"Gold! Gold from the American River"

Unpublished Manuscript
By Sam Low

In the shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California Route 49 skirts deep valleys and descends to foaming rivers through dizzying switchbacks. This is "gold Country" where Sequoia and Ponderosa Pine reach toward the sky; tiny towns of steep pitched Victorian roofs flaunt gingerbread curlicues; and wooden scaffolds called headframes are the only remaining landmark of deep tunnels scratched into the earth by miners pursuing capricious veins of gold. It is a landscape that promised fabulous riches but more often provided only back-breaking labor and dashed dreams. Where miners once toiled, my wife Karin and I embarked upon a voyage back in time marked by crisp evenings nestled in down feather beds and mornings spent exploring poignant reminders of the past. It was through this same landscape, in the late Summer of 1851, that a young New England woman struggled up a steep trail toward the great adventure of her life. The lush undisturbed wilderness astounded her. In a letter home, she wrote:

"I wish I could give you some faint idea of the majestic solitudes through which we passed; where the pine trees rise so grandly in their awful height, that they seem looking into Heaven itself. Hardly a living thing disturbed this solemnly beautiful wilderness."

Dame Shirley, as the young woman came to be known, chronicled her year long California sojourn in correspondence to her stay-at-home sister in Amherst, Massachusetts. While researching our trip, I discovered The Shirley Letters in the Wellesley Public Library. She had attended the Female Seminary in Charlestown, Massachusetts and spent two years at Amherst Academy. At the age of 29, she departed Boston with her husband, a doctor, for San Francisco where the good physician was immediately infected with "gold fever." Dame Shirley's letters opened a window into a fascinating period of American history and drew us to seek the lore of the land she described so poetically.

Our first stop was the recreated Sutter's Mill at Coloma State Park. Here John Marshall, another "Easterner," made the discovery that shaped forever the trajectory of California history. We joined a group of school children listening to a Park Ranger tell his story.

"John Marshall was an itinerant jack of all trades endowed with capable hands and an active brain. He migrated from New Jersey to California to seek his fortune," he told his rapt audience.

In Sacramento, Marshall met Captain John Sutter. Governor Alvarado of Mexico had granted Sutter a hundred thousand acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas where he planned to create a self-sufficient agricultural colony. But in the Winter of 1848, in the tail race of Sutter's saw mill, John Marshall discovered a tiny glittering fleck of gold. Sutter was infuriated. Gold would bring an invasion of miners and a hunger of quite a different kind than he envisioned for his utopian agricultural colony. The discovery was suppressed, but word leaked out in the Spring, resulting in Sutter's worst nightmare and one of the largest migrations in our history. Overland and around the horn came thousands of miners. Disregarding Sutter's claim to the land, they panned where they pleased, set up make-shift tent villages, and created a world the likes of which had never been seen in the young American nation. Dame Shirley:

"Through the middle of Rich Bar runs the street, thickly planted with about forty tenements; among which figure round tents, square tents, plank hovels, log cabins etc. - the residences, varying in elegance and convenience from the palatial splendor of 'The Empire,' down to a 'local habitation' formed of pine boughs and covered with old calico shirts."

This was typical of the early mining camps which evolved into the villages still dotting the hillsides in California Gold Country. A few miles from Sutter's Mill, up a winding country road, we found the tiny town of Volcano - named by settlers who mistakenly identified lava in the surrounding outcrops. In the cemetery, on a small rise overlooking a white New England style church and a meandering creek, we came upon the tombstone of a soldier of the 4th California Infantry. His epitaph was one simple word - "Gold." Perhaps he was one of the many who deserted their regiments in San Francisco to heed the call of quick riches. Another tombstone commemorated Silas Whitmore of Ashburnham, Massachusetts who died in Volcano at age 52 on August 10, 1877. Was he a gold hunter who stayed on to settle in volcano or was he a later arrival? I preferred to imagine him as a 28 year old "forty-niner" panning the nearby creek in the shadow of the church spire.

