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.
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.
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
They dammed and diverted rivers, chopped
down the forests and cut away entire
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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..
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
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.
pond, you can see the gravels reshaped into low hills that are
covered with soil and replanted with