The Rush for Gold

Empire Mine, Grass Valley, California

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.

Gold Mine Shaft

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.

Empire Mine, circa 1890

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.


Empire Mine miners on sled-like “slip,” before descending into the mines

Empire Mine, Athena on the same sled-like “slip”

Empire Mine Stamp Mill. Each stamp was mechanically lifted and dropped over 100 times per minute to crush the rock.

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.

Empire Mine Model. Colors indicate gold.

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.


Empire Mine quartz, gold in front center


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.


Quartz vein in granite: diagonal white line upper center to right


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.


Hirschman’s Pond, Nevada City, California

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

For a mystery with California history, read my latest novel Golden Gate Graveyard.

Paperback or E-book




California Goldfields. Courtesy Wikipedia.






66 thoughts on “The Rush for Gold

    • Those old mining towns make it easy to imagine what life was like back then, don’t they? And yes indeed, hardy people. I always enjoy your comments, Ingrid, thanks for visit today.

  1. Jet when one thinks of the dangers people put themselves in for the lure of the chance of hitting it rich it makes me ponder. Perhaps life is not so different now. The lure of riches causes many to lose a great deal. I can not imagine working in those conditions. Seeing Athena on the sled compared to the photo of the men sandwiched on it really brings perspective. It looks like you had a fascinating time of hiking and exploring. What a pleasure to travel along via this excellent article.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Sue. I am happy you got the contrast I was going for with the photos of the miners and Athena on the same exact mechanism. Always a pleasure to have you join us on the adventure, Sue, thank you so much.

  2. What a fun post! I feel like I toured with you! One of my great great great granddads clearly had gold fever (many of his children were born in different mining towns) but he never struck it rich. Really nice to read this and think what his experience might have been.

    • Thanks so much, Amy, for coming along on the gold tour. How great that you know your roots, and the lifestyle of your great great great grandfather. It’s very interesting being in Gold Country, I think you would really enjoy it. Thanks for your fun comment.

  3. Hey Jet, at first I was thing “OMG what man will do for a few monetary gains”. Then I thought “Hang on a sec, if it weren’t for those minerals, and especially gold, I wouldn’t be typing this message to you let alone reading your blog posts”.

    I wonder if those materials had not been discovered or available, if we would have found some other amazing way to communicate so easily as we do now, all the way across the world?

    • I find your comment very special, Alastair, because I wrote the post with just that in mind. It isn’t so easy to categorize and judge, because minerals are essential to all creatures, including animals. An interesting fact about the Empire Mine was that miners were brought here from Cornwall, England in the mid-1850s because they had a thousand years of experience as hard rock miners. The innovations, experience, and engineering were important then and now. And as you say, it leads us to today, when we can chat across the Atlantic. Continuing the innovations, with peace and cooperativeness, is yours and my wish too. Thanks so much for your thoughts, much appreciated.

    • Is is very beautiful and fun here, you’re right, GP. One day I’ll do a separate post on Nevada City, so much there to share. My thanks for your visit today, much appreciated.

  4. It certainly was a lucrative time for some folks, but a dark age for the Native American Nisenan and thousands of labor workers….
    Thank you so much for the post, Jet.

  5. Such an enjoyable read, Jet. Your words … are so poetic “Ponderosa pines whistled above us in the wind, and a pair of belted kingfishers dipped into the water for fish.” Lovely! 😃Have a great weekend…

  6. Another great post, Jet! So much to think about – humans are acquisitive and ingenious when it comes to riches from resources, but we all benefit at some level from resource extraction. Perhaps we’re becoming more mindful, perhaps not. I love to read the lessons from history, and the California Gold Rush era is so interesting. Time is something of a healer, so how lovely for you to explore and enjoy the landscapes and uncover the stories there – real treasure! And Belted Kingfishers too – delightful!
    Have a wonderful weekend.

    • It was tricky to compose this post for all the reasons you highlight here, pc, so I am grateful that you captured the essence of my message. Becoming more mindful carries each one of us a long way, and I was so pleased to be in Hirschman’s Pond and other hiking trails where it was clear that the earth had healed. I’ve thought of you this week, hoping your first week of no school was going okay. Change is such a big part of mindfulness, I applaud your courage and change. Thank you for your time and thoughts here on the Gold Rush post, and my best to you and to Mrs. PC too.

  7. Informative Post, Jet. Reading this it reminds me of the Coal Region Area that is not far for me. Immigrants from all over, came to these Coal Mines to have a job & support their Families. When Coal was King, there were many Mines that supplied Coal to our growing Nation. Many, many Miners were killed in the Mines back then, because Safety was not one of the big concerns, like it is today. I have quite a number of Images that I shot “snooping around” the Historic area’s of when Coal Was King.

    • Maybe you might be interested in more about the Coal Region that still exists to this day. There are a number of “small towns” called “Patches” that grew up out of the Coal Mine that was near-by. Places such as Centrailia, New Philadelphia, Coal Dale, Shenandoah, Buck Run, and many more are still there. The Town of Centralia is no longer there. Since 1962 a Mine Fire under the town has been burning ever since then. People moved away rather than have their Homes fall into a Mine Shaft. Ashland was the closest town. It even has a Mine Tour very similar to a Gold Mine. The Mines are about the same, only a different product coming out.

    • Thank you for the info on coal mining in your home community, Les. Mining has been a part of human civilization for eons and eons, and continues to this day all over the world. There are hundreds of different ores and gems deep in our earth, and the innovations and safety concerns in mining keep improving, fortunately. I appreciate your feedback on the coal mining in both comments, thank you.

