John Waters, generally acknowledged as the heart and soul of the unique mining history museum and related programs at Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve in Antioch, died Jan. 13 in Oakland after a long battle with cancer. He was 68.
“John was a true Renaissance man,” said Pat O’Brien, the East Bay Regional Park District general manager. “He not only managed Black Diamond Mines, he recreated the essence of the mining experience, and even saved the mines from certain closure during the early days of our attempt to have a mine park.”
“We probably wouldn’t have that park if it weren’t for him,” said Ted Radke, the park district board member who represents the area. “John became very prominent in the mining profession. He was renowned for his work on converting a hazardous site into a public benefit.” Waters created the park’s Underground Mining Museum, which preserves and displays artifacts from the region’s coal and silica mining eras within the actual sand mine tunnels.
Waters was born in Seattle, Washington. His father was an officer in the U.S. Air Force, so the family moved frequently to duty stations throughout the United States. Waters graduated from high school in Littleton, Colorado, then attended the University of Colorado, majoring in geology. Although he did not graduate, Waters later became a member of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, based on his professional accomplishments. He was also a federally certified mine safety instructor.
As a young man in search of adventure and experience, Waters traveled and worked all over the country. At one time he was a cowboy in Oregon. In his early 20s he worked at an alternative school on the East Coast for intelligent, but under-achieving youngsters, where he ran their outdoor education programs.
Waters joined the park district staff in 1968 as a ranger at Tilden Regional Park in Berkeley. Besides working at Tilden, Wildcat and Redwood regional parks, he became the first resource analyst in the district’s planning and design department. While there, he wrote a sign manual to standardize the district’s signage and graphics.
When the park district began acquiring property at Black Diamond Mines in the mid-1970s, the abandoned mines presented serious liability issues. Reassigned to Black Diamond, Waters worked on designing the parking lot, picnic areas and water systems, but his main emphasis was on making the park safe for visitors.
From 1981 to 1986, Waters was park supervisor. From then until 1995 he continued work on mine safety and the Underground Mining Museum. In 1995 he was appointed mine manager, the post he held until his retirement in 2007.
Waters’ working relationship with the federal Office of Surface Mining was invaluable to the district and public. Over the years, OSM spent an estimated $4 million to close dozens of dangerous mine openings in the park, often using techniques devised by Waters.
Although the former mining region had a history of death and injury due to unauthorized mine entry, Waters was proud that his major goal was accomplished. To date no one has ever been killed or injured in abandoned mines on property owned by the park district. The last fatalities occurred in late 1980 on land that was not at the time in district ownership.
Waters believed that his three major career accomplishments were the sign manual, the abandoned mine safety program, and the underground special use program, which allows use of the mines for scientific research and academic instruction. Personally, Waters was knowledgeable, hard working and thorough. He was also an accomplished raconteur, drawing on a mother lode of experiences at the park district and elsewhere.
Waters lived in Oakland. He is survived by two sisters: Dennise (cq) Matheson of Albany, and Kathleen Garner of Mountlake Terrace, Washington; a nephew and two nieces.
No funeral services are planned. Waters’ ashes will be scattered in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, along with those of his favorite dog.
In lieu of flowers, the family suggests contributions to the Regional Parks Foundation, www.regionalparksfoundation.org, to support further development of the Underground Mining Museum, or to the East Bay Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, www.eastbayspca.org.