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After heavy California rains, gold-seekers head to riverbeds

In his formative years, Mark Twain decided to pan for gold in California, just like every other American growing up in the 1850s, in a quest for fortune and glory. He didn’t find the riches he was looking for, but many local storytellers told him a tale without cracking a smile. Later, he wrote The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which started his career.

Gold-seeking. This old activity with legendary undertones is returning after heavy rains in California. After the wettest winter in the last years and enough water and snow to fill a soccer stadium 1 million times, water is washing crevices and sediments near the Sierras, and the effect of such mountain floods in the gold country could be game-changing —or this is what some expect.

Henry Sandham, “The Cradle.” A 19th-century miner pouring water into a rocker box which. By rocking the box back and forth, separating gold from the alluvium (Library of Congress)

Hydraulic mining is an effective technique to look for precious metals already used by the Romans 2 millennia ago in areas of abundant gold sighting. Roman miners changed some landscapes, like the site of Las Médulas in Northern Spain, where diverted water eroded the rock using funnels to accelerate the process.

Heavy rains and snow in California could trigger a natural, small-scale process of “placer mining” in which alluvial deposits are transformed by new sediments, bringing more gold to stream beds already known in the Sierras, like the 119-mile riverbed of the American River east of Sacramento. It should sound familiar to Californians tracing their past to the Gold Rush, since it all started there in the mid-nineteenth century.

175 years after the Gold Rush

Stubborn prospectors have found gold nuggets in the area ever since despite being the heavily mined epicenter of the California Gold Rush that attracted the forty-niners. Still, the findings are testimonial compared with those of 170 years ago. For one, the activity isn’t as unregulated as when California became a state. However, at sites like the Auburn State Recreation Area between Placer and El Dorado counties, recreational seekers can look for gold —that is, as long as they don’t bring prospection equipment that could disrupt sediments, such as the traditional gold pan and pickaxe, the traditional equipment in the area (along with metal-riveted jeans).

When water from the snowpack accelerates its melting in the coming weeks, gold flakes could erode from the softer rocks and wash downstream into waterways.

Post-pandemic, post-heavy rain times in towns along the American River in El Dorado County, like the city of Placerville (population 10,389), are booming times. Placerville grew as a central point for logistics to those working on the region’s mother lode.

In the 1850s’, Placerville became California’s third largest town after San Diego and San Francisco (as the forty-niners’ port of arrival, the sleepy seaport village of Yerba Buena (San Francisco) went from 400 residents in 1845 to 56,000 censed inhabitants, and many more passing by on their way to the Sierras.

When Placerville was the third largest town in California

If San Francisco became one of North America’s symbolic cities, Placerville is today a rural town poised to benefit from the gold revival, with one mine opened as a museum, offering tours and books. Though a few locals and visitors resist defining the place as a mere historical landmark.

Albert Fausel, a local running the family hardware store, is one among many who keep one tradition alive, although nowadays it’s carried with a thermal wet suit and a diver’s mask: going into the creeks nearby to study the riverbeds in search of gold bits bigger than the easier to find “dust.”

But panning gold out of a riverbed without disturbing the area requires patience and self-restraint. Though, according to weathered enthusiasts, there are more “pickers” (“big enough to pick with your fingers”) than the extremely rare “nuggets,” which can sell for several hundred dollars if they weigh several grams.

It’s a hobby for almost everybody involved, but it can pay off. Accompanied by Thomas Fuller from the New York Times, Albert Fausel was able to find $100 worth of gold in 20 minutes wandering around the creek nearby. To put it bluntly:

“There’s a fever in California’s gold country these days, the kind that comes with the realization that nature is unlocking another stash of precious metal. California’s prodigious winter rainfall blasted torrents of water through mountain streams and rivers. And as the warmer weather melts, the massive banks of snow — one research station in the Sierra recorded 60 feet for the season — the rushing waters are detaching and carrying gold deposits along the way. The immense wildfires of recent years also loosened the soil, helping to push downstream what some here are calling flood gold.”