  8. That must have been an interesting tour. My son lives in the Tahoe area and he says there are still hobbiests that go pan for gold in the rivers. Meditation with a chance of hitting paydirt. 😉

    • I read that gold panning in California was recently more revived than ever, due to this past winter weather we had. We had a drought for four years (some say five) and then this past winter we had torrents of rain washing down the mountainsides, delivering gold into the rivers once again. Thanks for the feedback from your son in Tahoe, Eliza, I enjoyed it a lot.

  9. The times of the gold rush in California were very harsh for many people that wasted their life away for a dream. Only few were the ones that got very wealthy, not necessarily the ones that dug the gold but the owners of the mines and the Banks. It’s fascinating to read the miner’s tales and stories. Here in GA there was a gold rush too that produced quite a bit of gold… but that’s another story. Thanks my friend for your great post. 🙂

    • You are exactly right, HJ. And other tangential businesses, like Levy who created denim jeans, also succeeded as well. Interesting to know there was a gold rush in GA. Thanks so much, my friend, wonderful to hear from you. It seems you are getting better, I am very glad.

  10. Fantastic tour of the mines and another valuable look at history. While great wealth was achieved by some, what a brutal life for so many others. Wonderful selection of photos and I love how you showcased the past and present, especially the photos of the mine shaft and slip. It’s such a contrast to look at the dark world the miners existed in to the photo of Hirschman’s Pond. Thanks for including the links, while reading I was reminded of our mining industry in the Upper Peninsula and the great pasties the miners from England brought over to our country and the great bakery in our area that sells them that I now might have to visit today. Wonderful photos and thanks for sharing this great tour!

    • Oh how I enjoyed your comment and contribution, ACI. Yes, it was a dark world, literally and figuratively, that the miners had; and there we were bopping around in colorful summer clothes, hiking in the fresh air around a healed-up pond. I spent many hours at the main street imagining life on the dirt road with clopping horses, heavy drinking, and flop houses; and what a contrast of past and present I had going on in my head. So I am happy you read into the contrast in the post, and really appreciate your sensitivity and thoughtful reading. I never knew about the mining in Upper Peninsula, and giggled at the mention of delicious pasties and the great bakery you might have to visit today. A true joy today in your comment, ACI, thank you.

  11. a golden exploration, Jet!
    i’ve meditated on what this area
    would be like
    still inhabited by the first peoples
    as the newcomers found
    and prospected all the precious
    treasure of air they could breathe
    back on the east coast 🙂

  12. I really enjoyed this post. It took me back to the years I spent in Placerville and roamed all over that Gold Rush territory, though I never actually made it to the Empire Mine. I tried searching it, but couldn’t figure out if the tour of the mine was in operation before I left in 1980. Those Sierra foothills with their quaint little gold rush towns were marvelous. I can’t help but wonder how much they may have grown since then. Your posts are always such fun. I never know if I’ll be taken back in time as in this post, or shot out to parts unknown. Love every one of them!

    • As you say, Gunta, there are so many gold rush towns around there, and it is fun to roam around them. To answer your wonderment: I’ve been visiting the Gold Country since the mid-1980s and much of it has not changed, capturing as they do the olden times, except for one thing: lots more tourists. I thank you for your kind and encouraging comments about my posts, I appreciate it, with warm thanks.

    • You would really like this area, Sherry. The Sierra Nevadas run north-south for more than 400 miles in eastern California and the geology is fascinating. Here is a good overview book about the geological sites of California: “California Rocks!” by Katherine J. Baylor (2010). Thanks very much for your visit today.

  13. One good thing about reading blogs is I actually read and pay attention. It is just better for me to read things like this from a fellow blogger than in history or college books. 😀 Thanks for finally getting me enlightened on what california gold rush was all about.

    • Please know how happy I am to share the California Gold Rush history with you, Rommel. And oh how you have done the same for me with Japan. I am thinking about going to a Sumo wrestling event while there (in Jan), thanks to your intriguing post; and Fuji has a whole new light for me, having read about your climb. Always a treat to hear from you, thank you.

  14. So interesting! There is a lot of mining history where I live in Colorado. I always appreciate a bit of history behind a place. Great photos as well, really allowed the viewer to be a part of the experience.

    • I’m happy to have given you a glimpse into the gold mining of California, Victoria; and have fun learning more about the mining in Colorado. Thank you for your visit and kind words.

    • Yes, the hardships of mining are enormous, I agree, Draco. Learning the history of it gives us windows in the past, and hopefully ways to improve on the safety and methods as well. Thank you for your visit, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I enjoyed “going” to New Zealand with you recently, and bid you a happy journey ahead.

  15. I always found the gold rush as a fascinating piece of California history…your post brought it back to the human element…seeing those miners sitting on those sleds like cattle….can’t even image the life they had….thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, it’s easy to get swayed by the PR that surrounds tourist attractions, so I was careful to include the human element and the suffering that existed too. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Kirt, and as always, I appreciate your visit and thoughtful comment.

  16. This was quite the tour and thanks for taking us on it with you, Jet! It’s amazing what “gold fever” does to people.. the idea of getting rich is a dream for many people but they’re missing out on what truly matters (those things aren’t material) xx

  17. Fascinating look at the story behind the story. Loved the photo of Athena in the slip. I didn’t realize the gold fields were so far north.

    • Yes, I found that map interesting too, Nan. Northern California is loaded with old gold towns. I liked that photo of Athena on the slip because she was taking up the space where three large men sat, it gave perspective. She’s always climbing around…lol. Thanks so much for your visits today, Nan, always appreciated.

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