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This is the saga of California gold—where it comes from, where it goes. Here is the story of those who sought it, how they lived and mined it. The tale is not finished, because California's gold rush is still going on, along the streams where thousands of present-day gold hunters dig and dive for gold, in the huge mines where trucks as large as houses carry rock containing invisible gold to a place where a lump of gold the size of a fingernail will be recovered from one truckload. And the tale continues in the legacy of legend: of bandits, real or merely fabled, of gold mines lost and found, of buried treasure, of gold-laden ships lying at the bottom of the sea.
In 18481849 California hosted the first world-class gold rush, luring would-be miners from all over the globe. Americans came by sea or land. For those who came by land it was a revelation. For the first time ordinary Americans, not just wild trappers and intrepid explorers, began to realize how wide the continent was, and that from sea to shining sea it was all theirs. And California gold was theirs, too. Those in the nation's capital greeted the gold with joy. Quickly, California, unlike other regions ofthe West, became a state without ever being a territory.
Some Americans, seeing the mines teeming with men who spoke languages they could not understand, tried to keep the foreigners out. This led to violence, which was directed not only against those who had just arrived from foreign lands but also and more profoundly against the Native Americans who had lived there for thousands of years and the Spanish-speaking residents (Californios) who had received grants of land from Spain and Mexico. Bigotry set its mark on California and has yet to be totally erased.
In the great California gold rush the American dream was iterated: anyone, no matter his family, his education, or his station, could attain the good life. Although many gold rushers banded together to get to California, once they arrived it was—
California's gold country. It has been said that nowhere in California can one lift a
spadeful of earth that will not contain gold. Perhaps so, but in many places the
amount of gold would be infinitesimal. Shown here are areas where gold has been
found in large enough quantities to make it worth mining.
especially in the early days—by individual efforts that they succeeded or failed. In the process of their search for gold, the miners learned a bit about geology and about gold's habits, where it came from on the mountainside, how it got into the rivers, and how and where it lodged until they, with their pans and rockers and sluices, tore it loose from its hiding place and sent it to the markets of the world. A few miners in the early days got rich, but many who made rich strikes gambled or drank them away. Many of those who started their fortunes in the gold rush did so in commerce, mining the miners rather than the gold.
As the easy pickings began to run out—California gold, the miners found, was not inexhaustible as advertised—miners banded together for efficiency and turned from pocket knife and pan to machines. Soon mining was chiefly in the hands of companies that could afford expensive machinery to go deep in the Earth, or that built huge dredges to sift through the riverbeds or tear up dry land gravel beds to take gold from fossil rivers.
One mechanical method used streams of water forced out of a nozzle, much like a garden hose but with enormously greater force. This method, called hydraulicking, tore apart mountains of gravel, taking out millions of dollars worth of gold but washing the remains toward the lowlands, thereby silting up rivers and harbors, farms and orchards below. Farmers fought the mines to save their lands. For decades the battle went on, in the courts and the legislature as well as in the mines and fields, pitting miner against farmer in the world's first great environmental conflict settled by law.
California experienced another gold rush in the Great Depression, when thousands of desperate people turned to mining in hopes of finding gold earlier miners had overlooked. After World War II, when scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) gear was invented, underwater mining—again by individuals—became a popular hobby. But gold was only $35 a troy ounce—a good price in the depression but a pittance after postwar inflation.
When the U.S. government finally gave up deciding the price of gold for its citizens and let the marketplace take over, an altogether new gold rush, a corporate gold rush, began. New mines producing invisible gold from ore of very low grade opened up; old mines long known to California miners to still have gold again became profitable. Thanks to these new mines and revitalized old ones, California once more became a leader in the nation's gold production. Big business had taken over the gold rush, but not without environmental conflicts.
Most of California's gold went to make coins or to be held as bullion reserves—in other words, to make money. In the mid-nineteenth century, much of the money went, as gold often does, to fuel a war—this time, the Civil War. Now that gold coins have been replaced by paper and plastic in commerce, much of California's gold has gone to other uses. But gold's usefulness does not account for its mystique. For millennia gold has been held in high regard by so-called civilized people in every inhabited continent. In much of the world gold was the key to a better life. It was the mirror of human dreams, its luster casting a golden glow over a hoped-for splendid future.
Why should California be so favored with gold? Where did the gold come from? It came ultimately from deep within the Earth. How this happens is nature's story, as fascinating as the human story of gold.
Excerpted from Gold by Mary Hill Copyright © 2002 by Mary Hill. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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|1||The Gold That Changed a Nation||1|
|After the Rush||31|
|4||Rushing to Cash In||35|
|Life in San Francisco||54|
|Life in the Mines||79|
|How They Mined the Gold||86|
|6||The Natural History of Placer Gold||94|
|Mining the Dead Rivers||105|
|7||The Mud Flood||114|
|8||Mining in the Deep Dark||133|
|All Dressed Up||145|
|9||The Big Picture||149|
|The Moving Earth||159|
|10||Gold Comes to California||167|
|California through the Ages||174|
|11||Out of the Mines, into the World||179|
|Good-bye to the Central America||200|
|12||Lost and Gone Forever||205|
|13||Mining Gold for Fun and Maybe Profit||217|
|14||The Corporate Gold Rush and Its Disreputable Offspring||227|
|15||What Good Is Gold?||243|
|Sources of Quotations||277|
|Sources of Illustrations||281|
|Suggestions for Further Reading||287|