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California: Gold Beyond the Gold Rush


800px-Henry_Sandham_-_The_Cradle LOCMost of us in the U.S., I think, grew up with images of the California Gold Rush of 1849 that feature grizzled prospectors panning nuggets out of a creek, or pouring gravel into a shaker like the one at right, and collecting nuggets of gold.

And spending the nights in rip-roaring gold camps full of colorful characters, and occasionally blowing it all on beautiful dance-hall girls or gambling.

And all of those things did happen, but they are far from the whole of the story: After the early months of discovery and gold mania, it became an industry; the individual prospectors became miners, or storekeepers, or moved on or back home.

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And while you can still find people panning for gold in California, like this family on the South Fork of the American River, where the first gold strikes happened, these days, the gold industry is mostly a memory in California, although a more recent one than most people think. A number of mines lasted into the early 1960s, and a few attempts are underway to re-open mining as prices shift.


Within a few months of the Gold Rush, certainly by the early 1850s, most of the surface gold that could be panned or sieved from rivers was gone. The next stage in California's gold history can be seen all over the towns of Gold Country—old, rusted mining equipment on street corners, in parks wherever.


I couldn't tell you if there was a choice to decorate with stamp mills and gate valves or if it was just easier to dump it and put up historical signs, but there is plenty of it to be seen along the towns of Route 49.


After the surface gold was gone, the next stage in the industry was hydraulic mining, using the force of the areas streams and rivers, concentrated through huge nozzles, to wash away the entire surface of hills, and to break those hills down to gravel from which gold could be extracted.


Unfortunately, the byproduct of hydraulic mining was a changed landscape in which hills could permanently disappear; in some areas the destruction was so complete the scars can be seen today, 150 years later. And, it also washed huge amounts of refuse downstream, damaging farmland and more along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. An 1884 court decision ended hydraulic mining abruptly, not by banning it, but by making the operators responsible for damages downstream.


After the 1884 Sawyer decision, the emphasis shifted to underground hard-rock mining, with networks of tunnels dug deeper and deeper into the earth. Some mines had dozens of miles of roadways that were hard to keep track of; the Empire Mine, one of the last to close, kept a scale model of the mine as a working map.


Mines like Empire, which today is a state historic park, were major industrial establishments, with their own power plants, blacksmith and machine shops, ore-hauling railcars and more. The more included stamping mills, essentially giant mechanical hammers designed to reduce gold-bearing rock to small pebbles.


As time went on, stamping mills got bigger and better, and companies ran them day and night, smashing rock to bits, and damaging hearing for many. Later models added water to the process, speeding it up quite a bit. Below, a large water-added installation.


But the noise and inhaled dust of the stamping mills were not the only ways gold mining found to make itself a hazardous occupation. The next step in the process of getting gold out of the crushed rock efficiently involved toxic chemicals, especially mercury.

Top, core sample drilled in 1936 near Nevada City to determine if a site was worth mining. Lower, Pelton Wheel, specialized turbine for power

Liquid mercury was poured in with the crushed rock; mercury immediately forms an amalgam with gold, gathering it out of the quartz. But inhaling mercury vapor is harmful to digestive, nervous and immune systems, and to the lungs and kidneys. It can be fatal.

Moving all that rock around required heavy lifting and pulling. Massive locomotive-like steam tractors like Just Jenny and Ol' Beth did that work.

After the amalgam was formed, the next step was heating it to separate the gold from the mercury. Since gold doesn't even melt until it reaches 2000° while mercury boils and turns to vapor at 670° that was an efficient method to collect the gold. And since there was no Occupational Health and Safety Administration back then, it was also legal.

There's still 'gold in them thar hills,' as the expression goes. But the mines closed when the price of gold fell too low to make mining it profitable. Today, a few companies are looking at resuming production, believing that they can succeed with more efficient, modern methods. They may be right, but some of the neighbors still remember life with mines, and there is active opposition to some of the projects. Time will tell.


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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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