David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Gold Mines of California: An Illustrated History Of The Most Productive Mines With Descriptions Of The Interesting People Who Owned And Operated Them. By Jack R. Wagner. Berkeley: Howell-North Books, 1970. Appendix. Glossary. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 259 pages. $10.00.
Reviewed by William S. Greever, head of the Department of History at the University of Idaho, Moscow, where he has taught since 1949. He is the author of The Bonanza West: The Story of the Western Mining Rushes, 1848-1900, published in 1963.
This study covers the major gold mining activity in California after simple methods, such as the pioneer prospectors used to separate placer gold from its stream bed, had to be abandoned for more sophisticated processes. One of the new ways was hydraulicing which yielded about 270 million dollars in gold; another was dredging, which secured around 400 millions’ worth; and a third was lode mine enterprises, of which the dozen most important extracted approximately 389 million. From 1849 through 1968 these three obtained riches worth a billion 58 million dollars from the Mother Lode and Northern Mines area of California.
It is an easy oversimplification to say that hydraulicing was to turn a fire hose against a gravel bank embedded with gold and wash it down into a water trough where the mineral was separated from the impurities. Sometimes the water was brought in by long distance canals. It was launched through a remarkably effective nozzle at the end of a canvas hose against a bank sometimes a mile and a half wide. So powerful was the flow that a strong man could not strike a crowbar through a six-inch jet. It washed the gravel down into a series of sluice boxes, which extracted most of the gold and let the residue go downstream. This man-made erosion often overloaded the rivers, which left their banks to deposit sand or gravel on farmers’ crops and fields. Increasing objections to this destruction finally forced a virtual end to hydraulicing by 1894.
Dredging began as early as 1850, but was not much used until the adoption of the single lift bucket elevator type machine in 1897. It could work to a depth of 30 feet below the water level and handle about 35,000 cubic yards a month; a modern one could go 124 feet deep and its capacity was 125,000 cubic yards a week. Either machine could proceed well inland from a stream by taking its own pond with it, cutting from the front and filling in at the back. Although there were a number of small operations, a large one was the Yuba Consolidated Gold Field that secured about a hundred thirty million dollars in riches. The last dredge stopped in 1968 because labor costs exceeded the value of what could be extracted.
The dozen most important lode mine enterprises are given each a chapter in this book. Some began work as early as 1849; the last ceased operating in 1965. Many of them were exploited by the original methods to a point of unprofitability, perhaps closed down for awhile, and then were reworked with new techniques. Some seemed to exhaust all their mineral resources, but continued through barren ground until they hit another vein or pocket of gold. To power their machinery they likely used steam or water at first, then electricity later. Ore cars within the mines were for years moved by mules, many of whom were intelligent enough to kick into proper position a track switch lined the wrong way, and later by electric engines. The two catastrophes especially feared were fire and flood. The worst of these was the Argonaut mine fire, which killed 47 men below the 3,000 foot level and thwarted rescue operations for 22 days. Mining was quite profitable during the depression of the 1930’s because the selling price of gold remained constant while the cost of operation notably declined. During World War II almost all gold mines were closed by federal edict. Those that then reopened were faced with an unchanged price for gold while the cost of everything else advanced sharply. In 1965 the last of these mines closed because it was costing $50 an ounce to produce gold that could be sold only for $35. Barring new discoveries, gold mining in California will probably never be revived.
This clearly organized, well written volume is based on interviews with old timers, books, newspapers, magazines, corporate reports and government documents. It is doubtful if any additional important sources exist, so this will rightfully stand as the definitive study. The book will be a valuable reference for professional historians and miners, an enjoyable entertainment for history and old-mine buffs. The 300 photographs, maps and drawings are simply excellent. Varied in subject matter, carefully selected, well reproduced, they are a fine supplement to the text.