"I looked on for a moment; a frenzy seized my soul; unbidden my legs performed some entirely new movements of polka steps -- I took several -- houses were too small for me to stay in; I was soon in the street in search of necessary outfits; piles of gold rose up before me at every step; castles of marble, dazzling the eye with their rich appliances; thousands of slaves bowling to my beck and call: myriads of fair virgins contending with each other for my love -- were among the fancies of my fevered imagination. The Rothschilds, Gizards, and Astors appeared to me but poor people; in short.I had a very violent attack of the gold fever." -- James H. Carson, "Early Recollections of the Gold Mines, 1852"
She is holding the pan with her pink fingernails up over the edges, swirling the pan as she holds it, swirling gently, looking down, waiting. The mud is dark as it swirls. There is nothing. She squints, breathes evenly.
She is a miner's daughter. She is married to a part-time miner and the land on which she stands is a family claim, 20 mountain acres around the small clear pool called Drunken Gulch. Once an Austrian man found a pocket of gold near here that was workth $80,000 when gold was $2 an ounce and so it must be here, it will be here. The creek brings rich broken rock as the snows melt down past buckeye and digger pine and into Drunken Gulch, and the miner's daughter turns the pan with her pink-tipped fingers, and waits.
"There," she says.
The silver floats up, bright and sudden in the mud, a tease to the eye. She tips the pan and spills off water. She knows this mud now, knows even as the mud moves the spot where the liver has sunk back to the bottom; will pour, and tip, and tip, and pour, until one of her fingers can move the gold gently into the tiny glass bottle that holds the day's finds.
The dredge roars on with its clattering engine, suching gravel up off the creek bottom, spewing water back out in a long thick plume. In the water, knee-deep, stands her brother, the miner's son, bent almost double to guide the dredge's vacuum tube. His broad bare back shows as his flannel shirt rides up; his mouth is open; his knuckles are red from the churning January waters. They did this as children and now, fully grown, they will work until dark with the dredge and the pans, drinking coffee, eating bologna sandwiches. Her name is Darlene Irwin. His name is Glenn Gordo Jr. When they leave for the day, the tiniest sprinlking of clean gold slivers resting at the bottom of the little glass bottle, they will not talk about the selling price of gold.
A long way from the frenzied octagonal headquarters of the New York Commodity Exchange, from the raw cries of sellers and the panic of the buyers and the people on the street crowding anxiously into lines to sell their class rings and family heirlooms while news broadcasts bark hour by hour the mounting and falling price of gold, a longer way still from the multilingual fury of the gold trading markets in London, Brussels and Hong Kong, the air over California's gold country is cool and only beginning to stir.
There are Easterners and Canadians now in mines long dead, making quiet preparations to start up operations again, and the weekenders already have begun to line stream banks with their pans and their comic-book notions of sudden vast wealth, and a new young minor named Mike Grau marks each morning's gold prices on the Levinson's Owl Rexall Drugs calendar that hangs on his trailer wall.
Grau has gold fever. The idea makes him smile. "Didn't think it was possible," he says. Joan Woods, his partner, who is in his 80s and has mined Mariposa County since he lost his oil-working job during the Depression, believes he knows better the true nature of things, and now from his bed in the trailer, the new-moon night alive outside with the high quiet scraping of crickets and frogs Woods speaks the wisdom of the old gold miners of the California mother lode:
The market is crazy. The dollar has disintegrated. (Yesterday in New York, the price of gold dropped $143, from $826 to $683.) "They've created so much worthless, bogus money that they'll never be able to pay it," says Woods. Anybody who sells his clas ring now is just plain foolish. Inspectors from the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have been harrying miners anyhow, checking the validity of their claims, ordering them out of cabins in some places, and now all these yahoos from the city will use the first warm weekend to storm the mother lode creek beds with no respect for a miner's claim. Already you can see them squatting side by side in some places, doing everything wrong, swirling too fast, tipping their pans so far that the heavy gold spills out with the mud, scooping shallow into the creek bed without understanding that the gold sinks down almost to bedrock -- a few, in their urgent impatience, even bounce the mud-filled pans up and down, which makes seasoned miners laugh out loud.
"It's still hard work," Darlene Irwin says. "When you come right down to it, the price of everything else is so high, it just evens out."
"For the amount of time put into it, it's worth every dollar," says Glenn Gordo Jr. He is a contractor now, in a suburb near Stanford University, which is not at all like Mariposa; but on weekends he comes back to stand knee deep in the cold creek water that might carry flakes of gold. Glenn Gordo Sr., his silver-haired and gruff-voiced father, is new president of the Western Mining Council and holds to the belief, shared by most of his colleagues that the celebrated miners of the California gold rush took only 10 percent of the gold ore veins that poured, and cooled and were broken to bits throughout the northern California mountains.
"I have phone calls pretty near every day, someone looking to buy gold or invest money," says Gordo Sr. "I guess everybody's kind of happy about it, anybody who's got any gold to sell. But merchants here for years didn't think their gold miners were anything. Now they're perking up their ears, saying, 'Wait a minute. Maybe they've got something'," Gordo smiles just a little, shakes his head. "They're an outcast. Miners are an outcast. It's a breed all by itself. They have no PR to 'em t'all."
They have lived up here in their dwindling generations since the day in May 2748 -- when Sam Brannan, an enterprising young businessman of the Mormon persuasion, strode into San Francisco with a bottle of gold dust in his hand, shouting, "GOLD! Gold! Gold from the American River!" The gold had been found, as every California schoolchild now learns, at the sawmill of John A. Sutter, who made strenuous efforts to hush up the discovery.But (as the story goes) children talked and a sot started carrying on in a bar and the word got to Brannan, who quickly bought up every gold-mining accessory he could find and then, retail stock at the ready, broadcast the news.
