Gold Rush History: Luck of the Miners

By Bob Holton December 15, 2008 10:01

A modern-day miner in Columbia./Photo by Suzy Hopkins

The Mother Lode was once a risk-takers’ paradise – a wild and carefree place where a man’s pile of gold was more the doing of chance than of skillful mining practices. This led to lively times in our foothills when gold washers told stories like these around their campfires:

One rainy night in 1851, luck took the form of a loose boulder that could have brought death to a drunken 49er, but chose instead to make him a wealthy man. It happened in Calaveras County at a place called Steep Gulch. While returning to his tent after a long day in the saloons, a young sailor named Clark veered off the path and landed at the bottom of a steep ravine, then passed out in a puddle of water. Upon awakening the next morning, he found himself lying on top of a gold mine – so rich a find that in one week’s time he took out approximately $475,000 worth of mostly large nuggets, based on today’s metals prices.

This could have happened only in California’s gold country, in the early days when men measured their daily takes by the pound, not by the ounce.

Sonora’s dirt streets were once full of yellow metal. In 1852 a lady picked up a lump in front of her house containing seven pounds of pure gold. That same year, a man removed a 35-pound nugget from Washington Street in front of Sugg’s stable and donkey rental. His wagon wheel hit it, causing him to stop. This stroke of luck brought $7,500 back in those easy-come times, when gold buyers paid a top street price of less than $17 an ounce. Today it would fetch about $360,000.

Here we must note that some information in this article came from the lips of old-timers who would sit in front of saloons and mumble their remembrances all day long to anyone who listened. These were the eyewitnesses to the Gold Rush whose only sin was to tell tall tales.

In the early 1850s, when some miners were washing a pound of gold out of a single pan, this story was often told as truth in the diggings: There once was a prospector named J. S. Sykes, known to locals as “Bad Luck John.” Having not met expenses at Sawmill Flat in Tuolumne County, he moved to Mormon Gulch and dug a coyote hole so deep it almost caved on him. Sadly, he came up dry again.

Then he relocated to Jackass Gulch, where just about everyone was getting rich, but poor Mr. Sykes struck out again. This was the last straw. Now nearly pauperized, he threw down his tools and left for the San Joaquin Valley to take up farming. It is said the young man who bought his last claim for $25 dug two inches deeper and hit a pocket that would be worth over $1 million today.

This 1849 or 1850 photo shows '49ers at a placer mine./Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Luck is not necessarily a matter of chance. Some folks are destined to have it, no matter what the odds are against them. In the summer of 1852, for instance, a “greenhorn” wandered into Mokelumne Hill and asked a group of benchwarmers, “Where can a man find gold in these parts?”

“See that mountain?” they replied, pointing to a tall hill in the distance. “Get yourself a pick and shovel and climb to the top of it. There you’ll find all the gold you want.”

By the way, credible historians swear by this story.

Unaware he’d been humbugged by the town’s best practical jokers, the greenhorn expressed his thanks and headed out for what was commonly known as a notorious waste of time. The next day he appeared from the hill carrying a 50-pound boulder laced with gold and pockets bulging with nuggets. Townsfolk were amazed. From that incident a stampede ensued as scores of miners raced to this choice ground and took out many fortunes.

Some years after the Gold Rush, when the Mother Lode was picked clean of her surface treasure, deep underground mining and advanced recovery techniques gave us such legends as Sonora’s fabulous “Bonanza Mine” (still considered the greatest pocket mine in the world), the Utica in Angels Camp (once ranked the second most profitable mine in the United States), and a number of other giant producers whose aggregate payout amounted to hundreds of millions of dollar – billions by today’s standard.

All but a few of these famous mines are now sealed and flooded with water. Gone forever are California’s glory days of the “golden harvest.” Or are they?  Experts say that some of our foothills’ richest deposits have yet to be discovered and worked.

Bob Holton of Cedar Ridge has researched and written about the Gold Rush era since the late 1950s, when he worked as a cub reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Gold Rush history is world history,” notes the veteran writer, who delights in discovering and sharing what he calls “breaking news from 150 years ago.”

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton December 15, 2008 10:01
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