheap, they were practical, and the material was readily available. But wooden shakes have an unfortunate tendency to shrink and to rot.

And that’s where this unusual deposit of red soil came in handy. The color at this site comes from cinnabar — a type of mineral earth laced with mercury. Old-time residents recall Markleeville homeowners mixing this red clay with linseed oil and painting the thick mixture on their roofs every year. It not only helped the shingles to shed water but also helped deter rot. The colorful result: all of the houses in Markleeville once had pink roofs.

Photo courtesy of Judy Wickwire.

The Native Americans, too, knew about this lode of red pigment. The local Washo used it to make ceremonial paint to adorn their faces and bodies. Washo chief Captain Jim was said to have painted his face and body with red and black paint when he defended the sacred cave just up the old road from this site. It is quite likely he mined the red pigment right here.

Interested in exploring more Markleeville lore? Check out our Self-Guided Walking Tour of Markleeville, available at

4 thoughts on “Markleeville’s Mercury Hill”

  1. Great article!

    There is so much history that is slowly being lost as it isn’t well documented online. I’m glad sites like yours are trying to keep this little-known and yet important and interesting historical area alive.

    1. Thanks so much, Robert! Very much appreciated! Glad you liked the story… and I hope people will appreciate these “invisible” sites more, now that they know what they represent!

      1. Yes, I really like these little gems in history.

        For example, in our area, there was a health resort based around a small natural hot spring that has long since vanished. It was during the 1800’s, and it was so long ago that only a few town historians know of its existence. I fear that soon it will be completely forgotten.

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