Gold Rush History: Lost Gold Mines of the Sierra Nevada
Many remarkable stories have been told of California’s lost gold mines. There’s the legend of Columbia’s fabulous limestone cave. It is said to contain a vast fortune in gold, but the only record of its whereabouts, a treasure map, went missing in 1852 and hasn’t been seen since.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Lost Cement Gold Mine. Rumors of its location caused a stampede over Sonora Pass and into the Owens Valley from 1857 to 1861, but it still awaits discovery by some lucky prospector.
There’s the lost Goose Egg Mine in El Dorado County, Siskiyou County’s legendary Humbug Creek Mine, and the missing Waterfall Mine of Shasta County. But the strangest story of all comes from the northern mines in Sierra County – or it might be Butte County by some accounts – where “Gold Lake” supposedly lies at the head of “Nelson Creek.” This old fable ties directly to the early history of Tuolumne County.
Today, a few recreational areas in Northern California go by the name Gold Lake, but let this not confuse the reader. Ours is the alpine lake to end all alpine lakes – the El Dorado – whose shores are said to be lined with huge gold-laced boulders and nuggets of all shapes and sizes. It has eluded fortune seekers for 160 years, yet some still claim it exists.
Here’s the legend: Thomas R. Stoddart was both a worldly individual and a mountain man. He popped champagne corks with royalty, soldiered in the Greek War of Independence, washed gold on the Stanislaus and Yuba rivers, shot grizzly bears, fought Indians, and was pierced clean through the leg with an arrow. He knew his pioneering better than most who came west with the Gold Rush, but, oddly enough, he had a terrible sense of direction.
In the spring of 1850 while prospecting near Downieville, Stoddart and a partner got lost in the wild and wandered aimlessly for several days. Finally they happened upon a “small, fiddle-shaped lake surrounded by precipitous mountains.” As the pair reached the banks of this curious lake, they noticed it had an unearthly metalliferous glow to it. The water was uncommonly clear, revealing its bottom to be almost pure gold. The entire ground around them was smothered in large, glittering nuggets and lumps of precious metal.
They stood for a long while in mute astonishment, then began filling their pockets with specimens. Next came a hostile Indian attack, which seems to be an essential part of almost every lost gold mine adventure. Stoddart was a fast runner and made his escape, but his partner was never heard from again.
Several months passed before our soon-to-be-famous hero showed up in a small gold camp on the Yuba River. He related his story, pulled up his pantaloons and showed off his arrow wound, displayed giant nuggets the size of which had never been seen in the diggings, and organized a party of eager miners to return to his gold-studded phantasm.
The expedition went heavily armed to fight off the natives, but it might have helped had members packed a compass.
No sooner had this group of some two dozen fortune hunters arrived at the supposed vicinity of Gold Lake than Stoddart became confused and disoriented. He wandered in circles for two days and grew increasingly incoherent. Things turned downright ugly when a vote was taken and he was given 24 hours to produce Gold Lake or be hanged.
Late that night, while everyone reclined in sleep, Stoddart quietly took his leave and headed south in the direction of Tuolumne County.
The story of Gold Lake was widely told in the West. For more than a decade, hundreds of crazed individuals and organized groups tramped through Northern California’s mountains in search of this mythical bonanza. Rumor spread that Stoddart was a fraud, and that his arrow wound was actually the result of an accident in Philadelphia while playing pall-mall (croquet). He was the crazy son of an English lord, it was said, whose father shipped him off to America in order to avoid embarrassment.
Meanwhile, in Tuolumne County, Stoddart assimilated well into Sonora’s eccentric frontier society. Arriving in the mid-1850s, he spent the remaining 21 years of his life as one of the town’s most distinguished citizens. He earned the rank of colonel in the Tuolumne Rangers, a militia group, became a charter member of the Association of Pioneers, and worked as a mailman and inspector of fire extinguishers.
He died September 6, 1878, and was buried with high honors in Sonora’s Odd Fellows Cemetery. “A noble heart, a generous companion,” the obituary read. No mention was made of Stoddart’s greatest claim to fame, however – source of either a hoax or delusion that became one of the Gold Country’s most celebrated legends.
A thorough account of Stoddart’s life and the Gold Lake legend can be found in “Annals of Tuolumne County,” reprinted in 1977 by the Tuolumne County Historical Society and annotated by County Historian Carlo De Ferrari.
Copyright © 2010, Friends and Neighbors Magazine