Gold Strikes, Swindles and Wild Doings

By Bob Holton December 15, 2012 12:00

Headframes of the Utica Mine in its heyday
Photo courtesy of Calaveras County Historical Society

In the realm of swindles, scams and backsliding chicanery, it is generally agreed that the following episodes were the Old West’s biggest gold mine frauds of the 19th Century.

While one of these stories took place in Calaveras County and the other hundreds of miles east in the state of Nevada, the principle culprits in both instances were not only great proficients in the art of “salting,” they were among the most shifty characters in our foothills.

The term salting, as applied below, is defined as the age-old practice of bamboozling an unsuspecting buyer into paying for what he thinks is a lucrative venture, when all he’s getting is a worthless dry hole thinly sprinkled, or salted, with gold dust.

Our first tall tale – told as truth, I might add – happened in Angels Camp around 1875 when James Fair used a shotgun to enrich the ground of an abandoned gravel pit, thus creating the illusion it was largely smothered in yellow wealth to its core. No sooner did this happen than a greenhorn, Charles Lane, stepped up and paid a tidy sum for what would become known as the world-famous Utica Mine.

Undaunted by what some said was a colossal waste of time, Lane for several years worked the Utica with slim rewards. He might have given up and moved on to better prospects had it not been for a San Francisco fortune-teller who repeatedly told him to keep digging.

“Some day,” she said, “the Utica will make you rich.”

Charles Lane

Lane eventually tunneled several thousand feet below the earth’s surface, where he hit one of the richest ore bodies in the Mother Lode. At its zenith, the Utica employed more than 500 miners running shifts 24/7. Thirty armed guards were also enlisted to watch over the treasure pile.

By the early 1900s, the Utica set a national record of $4 million in net revenues over 30 months. Total disclosed output when it permanently shut down in 1910 was an astounding $16.4 million – more than $1 billion on today’s precious metals market.

There is no question that the Utica story is unequalled, save for that of the La Planta and its perpetrator, Owen Bradley of Tuolumne County, who some say was the shrewdest operator in his profession.

Bradley choose for his field of fortune a bleak, barren stretch of Nevada desert in the remotest section of Esmeralda County – an almost endless wasteland of lava and porous rock resembling in color and configuration a damp and extended sponge.

While the only hint of mineralization to be seen here is found in the sand that runs about six inches deep, prospecting is virtually impossible due to a total absence of water.

In this unlikely spot, Bradley sank a shaft 15 feet, salted it with Tuolumne County gold and named his imaginary glory hole after his mule, the great La Planta. To perfect his plan, he blew fine gold dust in every pore of the rock. Then he thoroughly cleaned out the bottom of the shaft and covered it liberally with more gold particles. Finally, he filled in the entire depression with about a ton of enriched sand and gravel.

With the stage thus set, the curtain was about to rise on the best theatrical performance of Bradley’s career.

Taking a sample of the salted ground, he rolled it up in a red bandana and started off for the town of Hawthorne. Upon his arrival there, he proceeded to get drunk, at least by all appearances. He staggered up and down Main Street, in and out of every saloon, creating a scene that drew large crowds of onlookers.

Since timing is everything, just at the right moment he held up his bandanna of precious contents and announced, “You’re all a bunch of (blankety blanks)!” Then he added, “In my hand I hold what will enable me to buy this whole town and send every one of you (blankety-blanks) into exile.”

Bradley’s stage presence and slurred diction was absolutely brilliant. As the day wore on, he seemed to become drunker and drunker. Twice in the Empire Saloon he purposely dropped the bandana, causing its ingredients to spill on the barroom floor.

Eugene Knapp, who by coincidence was raised in Columbia and was now an assayer by profession, seized the opportunity by gathering up some of the salted samples and rushing them to his Hawthorne office for testing.

With results in the hundreds of dollars per ton, Knapp expeditiously wired his brother in Columbia. A wealthy business entrepreneur, his brother told him to buy the La Planta for whatever it took to clinch the deal.

This was accomplished after much dickering. Bradley agreed to sell one-half interest for $30,000 spot cash with a 24-hour back out option.

The money was delivered immediately, and so it happened that Owen Bradley left Hawthorne on the afternoon stage, never to return. In San Francisco he set up headquarters at Peter Dorsey’s Saloon on Stockton Street, between O’Farrell and Market, where he kept a hack stationed outside at all times for his use as the mood seized him.

He proceeded to spend money like a prince, while at the same time the La Planta’s new owners slowly realized they had been buncoed. For some unguessed reason, however, they extended the shaft another 30 feet down and hit a chute of rich ore that would eventually pay out slightly more than $4 million based on today’s market.

The fickle finger of fate works in mysterious ways.

Unaware of this good fortune, Bradley sold his remaining interest for $45,000 and continued to live large in San Francisco until his money ran dry in 1894. Returning home to Tuolumne County, he and a certain “Bonanza Johnson” hatched a plot in Sugar Pine to replicate the La Planta fraud, but it never panned out.

Two years later while working at the Golden Gate mine in Sonora, Bradley was splitting a round of holes when he lingered a second too long at the face of a drift, the holes exploded and he was blown to atoms.

The Golden Gate was behind what today is the Mother Lode Fairgrounds, and in its day it was one of the foothills’ richest producers.

A few days after this tragic accident, The Union Democrat ran Bradley’s obituary with a detailed account of the La Planta episode, exactly as he had described it in his memoirs. “Thus passes into history Tuolumne County’s most unique and cunning character,” the paper eulogized.

Bob Holton, 77, is a veteran journalist who began his career at the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1950s. The Cedar Ridge resident has researched Gold Rush history extensively, in library archives statewide and on foot throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills.

 © 2013 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton December 15, 2012 12:00
Write a comment

1 Comment

  1. Wylde Jayne December 16, 04:33

    Charles D. Lane was no greenhorn when he bought the Utica mine and I seriously doubt this mine was salted. CD Lane was a veteran gold miner 45 years of age when he bought the mine, already having mined in California, Nevada and Idaho before returning back to Angels Camp, California. Some editing and research needed here!

View comments

Write a comment

Your e-mail address will not be published.
Required fields are marked*