Most of the world's gold is embedded in hard rock, locked deep underground. But much of California's 49er gold lay near the surface, easily accessible to anyone with a few simple tools and a willingness to work. And because California had become a part of the United States only a few days after the discovery at Sutter's Mill, there was no organized government to lay claim to the gold. It was easy to get and free for the taking.

For hundreds of thousands of years, erosion had freed gold nuggets from the solid rock of the Sierra Nevada. Placer gold was washed down by mountain streams and lay there in the shallow water, waiting to be picked up.

The first wave of miners who arrived in the spring and summer of 1848 were often rewarded with fortunes in gold nuggets.

Miners used shovels and pans and other simple tools to scoop up river gravels during the early days of the Gold Rush. 'Panning' was the most popular method--swirling water from a stream in a shallow pan until the heavier, gold-bearing materials fell to the bottom while the water and lighter sand fell out over the rim.

Mining Machines

The easy gold was soon picked clean. The pans were replaced by simple mining machines like the wooden 'rocker', which allowed several pails of water and sand to be emptied and processed at one time.

But this required the efforts of several men, and miners began to join together in formal and informal companies. As the mining operations became larger and more sophisticated, the 49ers became unrelenting in their assault on the beautiful landscape around them.

They dammed and diverted rivers, chopped down the forests and cut away entire mountainsides.

Hydraulic Mining

Millions of years ago, ancient rivers laid down immense beds of gold-bearing gravels. The big mining companies were relentless and ruthless in the methods they used to get down to the ancient stream beds, now buried beneath mountains.

The most efficient and most destructive method was hydraulic mining. High up in the mountains, the miners diverted water into ditches and wooden flumes. Pulled by gravity and channeled down below through heavy iron pipes, the water exploded from a nozzle with a force of 5,000 pounds.

The powerful streams of water ripped through clay, rocks and gravels, blasting away entire mountains.

The gravels were washed through sluices and the heavy gold settled behind riffle boards. The rest of the mountainside slid into the streams and rivers, burying them under hundreds of feet of mud, sand and rocks.

The mining debris soon slid down into the central valley, causing heavy loss of fish and wildlife and destroying thousands of acres of rich farmland. The towns of Marysville and Yuba City were buried under 25 feet of mud and rock.


As gold around the streams and rivers became scarcer, millions of tons of earth had to be dug up and sifted to recover a few ounces of gold. The contraptions became bigger and more imaginative, like the floating gold dredge.

Early dredges, like the one shown here, had a single scoop. Later ones had a whole chain of buckets. Working deep beneath the surface, the gouged tons of gravel, rocks and mud from the riverbed to recover a small amount of gold.

The gold was separated on the barge, and the waste--called 'tailings'--was thrown out on the bank. Soon there were mountains of tailings as tall as a seven-story building. These huge, barren mountains of waste rock are visible today as you drive through parts of the Sacramento Valley.

Hard-Rock Mining

The gold found around stream beds was soon exhausted. There was still plenty of gold left in California, but much of it was encased in quartz veins deep within the mountains. Hard-rock miners took over, using their pickaxes to dig shafts up to 40 feet deep.
Thousands of miles of tunnels were dug and blasted through the mountains, shored up with timber cut from the local forests. They loaded the quartz ore into buckets and ore cars, then pulverized it in stamp mills. Mercury (it was called quicksilver then) was used to separate the gold from the fine powder. It was dangerous work. Explosions, cave-ins, flooding and poisonous fumes from the mercury killed and injured many miners.

If done properly, hard-rock mining is less destructive than other forms of mining. But the early hard-rock miners were careless, and their refining techniques were crude. Tons of toxic mercury were washed down from the mountains, where it killed fish and wildlife. Large quantities of mercury still remain in the bottom of rivers and in San Francisco Bay, where they have entered the food chain.

Mining Today

Although most of the gold is gone now, enough remains to support a few commercial mining operations, amateur hobbyists and ardent gold-seekers like Todd Bracken.

Among the commercial mining operations, one of the most interesting is the original Sixteen to One mine in the tiny town of Allegheny, in the northernmost portion of the gold country.

It remains a full-time working mine which continues to operate at a profit despite the current depressed gold prices and the expense of stringent safety regulations.

Even in recent years, the miners have extracted some awesome specimens, such as the 18-pound "Whopper" discovered in 1993. Discovered at the 2,200-foot level, it contained 14 ounces of gold.

While most remaining hard-rock mines concentrate on recovering vast amounts of low-grade ore, the Sixteen to One is built around a constant search for extremely rich veins of gold-bearing quartz.

The richest pocket yielded 89,000 ounces--over 7,000 pounds of gold! In 1995, $2 million in gold was mined in a 10-day period.

This is the entrance to the Sixteen to One mine, north of Grass Valley. The unprocessed ore goes to a "Stamping" shed, in the background, where it is pulverized and the gold-bearing ore is recovered..

New Yuba Dredge

The newly-refitted Yuba Dredge is still functional, operating 24-hours a day. Located on the flood plain of the Yuba River, near Marysville, it digs down to deeper gold-bearing gravels which may have been buried there for ten million years.

Its buckets operate like a giant chainsaw, hauling up gold-bearing gravel from 120 feet below. The gold is captured inside, then the gravel is dumped out the back.

Across the pond, you can see the gravels reshaped into low hills that are covered with soil and replanted with grass.

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