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Gold in the West

Searching for El Dorado? Look no further. Gold has indelibly stamped
the history of the West.

Two Alaska prospectors weigh nuggets circa 1897.
Photo caption
Two Alaska prospectors weigh nuggets circa 1897.

At the risk of setting off a new stampede, I have an announcement to make: I just struck gold in Montana. Real gold, the same stuff that has driven fortune seekers wild for millennia. Crouching in a trickle of a stream in the Little Rockies near the town of Zortman, I swirled sand and gravel in my pan until I saw its unmistakable color. A couple of flecks were big enough to pick up, although tweezers would have been handy. With gold selling at over $1,000 an ounce, I figured I had enough to barter for a decent hamburger. Eureka!

Gold may not be the rarest metal in the world or the most valuable, but no other rock shines as bright in the human imagination. Over 160 years after the start of the great California Gold Rush, kids and adults alike still whoop and holler over the specks in their pans. Hard-core enthusiasts with metal detectors hunt for nuggets in deserts. Corporations smash rock to get at the microscopic bits of gold within. And travelers follow the trail of the California forty-niners who risked, and often lost, it all in quest of the glimmering mineral. The heft, the color, the shine—everything about it has a timeless appeal. Spanish conquistadores cut a violent swath through much of modern-day South and Central America in search of El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Ancient Egyptians believed that the skin of gods was made of gold. The Incas called gold “the sweat of the sun.”

Gold never rusts or tarnishes. A single ounce can be stretched into a wire 50 miles long or pounded flat enough to cover almost 100 square feet. It takes surprisingly little gold to coat a palace wall, let alone a tea set or a trophy. To protect astronauts from heat and glare, NASA lines the visors of space helmets with a sheet of gold that’s thin enough to see through. It is also used in dental fillings, computer circuit boards, and, of course, rings and necklaces.

But for all the gold in safes and jewelry shops and Fort Knox, plenty is still in the ground. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 33,000 metric tons—nearly 1.2 billion ounces—await discovery in the United States, mainly in the West. At today’s prices, that’s about $1.3 trillion worth of optimism. Sure, most streams have been picked over more than once, but maybe last spring’s floods uncovered a new vein. “Prospecting is like going to Las Vegas,” says Keith Meldahl, a professor of geology and oceanography at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, Calif., and author of the book Hard Road West, which explores the geology and history of gold in the region. “Today might be the day you strike it rich.”

Instead of hitting the Strip, prospectors visit promising waters such as the Rogue River and its tributaries in the Hellgate Recreation Area of southwest Oregon. This is one of many places in the West where anyone can pan for gold without having to file a claim or pay for a permit. Not all of the water in this area is open for panning, however, so stop by the forest service office in Jacksonville for a map before you get going. Once you’ve found your spot, it doesn’t take long to get locked into the task, mesmerized by the cold currents running past your feet, the smell of trees, the flash of color in the pan.

Unfortunately for casual treasure hunters, most of the remaining metal exists as microscopic bits deep underground. “You aren’t going to find it with a pick and shovel,” Meldahl says. “You’re going to need a multimillion-dollar company.” More specifically, you’ll need a company that owns a large pit in Nevada, where mines produced 5.7 million ounces of gold in 2008, more than four times the output of all other states combined. Mining companies in Nevada dig huge craters, crush the rock ore to powder, and wash out the tiny yellow specks with cyanide, one of the few substances that can dissolve gold. People interested in modern mining and massive pits can take a tour of the Gold Quarry Mine, one mile across and 1,600 feet deep, near Elko in eastern Nevada. Visitors watch trucks with 14-foot tires carry up to 240 tons of ore at a time. It’s still prospecting, but the pans have given way to megamachines.

To understand why so much gold shows up in Nevada, Oregon, and California—and not Nebraska or Florida—you have to understand its origins.

Every atom of gold on the planet came from supernovas that exploded billions of years ago. Then, mere millions of years ago, superheated water coursed through the earth’s crust, picking up gold and other minerals along the way. Always seeking the easiest path, the cocktail collected in cracks throughout the crust. As luck would have it, the geologic collisions (the grinding and smashing of continental plates) that built the Western mountains also created plenty of such cracks. As the water cooled, it left behind gold and other minerals such as quartz and calcite, forming rich deposits. In nature, gold rarely mixes chemically with other elements; its particles clump together with their own kind, creating scattered pockets of pure metal. The buildup of mountains thrust some of those veins far above their original resting places, and erosion washed the fragments of rock and other minerals downstream, exposing the ore.