By the late 1850s there were hundreds of mines and a suddenly swollen, multiracial population and a whole new statewide folklore based on instant, staggering good fortune. One unfortunate Frenchman is supposed to have discovered an enormous gold nugget, worth $5,000 or more, and become so excited that he went completely mad and had to be locked away.
The miners later staked their claims under the terms of the 1872 mining law. If a man found a mineral on government-owned land, and county records showed no valid claim on the land, he could mark it out with posts set in piles or rock -- one at each corner and one at the center -- and register his claim (120 acres for a river, for placer deposit; 1,500 feet by 300 feet for a hard-rock deposit). And as long as he did $100 worth of work on his claim each year, no other miner could legally work that land.
The law still holds. The miners live here, in small mother lode mountain towns where the gold legacy lives in names like 49ers Serv-U Drugs and Claimjumpers Basketball Team, and a full-grown man can remember the high-toned condescension certain parts of town reserved for his father the miner.
The miners meet in places like the Mariposa United Methodist Church Parish Hall, where this month's countywide gathering of the Western Mining Council salutes the flag on the old white piano and hunkers down for the agenda: Would miners please start their tomatoes for the spring yard sale, should $1 per member be assessed for the legal expenses of an elderly woman miner up north whose cabin was destroyed by government agents insisting her claim was invalid, could the meetings please be moved to Tuesday evenings because it so deeply pains most dedicated miners to leave their claims on a brilliant winter Sunday afternoon?
The miners sleep at night in places like John Woods' trailer, with the firewood in the living room and the worn rocking chair and the table that holds a 25-year-old round-dial Zenith radio and a copy of "How to Prosper in the Coming Bad Years"; or Bob Flora's mobile home, double-width and carpeted and perched on the hill over the deep gash in the earth that he hopes will start producing -- soon.
"I'm between $70,000 and $100,000 into this thing now," Fora says softly. He is a retired contractor. The mine belonged to his wife's family; its particular sudden-riches story (every miner knows of someone who once pulled glorious gold from the ground near his claim) began the day someone planting fence posts for a schoolhouse sunk a long shaft right into the vein. The gold is minute, sometimes microscopic. All around the deep wet hole stands big dusty machinery that methodically mashed down rock to free the tiny mineral flakes.
"Daylight to dark you're working to keep the thing going," Flora says. "I had to give a good percentage away just to get the $100,000 here. Otherwise, sitting on half a million dollars, right under the ground, wouldn't have been able to get it out."
Flora grinds a cigarette under his cowboy boot. He is wearing a wool jacket and bright knit cap, and one of his front teeth is chipped. "See that pile of rock right there?' He nods toward a giant pile, dark, broken; at a construction site you would pass it without a second glance. "That's worth probably $3,000 or $4,000 right there. But you tell the money people you need $100,000 to set up a plant, and you show 'em a pile of rock, they think you're nuts."
The Sutters Mill discovery was not the first time gold had been found in California -- Mexicans and Spanish soldiers are said to have found deposits almost 75 years earlier. But there were observers who said California is the month of May 1848 was unlike anything the world had ever seen. "The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the seashore to the base of the Sierra Nevada," reported the San Francisco Californian, "resounds with the sordid cry of gold, GOLD, GOLD! while the field is left half-planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick-axes." (Since most of the staff and advertisers lit out for the gold country, the newspaper suspended publication shortly thereafter.)
A total of around $2 billion worth of gold -- 106 million troy ounces, which are the slightly larger ounces used as jewelers' measures -- was removed from the gold ore vein in the granitic Sierra Nevada rock during the century after the gold rush. But the wild enthusiasm dimmed; it was painstaking difficult work dredging gravel from the river bed and blasting careful tunnels to underground mines. The price of gold was fixed for many years, even as labor and equipment costs multiplied, and then during World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered every California gold mine but one shut down as nonessential to the war effort. (That one, the Empire Mine in the town of Grass Valley, was kept open on the argument that the whole town would die otherwise, according to the State Bureau of Mines.)
All up and down the Sierra, the war shut down the mines. Water collects in the deep tunnels of a gold mine when it is allowed to lie unused, and with the postwar price of gold still at $35 an ounce, the cost of cleaning and running the mines became prohibitive.Thirty-two hundred mines had operated statewide in 1936; one by one they closed; the Argonaut, where 47 men burned to death underground in one of the spectacular breathless-jouranlism tragedies of the 1920s; the Sixteen To One, haunted by a discreet ghost who wore a black suit, a blck bow tie and a white shirt, and carried his head underneath one arm.
At night, Bob Flora moves warily on his land, braced, waiting for some damn fool thief to move just once onto the Schoolhouse Mine. "I got a .30-.30 out there, and its loaded," Flora says evenly. "If it's dark, and he comes up to take something, I ain't going to wait. I just flat-out put the word out. There ain't no law out here. We're the law. I got a neighbor coming over here all the time I says to him, the next time I catch you across here, picking up anything, I don't care what it is, I'm going to blow you back across it, you understand me?"
Flora smiles. "All I wanted to do was make a living at it," he says. "I never had any dreams of grandeur, or anything like that. I see it every morning on CBS News there, on Channel 10, they give the gold price between 8:30 and 10 o'clock every morning. . . . He spits tobacco on the ground and looks away. "We just hope we can get going while it's that high." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, Glenn Gordo Sr. panning for gold in Drunken Gulch; Picture 3, Bob Flora and his rock crusher, photos Copyright (c) 1980, Rich Turner.