It was a big day on January 24, 1848 when the first California gold was discovered at a saw mill in Coloma. Let’s take a trip to the “Gold Country,” where dozens of small gold towns still exist in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We’re going to Grass Valley and Nevada City.
That original gold flake brought 300,000 people to California, half by sea, half by land; an unprecedented surge for those days. (That gold flake, by the way, can be viewed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.)
Eons before, 400 million years ago, California was at the bottom of a sea, and underwater volcanoes deposited gold and other minerals onto the sea floor. Next, tectonic forces drove the minerals to the earth’s surface. Eventually the minerals eroded and were deposited in gravel alongside rivers.
Prospectors at first could sift through riverbed gravel with a shallow pan, finding gold nuggets and flakes. See map below.
After the surface gold had disappeared, mining followed. Gold was extracted from quartz by “hardrock” mining. Men were lowered in buckets into deep shafts to chip and drill through the rock, and later sled-like “slips” and cages were invented for miners to enter the earth.
The rocks were detonated, and blasted rock was loaded into rail carts, ore cars, and brought up. Extracted ore went to the stamp mill where it was crushed, mixed with water, and processed, then further processed in the refinery.
The Empire Mine, in Grass Valley, is a State Park with remnants of the mine still open for touring. This complex had 56 shafts extending over 8,000 feet (2,438 m) deep, with 367 miles of excavations. Mining stopped in 1956 when it became too expensive to extract.
I liked the Mine Model. It looks like a modern model that was built for tourists. But it is actually what engineers and geologists constructed in 1938, as an important working tool.
It gives a thorough view of the underground environment, where they could find the gold. All the squiggly colored lines are gold veins. As you can imagine, it was closely guarded and studiously analyzed.
The California Gold Rush (1848-1855) was a lucrative time for some folks, and a cruel time for others. Native American Nisenan were forcibly removed and displaced, exposed to disease; miners were exposed to chemicals and disease, their work was devastating to their health; fatal accidents occurred; the earth was ravaged.
When I hiked in the area two weeks ago, it was easy to see the quartz veins in the granite boulders, and minerals bleeding through the rocks. I wondered if people still search for gold. I learned that yes, there are still people who pan for gold, but there is no rush like in the old days; basically, for dreamers.
All these years later, there are still tectonic forces here, and minerals continue to be important to all living creatures…mining continues around the world. We wouldn’t have mobile phones without minerals.
One day we hiked an area that we learned was on much higher ground in the old days. It had been extensively dug up by two brothers during prospecting days. The hole that they dug was now filled in with a century of rainfall–a scenic, quiet pond with surrounding trails.
Ponderosa pines whistled above us in the wind, and a pair of belted kingfishers dipped into the water for fish.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander unless otherwise noted