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Going for Sierra Nevada Gold
LX 470 is a Match for California's Mother Lode
By Tony Huegel

On January 24, 1848, a 37-year-old carpenter named James Marshall was working in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada, at John Sutter’s mill, when he reached into the South Fork of the American River and picked up bit of yellow metal.

“Hey, boys,” history has him saying. “By God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine.”

Those words unleashed the largest mass migration in American history, a multicultural, multiracial wave of human energy that is still driving California today. Guided by a golden star, hoping not to make a living but to get rich, argonauts rushed from every corner of the globe to the hills and vales of the pristine Sierra.

Land of Oz

One sunny October weekend a century and a half later, my wife and I were in a rush of our own to reach the legendary land of the Mother Lode. We, however, were journeying from the shores of San Francisco Bay in Lexus’ gold-standard sport-utility vehicle, the four-wheel-drive LX 470, not in a stagecoach, a wagon or even afoot.

“#!@%, we’re going to be late!” I observed in words that history shan’t record. “Pass him!”

Running late, we hurried toward the picturesque gold rush-era town of Murphys to join a group that would mark California’s three-year-long 150th birthday bash with a three-day tour of a bygone land of Oz.

California Boomin'

From 1848 to 1857, miners recovered 24.3 million ounces of gold statewide. Still, most forty-niners, including Marshall, ended up broke.

Pay dirt was really the short-lived gold rush’s long-term effect, for the influx of adventurous and entrepreneurial spirits cast California’s image as a frenetic land of opportunity and prosperity.

In the six spectacular years from 1848, gold fever swelled California’s non-Indian population from 12,000 to 300,000, a growth rate that seems not to have let up since.

In the two decades after 1850, San Francisco grew into the tenth-largest city in the world. California even skipped territorial status and moved straight to statehood in 1850.

The rush for gold spurred settlement of the West, ravaged the environment, and transformed a former Mexican backwater into a social and economic dynamo.

Little commercial gold mining goes on in the Sierra now. Today’s yellow brick roads lead instead to places like Silicon Valley, and tourism is now mined in the Mother Lode.

Yet California is still the “Golden State.” Its motto remains “Eureka!” (I have found it!). The state flower is the golden poppy, its grandest entrance the Golden Gate. And its hero remains the forty-niner cradling a pan, not a football.

Trail of Twain

To get a sense of California’s gilded age, Lynn and I headed for the appropriately labeled State Highway 49, which courses through the seven counties of Gold Country.

We drove through Angels Camp, made famous in humorist Mark Twain's yarn, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. We arrived just in time to join our tourmates for lunch at Kautz Ironstone Vineyards, a winery just down the road from Murphys.

We were still catching our breath as we were introduced to our guides: Tom Frye, curator of history (emeritus) at the Oakland Museum of California and designer of the museum’s California Gold Rush exhibit, and Judy Marvin, a historical archaeologist, ethnographer and Gold Country resident. They would help our group understand that the story of the California Gold Rush had its tarnished side as well as some glittering successes.

After lunch we followed bucolic country roads to the almost-hidden hamlet of Calaveritas. There, we watched a demonstration of how a miner could separate fine gold from stream sediments using something as simple as a hand-held pan.

The relatively easy “free” gold that had lured the forty-niners was pretty much gone by 1855. Word of good sites spread like wildfire. They were quickly overwhelmed with miners, and thus were soon depleted. Gold camps vanished as quickly as they’d been set up.

But in their short lifespans they were, like Calaveritas, raucous melting pots that mixed Mexicans with Germans, Chinese with Chileans, Italians with Irish, Welshmen with Americans.

A few gold seekers, like Italian immigrant Luigi Costa, who arrived at the banks of Calaveritas Creek in 1851, remained when the others moved on. Instead of running after rainbows, he built a country store and ran it for 50 years.

The store still stands today, authentic, unrestored, bearing the Costa name. This was where we were privileged to hear his grandson, 93-year-old Fred Cuneo, and his granddaughter, 89-year-old Louise Greenlaw, share their memories of growing up in Gold Country.

Relics of the Rush

I was looking forward to trying out the luxurious Lexus on the trail along Calaveritas Creek, where a highlight of the tour awaited us.

After our visit to the Costa store, Judy and Tom guided us to a relatively undisturbed streamside archaeological site dating from the Gold Rush. Most such sites, they explained, were obliterated long ago by construction, mining and vandals, so the valuable knowledge they could have conveyed is lost forever.

Its location on private land saved this site. The owners allowed us to visit, which required fording Calaveritas Creek in the LX 470. Once across, we were guided to a dip in the earth, all that remains of a Mexican dance hall, or “fandango.”Just yards away stood the stump of a chimney built by long-forgotten Chinese hands.

Even as soon as the fall of 1849, as the easy gold disappeared, the shift to more capital-intensive mining began. Partnerships and companies with capital to invest for the long haul were needed to get at the deeper reaches of the Mother Lode, a vein of gold-bearing quartz 120 miles long and two miles wide at its widest point. By the mid-1800s, the Gold Rush was history.