Heading to the creeks near home

Mining using powerful jets of water is heavily restricted in California due to the erosion it generates (enough to transform entire landscapes: what we see in Las Médulas in Spain is the eroded terrain of former hills devastated by two centuries of heavy hydraulic mining by the Romans.

Jim Eakin, a Placerville firewood business owner, claims to have found a nugget so big four years ago that he “bought a brand-new Ford F-150 pickup truck with cash.”

When he is asked where he found the chunk of gold, he will go as precise as to say:

“Somewhere north of Los Angeles, south of Seattle and west of Denver.”

This summer, amateur gold-seekers could find their way to the American River. Rangers and old-timers will probably need to explain that not everything is permitted in the wilderness. When things “don’t pan out, the activity (even when described as merely “looking for gold”) can be an opportunity to get out in the wilderness.

What’s left of the Gold Rush in pop culture?

Only a few places in North America accumulate enough estimated reservoirs of the metal close to the surface to encourage amateurs and self-proclaimed “professionals” if such a thing survives: the rocky sediment of Nevada’s deserts, along the Yukon River in Alaska, in Colorado’s old mining country (like the Cache Creek mine in Twin Lakes); in Arizona’s Lynx Creek, and in the mentioned California Sierras, a symbol of the Gold Rush.

And the references to the era are still a building block of the collective unconscious, even when we forget the origin of things. A family conversation ensued as we recently drove near Levi’s Stadium, the house of the San Francisco 49ers. Educated in Europe until recently, our kids couldn’t tap into any cultural reference linking the elements relating such an apparently anodyne place to their own cultural references.

Nobody has to explain to our children about brands sponsoring sports stadiums and event venues, though the one we had stumbled upon would spark a conversation that turned out to encompass the origins of modern California. A “forty-niner” wasn’t merely “a shirt number,” as our son suggested, but the term used to refer to the people (especially men) who migrated to California from the rest of the US and Canada, Europe, and elsewhere in the year 1849 to search for gold.

Now, the attention level had increased. A real gold rush? I specified: not any gold rush but “the” Gold Rush, one that made some people rich from the gold discovered but turned out to be more important for those who sought prosperity in the region from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, when California entered the Union. More interestingly for them, California had gained statehood.

Jeans and hoboes

In 1853, Levi Strauss, an immigrant from Bavaria among many other Europeans seeking fortune in the then-remote US West Coast, opened a dry goods company in San Francisco. Most forty-niners were hardworking single men sleeping in boarding houses and trying to extend the lifespan of their working attire and gear. Recognizing the need for clothes built to endure rough terrain, Levi Strauss adapted the already popular denim garment, adding copper rivet reinforcements.

The “get rich quick” mentality started on January 1848, when a new promise of riches by Northern California fueled the imagination of people from all over the world. Like the work of loggers and trappers in the area, the discovery combined hard work and luck in combination with a life roaming in open nature.

A sawmill operator in Coloma, James Marshall, found plenty of the precious metal near Coloma a small logging settlement northeast of Sacramento. But the discovery flipped the area’s activity and the mill, owned by Swiss immigrant John Sutter, fell abandoned before it was even finished: every working person from the area, as well as thousands of adventure seekers from all over the world, had fallen for the quest of their particular El Dorado.

Our son wanted to know more about “the discovery.” Did it really transform California and the American West? What had happened with most of the forty-niners? Did most of them find a life of prosperity or go on with their adventures soon after? And how about “professional gold-seekers? Was there such a thing?

How it all started

Still in the car, we found online the account of the fortuitous discovery. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was examining the mill mechanism when he noticed “shiny flecks” in the channel bed that diverted water to power the operation:

“I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively, and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this, iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken. I then collected four or five pieces and went up to Mr. Scott (who was working at the carpenter’s bench making the mill wheel) with the pieces in my hand and said, ‘I have found it.’

‘What is it?’ inquired Scott.
‘Gold,’ I answered.
‘Oh! no,’ replied Scott, ‘That can’t be.’
I said,–‘ I know it to be nothing else.'”