During Volcano's prime, miners like Ashburnham took more than ninety million dollars from the hills surrounding the village. Today the sleepy town, population about 85, is still dominated by the imposing St. George Hotel at the head of the narrow main street. Built in 1862, graceful balconies spread across the facade of the three story building to give it an imposing beauty. Many of the town's structures are even older: the ruins of the Kelley and Sigmond Building and the Clute Building with its steel shuttered doors date back to 1855; the brick general store, built in 1852, is still a gathering spot for townsfolk and a welcome place for a sandwich and locally brewed beer.

According to legend, the gold rush itself was ushered in not by a miner, but by a canny merchant, Sam Brannan. Catching the rumor of the gold at Sutter's Mill, Brannan rushed through the Central Plaza in San Francisco, brandishing a bottle of gold dust and shouting: "Gold! Gold from the American River." He had stocked his store with the picks, pans and shovels and made a small fortune selling them before the first miners hit the creeks. From this simple beginning, industry grew dramatically to serve the needs of the mining boom in the Sierra Nevadas. The Knight Foundry, in Sutter Creek, now a living history museum, is a reminder of the need for stamp mills, hoist works, mining carts, pumps and hundreds of other implements to supply miners tunneling deep beneath the California landscape. One of the products produced by Samuel Knight is still in use here, an ingenious water wheel which powers an intricate system of belts and pulleys which run the lathes, drills, planers, cranes and presses in the machine shop. Next door, in the foundry, large cupola furnaces still melt scrap iron which is ladled on "pouring day" into waiting molds. As we wandered through the foundry on a self-guided tour, we stopped to talk to artisans as they crafted wooden patterns from which the molds would be created and watched others wrestle the finished molds into position for casting.

The early Argonauts, as the miners came to be called, skimmed gold nuggets and flakes from placer deposits in the flowing rivers where they had been deposited by erosion. It was a democratic kind of mining - a start could be made with nothing more than a pan. The first pioneers quickly recovered ten million dollars, giving rise to hysterical stories of easy wealth that drew later emigrants to California. In Rich Bar mining camp, the diggings were so productive, and so crowded, that a maximum claim size of ten square feet was imposed. As the human tide jostled for living room along the creeks and rivers, friction was inevitable. Dame Shirley:

"We have lived through so much excitement for the last three weeks, Dear M., That I almost shrink from relating the gloomy events which have marked their flight... In the short space of twenty-four days, we have had murders, fearful accidents, bloody deaths, a mob, whippings, a hanging, an attempt at suicide, and a fatal duel."

In 1849, fifty thousand were in gold country; by 1855, a hundred and twenty thousand. Soon, every inch of river had been washed and panned with simple mechanical devices - sluices, long toms, and rockers - all on exhibit at Coloma State Park. Under the pressure of the human flood that inundated California, the placer gold was quickly exhausted. The next step in mining would not be so democratic.

Route 49 descends into the tiny settlement of Amador City and turns sharply over Amador Creek. Just at the apex of the turn, Karin and I spied a stately brick building. Gold leaf lettering proclaimed it to be The Imperial Hotel. Inside, a mahogany bar stretched the length of an inviting lounge; to the right, we found a large dining room with brilliant white table clothes and hand-painted murals; in the back, a multilevel garden. The Imperial Hotel opened as a mercantile store in 1879 and remained in operation until 1927. Renovated in 1988 by its new owners, there are six rooms, each decorated in a singular and eclectic style - a relief from the strict Victorian decor of many Gold Country inns. Karin and I chose a large room opening onto a balcony running along the Hotel's second story facade. Refreshed by a lunch that would suit a gourmet, we set out to learn more about Amador.

Hiking up route 49 from the hotel, we found the wooden head frame of the Keystone Mines rising tall above a pine grove. The structure once carried miles of cable that lowered miners riding crowded carts to their work deep in the earth. Across the street, the mine headquarters has been converted to The Mine House Inn, a cozy bed and breakfast. In the tiny town of Amador, gold rush era buildings now house a variety of shops purveying Victoriana and American folk crafts, and a pleasant cafe where Karin sipped cappuccino and I sampled the local wines. That night, in the lounge of the Imperial Hotel, a local resident regaled us with the town's history.