Miners turned to dredging and underground mining. In many places they resorted to hydraulic mining, hosing away mountainsides with water sprayed through large nozzles under tremendous pressure, causing environmental damage that lingers still.

California's Kennedy

We received some lessons in underground mining on the second morning of our tour, at the Kennedy Gold Mine near the town of Jackson.

Andrew Kennedy, an Irish immigrant, discovered gold at the site in the late 1850s. By the mid-1870s, the Kennedy Mining Company had closed, probably because of financial problems.

Investors reopened it in 1885. The company sank a vertical shaft 5,912 feet deep, making the Kennedy the deepest gold mine in North America at the time. It closed permanently in 1942, after producing about $34.3 million in gold.

A few structures remain. Among them is the office building, a haughty yellow edifice that dominates a hill overlooking the site; and the 125-foot elevator tower, the tallest mine structure still standing in the Mother Lode.

Today the mine belongs to the non-profit, preservation-oriented Kennedy Mine Foundation. Our guide, Bob Spear, detailed the hardships, dangers and scant rewards of the hard-rock miner’s life.

In 1922, for example, a fire broke out at the 3000-foot level of the neighboring Argonaut Mine. Forty-seven men were trapped. Despite a three-week effort to reach them using a tunnel from the Kennedy to the Argonaut, all died in California’s worst mine disaster.

The First Californians

One can easily forget that the forty-niners were not the first to come to the Sierra. In fact, Northern Sierra Miwok Indians occupied these hills long before the miners arrived.

They established villages, fished the rivers and streams, hunted in the forests and meadows and gathered acorns and other seeds. Using mortar holes worn into rock outcrops, they ground that material into meal.

The Gold Rush decimated the region's native people. Decimated by diseases that forty-niners carried, the Indians were hunted and killed for government bounties.

“We think of ourselves as being much more civilized than that in California,” Frye said. “But it did happen in California.”

It was difficult to imagine such a thing as we strolled through a peaceful meadow at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park. Among some of the largest oaks I’d ever seen, an outcrop of flat limestone remained pocked by numerous grinding holes that Native Americans used long ago.

When the shadows were right, I could see that mysterious shapes and figures had been pecked into the rock, petroglyphs left by native people thousands of years ago.

Chinese Chapter

We slept soundly that night at the sumptuous Sutter Creek Inn, in the historic town of Sutter Creek, and fueled ourselves up with a delicious breakfast the next morning. Then we drove to Fiddletown, where one can experience yet another contributor to the history and culture of California, the Chinese miners.

Tens of thousands of Chinese, most of them men hoping to make enough money to live the good life when they returned, journeyed to the Sierra foothills, where they established their own mining camps and communities.

One such community was in Fiddletown. Established in 1849 by miners from Missouri, Fiddletown’s total population peaked about 1853-54, with some 3,000 souls, 900 to 1,000 of them Chinese.

In about 1850, Chinese workers built a store, office and residence for the herbal doctor Yee Fan-Chung using a traditional Chinese construction method: ramming earth into wooden forms, gradually building up walls three feet thick.

By 1880, most non-Chinese gold seekers had abandoned these hills, although many Chinese miners continued to work the depleted diggings. The herbalist doctor had even hired an assistant by then, 54-year-old Chew Kee. But as the turn of the century approached, the Chinese were leaving, too.

In 1895 one of the few Chinese families in Fiddletown, the Fongs, decided to join the migration home. But the Fongs thought their 9-year-old boy, American-born Chow Yow, was too ill for the voyage. They left him in the custody of Dr. Yee.

Five years later the doctor also returned to China, leaving Chew Kee proprietor of the store and custodian of the boy, whom locals had nicknamed Jimmy Chow.

When Chew Kee left for China in 1913, Fong became the sole proprietor not only of the forlorn little Chinese store, but of Fiddletown’s Chinese heritage as well. He lived in the store until he died in 1965.

Staying true to his inheritance and heritage, he hardly changed a thing in the store in all that time, leaving California with an authentic, intact stepping stone into its past.

Fiddletown has about 90 residents now. The humble little Chew Kee store stands mutely beside what once was the main street of a bustling bit of China in America. Step inside, and one is transported back to old California, Chinese style.

A string of garlic hangs from a hook. Vintage tins and jars labeled in Chinese still crowd the shelves, while a pair of old shoes wait on the plank floor beneath a simple wooden bed. Fragile strips of paper bearing Chinese script remain pinned to the walls, rafters and door frames.

Back to the Bay

By early afternoon the Lexus was taking us back to the Bay Area, perhaps along the very same route that little Jimmy Chow’s family took, first to the gold fields, then back to the China-bound ships waiting at the docks.

Being parents ourselves, his story touched us deeply. We soon found ourselves in a rush once again, this time to return to the good fortune that waited at the end of our short voyage home.

 

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All content © 2011 Tony Huegel. Permission to reproduce is denied without written consent.
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