JAMESTOWN, CALIF. -- A new gold rush is under way across the western United States, quite different from the great gold rushes of the 19th century. To understand how different, consider the story of Whiskey Hill in the heart of California's historic Mother Lode.
Gold was discovered here by a Forty-Niner named John Carey, who celebrated his find by inviting the entire population of nearby Jamestown to a hilltop party that lasted several days. By the time the miners staggered back to camp, the hill was covered with empty whiskey bottles and earned the name it still bears, although it is almost gone.
Early miners turned Whiskey Hill into a warren of shallow tunnels as they followed the gold-bearing vein. Once the visible gold was exhausted, they moved on. Like many of the early pioneers, Carey frittered away his fortune as quickly as he mined it, and died penniless.
Today, Whiskey Hill has been dug up, layer by layer, by mechanical excavators and then removed in a fleet of 100-ton trucks to be ground through a mill. Each truckload of rock contains about seven ounces of practically invisible gold dust worth about $3,000 at today's prices.
"The gold we dig was waste rock as far as the Forty-Niners were concerned. They didn't even know it existed," said Gary Banbury, administrative superintendent for Sonora Mining Corp., which has invested $90 million to reopen the Jamestown mine.
The Gold Rush of '87 is a high-technology, capital-intensive affair made possible by new extracting techniques and skyrocketing prices for gold. Flamboyant individuals like Carey have been squeezed out. Their place has been taken by well-educated corporate types with plenty of money to invest. The era of the Yuppie gold miner has arrived.
"The days when you could just go out there with a pick, a pan and a shovel are gone. Most of the gold that is being recovered these days is being recovered by large corporations," said Fred Carrillo, mineral officer for California and Nevada.
"We have to move mountains to get at this gold," said Jamestown mine foreman Mugsy Ogle, pointing to a tip of discarded waste from Whiskey Hill behind the mine's ore-crushing and flotation plant.
The Jamestown plant is just one of many new gold mines that have sprung up around the country over the past two years. About 45 mines came on line last year, most of them in traditional gold-producing states such as California, Nevada, Montana and the Dakotas.
The Bureau of Mines in Washington estimates that domestic gold production will reach at least 4.2 million troy ounces this year -- up from 3.7 million last year and less than 1 million in 1979. By comparison, less than 2 million ounces of gold was mined during the frantic scramble of 1849, which attracted 250,000 people to California and changed the face of the West.
Jamestown, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, owes its existence to the first great Gold Rush. The town was named for Col. George F. James, an imposing 6-foot-3 con man who won favor with the Forty-Niners by liberally dispensing champagne. He later absconded with the mining camp's funds.
The discovery of gold in a creek that runs along what is now state Highway 49 attracted a flood of adventurers and traders from as far away as Europe and China. Colorful Gold Rush characters included J.C. (Grizzly) Adams, who ran the local trading post. A reckless speculator, Adams lost his fortune several times over but became famous as a hunter of grizzly bears.
Today, Jamestown is one of several well-preserved old mining communities along the 120-mile Mother Lode stretching from Mariposa in the south to Yuba Pass in the north. For the past few years, the main industry has been tourism. Visitors to nearby Yosemite National Park often stop here to see a typical Gold Rush town and try their luck at prospecting in the creek.
The reopening of the mine has transformed Jamestown's economy. Most of the 215-member work force -- up from just 26 a year ago -- has been recruited locally. Winter unemployment in the area has dropped from around 23 percent to 7 percent.
Life for the Eighty-Seveners is considerably less hazardous and more comfortable than it was for the Forty-Niners, but much of the excitement is gone. The end product at the Jamestown mine is not solid gold but a dark mud that sparkles in the sun and contains roughly two ounces of gold dust per ton.
"I assume it's gold because my paycheck keeps on coming," said Ogle, who worked as a rancher before getting a job at the mine.
The sparkling mud is obtained by crushing and grinding ore extracted from the Jamestown mine and processing it through a flotation system to separate out the gold-bearing particles. It is then shipped to another plant where chemicals such as cyanide and sulfuric acid are used to leach out the pure gold from the mud.
The total cost of extracting an ounce of gold by these methods comes to around $190, according to Sonora mine officials. In the past, this would have been prohibitively expensive. With gold at its present price of around $450 an ounce, it leaves a nice profit.
Modern gold-mining methods are anathema to Bill Moyle, a third-generation miner whose grandfather immigrated from England to join the first Gold Rush. Sitting on his front porch in his blue baseball cap and rolled-up jeans, he reminisced about the good old days.
"Once you've seen gold, it gets in your blood. It's like gambling. You take out $100 worth of gold and you can't get back there quick enough," said Moyle, showing a visitor the heavy iron pick, mortar and pestle with which he used to work.
"Back then, anybody could go out and file a mining claim," added his friend, Carlo Deferrari, whose grandfather did just that after moving to Jamestown from Italy. "Now, with all the environmental permits and high tech, it's become awfully complicated."
"These idiot bureaucrats haven't got any more brains than my dog," complained Moyle, recalling the time when he could wander into the local store and buy 20 sticks of dynamite, no questions asked. These days, he added in disgust, a miner would have to go to Fresno, 70 miles away, and then arrange a special Highway Patrol escort for the dynamite back to Jamestown.
"Those people who work down at Sonora, they're not miners, they're equipment operators," said Deferrari, the Tuolumne County historian.
The criticism does not seem to worry Sonora officials, who are convinced that Jamestown's latest gold rush will be its biggest yet. They predict that their mine soon will able to produce 130,000 ounces of gold a year -- more gold than ever before.
Gesturing toward the tips of waste ore sprouting into new hills around the Jamestown mine, chief geologist Genne Allgood makes another prediction. "We are extracting gold from ore that was considered waste 100 years ago," she said. "In another 100 years, they will be extracting gold from ore that we consider to be waste."