GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS – part 2                           part 1

The first two of the five years I worked on the river we made more than our expenses. I kept a record of our trips and the amount of gold we found. 

We averaged three trips a month from April through November and one to two a month from December through March. There were two of us traveling 340 miles roundtrip from Concord and Benicia to Jim’s claim near Downieville, and back. I would go to Benicia, meet up with Jim, and we would go in his SUV with the equipment. 

It is 5740 miles to New York City and back from our area. We made the equivalent of two trips to NYC and back each of those first two years. We would leave Saturday morning by 6 am from his house and be back home around 8 or 9 pm. There were up to 8 hours driving time, and 2 hours to set up and break down gear, leaving 6 to 7 hours to work the claim. Occasionally, we camped over one or two nights. 

It was a full and tiring day. I always felt wholesomely good on the ride home, thankful that I could spend the day in the mountains. It may have been the gold we recovered. We knew we were on to something good.  

Once at the river, we loaded the gear on pontoons and Jim would pull the rig, wading the river, up to the claim. The water level varied and was much higher and faster during the spring runoff. The bottom would change with the current and each trip was different. I carried remaining odds and ends by trail through the boulder laden bank. We were fortunate in that the claim was only a couple hundred yards from the end of the road. 

It was an obstacle course, up and down over rock and fallen trees. There had been a large landslide decades before with continued slides over the years. Our worksite was at the edge of the slide.  

Upon entering my third year at the claim, a few more miners came to help us, as we wanted to process more material. The gold was good but now the share was reduced. Jim moved up nearer the claim and my travel and expense dynamic changed. It was still worth the time and cost as we believed we were nearing pay-dirt.  

In the days of the '49er’s, this area, the land and river for miles and miles, had been canvassed by hundreds of miners. Crews dammed or diverted the river so that dredges on barges could work it. It had been worked hard. Even so, winter rains and spring snow runoff could erode the landscape, flushing out and replenishing the gold. Called flood gold. 

Our claim was just below a pinch in the river where a ridge of bedrock crossed it. Large boulders and the lay of the land made it awkward to work. We figured that our work site, only thirty to forty feet long and ten to fifteen feet wide along the bank, had been missed or passed over for easier picking. 

This was where our best gold was. The rock, gravel, and dirt was compacted here. Time, and mineral content had solidified it. It was undisturbed and had never been worked. For this reason, we knew that if gold was in this material, we would be the first to find it. And it could be lucrative. Water could hardly break it up. We used picks and pry bars to break it up, rake it into the water, and give it time to soften up. 

We moved rock and gravel from one place to another and sometimes back again as we followed the gold where it led us. It always led us back into the bank, right at the water line. We built berms, or small dams, that allowed us to go deeper into the bank.  

This was also where the danger was. It was a steep bank and we started getting slides. We had worked ourselves into tight quarters between car sized rock and the hillside above us. There were now five of us working the claim.  

On two occasions, I woke up suddenly, sitting up in bed, staring bug-eyed into the dark, having dreamed that the hillside was coming down on us.  

During this time, we picked up two more claims in the same area. Our time became divided between the three. The new claims showed promise, and both were on large year-round streams. 

One of them had long and wide veins of quartz stringers angling from the bedrock across the stream and into the bank where the beginnings of a tunnel followed the vein. The tunnel abruptly stopped, maybe fifteen feet in. Water was leaking in from the sides and above, and without any beam support, may have been structurally unsound to consider digging in further.  

Or perhaps the miners didn’t find the expected gold they wanted, and it was not worth the effort. We were going to prospect it further. There was good gold in the creek. Likewise on the second claim. Both claims were in steep terrain. Getting equipment into the sites would be tough.  

The other claim, near Allegheny, was in an area mined by a crew of Hawaiian Kanaka sailors who had deserted ship in San Francisco. Over 500 hundred ships, bringing in men hungry for gold from all over the world, were abandoned during the initial gold rush.  

This one was near two very successful mines back in the day. Only burros and mules could have brought in the equipment in places like this. Whole communities now long gone, of cabins, mess halls, tool shops, deep open shafts, rails, tunneling gear, and timber, still stand in the undergrowth. Dilapidated, but a testament to the number of men and the amount of effort spent in going for the gold. 

This was not old growth timber. Probably the 3rd, or 4th generation. The original forests of the areas where gold was heavily mined were denuded of trees, being used to for housing and for fuel. In some cases, the lack of timber forced miners to leave the area. Winters were cold. The hillsides for miles around sported only stumps, looking like 3-day stubble beard. 

More in part 3.

                                                         End part 2                                       part 1 

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Image by me.