Days after, to prove the finding was real, a prominent Mormon businessman and journalist who had settled in California, showed some of the gold through San Francisco. Over the same summer, most able men from Los Angeles to the Oregon territory were already mining for gold.

The gold turned out to be of the best quality, of at least 23 karat, or 96% pure. The Mexican-American War (a conflict that had inspired Henry David Thoreau’s writings on “civil disobedience” back east) had just ended, with disastrous consequences for Mexico. California would soon be a US State, and newspapers from all over the region, then Europe and the rest of the world, amplified the news.

Rushing to the mother lode

The metal, which had moved fortunes for centuries after the Spanish had flooded Europe with gold and silver mined from the Viceroyalty of Peru, turned out to make little fortunes in California too: miners extracted $10 million worth of gold in 1849, $41 million in 1850, or the equivalent of 1 billion in today’s dollar, $75 million in 1851, and $81 million in 1852.

Half an hour after starting the conversation, we still engaged in questions regarding this part of California history. Just in 1849, 40,000 people arrived after weeks, if not months, of sea travel. In 1950, 100,000 people arrived this way in California.

Gold-seekers from the American South Cone, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, or China sailed across the Pacific to reach the San Francisco harbor, known by then as Yerba Buena. Surrounded by Californio big haciendas, the place had morphed rapidly from a rather isolated colonial Spanish (later Mexican) town into a booming city.

But the trip was much harder and more expensive for citizens of the United States, still clustered around the East Coast: half a century before the construction of the Panama Canal, a voyage from the East to California echoed the dangers of previous legendary searches of riches or even whale hunting. Ships parting from the main harbors needed to sail 17,000 miles around Cape Horn, a dangerous endeavor that could take five months and drain any savings from those who didn’t fall sick or settled somewhere along the South American resupply ports.

Sailing to Panama shortened the trip but didn’t make it much easier; upon arrival, travelers needed to find a way to cross the Isthmus by foot or on horseback, then sail to California from the Pacific side.

Too young to search for gold in California

Thousands of forty-niners lacking the money to sail to San Francisco didn’t sit at home waiting for better times to come: they explored the best land routes to California through the Sierras, sometimes abandoning heavy cargo in difficult passes.

Most gold miners were inexperienced and had to pay hefty prices to find a place to sleep, but many abandoned pans and pickaxes to provide the new populations with all sorts of products —and quick ways to spend money. The frontier culture would shape the region for decades, nurturing the imagination of children who would seek their own gold rush adventures elsewhere. Heavily mined places in the Sierras that had not yielded the expected returns inspired legendary names: Hangtown, Sucker Flat. Located in El Dorado county not far from Coloma, the mine camp of Murderers Bar on the Middle Fork of the American River.

Growing up in Oakland’s late nineteenth century, Jack London was ten when he delivered newspapers and set up pins in a bowling alley.

At fourteen, London was working in the assembly line of a cannery in West Oakland, giving money to his parents:

“I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked the hours I worked.”

El Dorado and the collective unconscious

But in 1897, when the future writer was 21, news spread that gold had been discovered in the Klondike, a remote region in Canada west of Alaska. It felt like an invitation for those on the West Coast who, in search of riches and adventure, had been a bit too late to benefit from California’s gold rush and its equivalent in the antipodes, the Victorian gold rush near Melbourne, Australia, and one in the neighboring New South Wales.

With the Klondike gold fever at the turn of the century, aspiring gold-seekers could try their luck by traveling north. Famously, the California native Jack London went to the unhospitable Big North looking for his El Dorado.

He didn’t have much luck with the metal, although he found something that would turn out to be much, much more valuable: he came back replenished with stories that would nurture his dent in famous reporting and, eventually, a work of fiction that gave the whole region of North America West of the Rockies the words to describe their instinctive, bigger-than-life relationship with the wilderness.

By the early twentieth century, gold was in California a mere echo from the past, and the reason why most of the 31st state’s population of European descent had settled there, to begin with.