In the Winter of 1851, a moonlighting Baptist preacher found gold outcroppings near Amador Creek. Embedded in veins of quartz that struck downward into the earth, the outcroppings invited miners to dig - beginning a new phase of "hardrock" mining that was to continue the California gold boom into the middle of the twentieth Century. Hardrock mining was totally different from panning placer deposits. It demanded high technology, a large and trained workforce of miners, venture capital and sophisticated engineering - in short, where individuals with little more than the shirts on their backs could once pan a fortune from flowing rivers, now, large scale enterprise took over.

To see for ourselves what changes were wrought by this technological shift, we journeyed north on route 49 to Empire Mine State Park in the small town of Grass Valley. From 1850 to 1957 miners, mostly Cornish immigrants, tunneled more than 367 miles of shafts into the earth beneath the Empire Mine's headframe. To map the rich gold-bearing veins, an intricate three dimensional model of the shafts was fashioned in a well-guarded room, exhibited today at the park's visitor's center. Here, spotlights create a shimmering spider's web of tunnels as a taped narration traces the history of the mines, telling a fascinating story of immense engineering effort and human sweat. Later, as we peered down into the main shaft, we thought of miners descending in narrow carts deep into that deadly lacework of tunnels. Many never returned, in spite of heroic rescue efforts by the men of the Grass Valley Cooperative rescue station whose headquarters is still preserved. In the Hoist Cable Building, we found giant wire drums that were operated by skilled hoistmen to raise and lower the men and their supplies to the deep shafts below. Other exhibits evoke the cunning and ingenuity of the Empire's engineers - massive pumps that forced breathing air down into the shafts, giant compressors that powered pneumatic drills and stamp mills that crushed the ore.

Nothing remains of the miners' houses, but the owner's mansion, quaintly called a cottage, rises majestically above a formal rose garden a few hundred yards from the headframe. Here William Bowers Bourn Jr. and his wife Agnes entertained during their visits, which must have been infrequent as Bourn spent a great deal of time tending his other business interests - the Greystone Winery (now Christian Brothers), the San Francisco Gas Company and the Spring Valley Water Company which supplied water to all of San Francisco at the turn of the century. Their permanent home, now a museum twenty five miles from San Francisco, was a magnificent 43 room mansion on 600 acres called Filoli, an abbreviation of Bourn's motto "fight bravely, love bravely, live bravely." As we wandered through the magnificent gardens, I imagined laughter and the music of gay parties blending with the thumping of the nearby stamp mills. But as we lingered amidst the scent of roses on a clear Spring day, I found my thoughts drifting back to the gaping tunnel entrance and the hundreds of miles of shafts just beneath our feet - and to the men who toiled there.

Hardrock mining produced more than unheard of wealth for entrepreneurs like Bourn, it may also have saved the Union itself during the devastating American Civil War. More than seven hundred and fifty million dollars in gold came out of the ground by the war's end - contributing mightily to the Northern victory. Because of the continuous output of the Empire Mines, the nearby towns did not feel the Great Depression of 1929. It was not until the late 1940's that, with the price of gold fixed at $35.00 an ounce, the mines began to struggle. They finally closed in 1957. But the legacy of the mining era in California still lingers in the many tiny Victorian villages, State Parks, and museums along Route 49. It lingers also in the abiding landscape which in places still seems as fresh and unspoiled as the day that Dame Shirley wrote of it:

"It is impossible, my dear sister, for any power of language over which I have command, to convey to you an idea of the wild grandeur and the awful magnificence of the scenery in this vicinity. This fork of the Feather River, comes down very much "as the water does at Lodore;" now gliding along with a liquid measure, like a river in a dream, and anon bursting into a thousand glittering foam-beads over the huge rocks, which rise dark, solemn and weird-like, in its midst. The crossings are formed of logs, often moss-grown. Only think how charmingly picturesque, to eyes wearied with the costly masonry, or carpentry of the bridges at home."

The charming settlements all along route 49 continue to thrive as tourist destinations because they have managed to preserve their past. Nevada City's National Hotel, completed in 1856, is the oldest continuously operated hostelry in California. Almost a century and a half after the first miners hit the creeks, California's gold country draws visitors to experience a colorful era in American history amidst one of our most unspoiled natural landscapes.

Sam Low.com home | Biography | Library | Gallery | Screening Room | Forbears | Notebook | Contact Sam

Site, text, and images Copyright © 2002 Sam Low. All rights reserved. Any or all content may not be used without Sam's permission.