Such geological events have helped drive the history of the West. Helena, the capital of Montana, owes its existence to a strike at Last Chance Gulch in 1864. The race toward Klondike gold in 1897 opened Alaska to the world. The Pikes Peak rush of 1859 helped put Colorado on the map and transformed Denver into a city. And the discovery of gold in Jacksonville, Ore., in 1851 attracted prospectors from California and beyond. An 1860 census found that fully half the miners in southwest Oregon were Chinese.

But in many states in the Mountain and Pacific time zones, the quest created boomtowns that went bust when their strikes played out: Gold Dust, N.M. Gold Hill, Utah. Bannack, Mont. Buncom, Ore. Custer, Idaho. Yellow Jacket, Idaho. And Bodie, Calif., where many of the original buildings are still standing. In most other ghost towns throughout the West, semicollapsed buildings and rusting equipment are all that remain.

Of course, the biggest, most storied gold rush took place in California’s Sierra Nevada. Starting in 1849, after news of James Marshall’s discovery at Sutter’s Mill reached sufficient levels of hype, roughly 300,000 people descended on the California goldfields. In just 10 years, miners would unearth nearly $600 million in the precious metal, worth over $12 billion today. There was gold in them thar hills, but also murder, thievery, and dysentery. As Meldahl documents in Hard Road West, the journals and letters of forty-niners describe a tough time when destitute prospectors far outnumbered the few who struck it rich. One miner wrote to his family, “Say to all my friends: stay home. Tell all of my enemies to come.”

>Modern-day travelers can drive the 200 or so miles north from Oakhurst to Auburn in California’s gold country to see the land and the history up close. In the southern stretch of twisting highway, you can stop at the California State Mining and Mineral Museum in Mariposa to view a nearly 14-pound chunk of gold in rare crystallized form. The museum also has a working scale model of a stamp mill, a contraption that crushed quartz with brute force. There’s a full-scale stamp mill—complete with five half-ton stamps—at the Mariposa Museum and History Center. It’s easy to imagine the racket that thing must have caused when running full bore. Letters inside the museum capture snippets of daily life. One miner complained of sleeping on “barrel staves with scanty blankets filled with athletic, courageous, and determined fleas.”

Individual miners struggled, but the United States reaped huge rewards from California’s bonanza. The Gold Rush expanded the nation’s borders. California, for example, became a state in 1850, almost a decade before any other state in the Western third of the country. Much of the ore found here was shipped back east to Washington, D.C., where it eventually helped pay for the cannonballs and army rations that won the Civil War. The Gold Rush undoubtedly even shaped the way people think in our most populous state. “California still values innovation and entrepreneurship,” Meldahl says.

About 100 miles north of Mariposa, you can take an underground tour of the modern Sutter Gold Mine just outside Sutter Creek. Five hundred feet below the surface, a guide describes today’s mining techniques as well as the historic hardships and horrors of work in older shafts dotting the hills. You might feel pity for the mules that spent their lives underground pulling ore carts (some of which weighed close to a ton), but the miners may have had it worse: Mules never had to hold a stake while someone else swung a giant hammer at it in near darkness. At Coloma, about 40 miles further north, you can see a replica of Sutter’s Mill and kids can take panning lessons from experts at Bekeart’s Gun Shop (actually a souvenir store). Even preschoolers can discover enough shiny stuff to warrant jumping up and down.

It only takes a minute to Google the price of gold, but to truly understand its worth, try spending time with some dedicated prospectors. I recently visited about 100 gold seekers camped along the South Fork of the Stanislaus River near the city of Sonora, Calif. They had traveled from Utah, Indiana, all over California, and elsewhere for the chance to shovel piles of ordinary-looking dirt and gravel into power sluices, machines that use high-pressure nozzles to separate heavy gold-bearing sand from common rocks and soil. Early prospectors may have polluted streams and scarred landscapes all over the West, but the modern miners have a relatively light touch. Following regulations, they do their digging far from the stream bank and make sure that not a single drop of muddy sluice water ends up back in the river.

Many of the prospectors carried vials of gold flakes and nuggets to show visitors. And none of them seemed to think that shoveling dirt was a strange way to spend a vacation. “I like the look and feel of it, the heaviness,” said Del Hunt, a correctional officer from Fairfield, Calif. “I just like to take gold out at home and look at it. It gives you the feeling that you want to find more.”

Optimism ran high that day, and for good reason: The dirt came from an ancient riverbank along the Italian Bar, a claim owned by the Lost Dutchman Mining Association that has been churning out gold since the 1850s. As many as 3,000 prospectors once jammed the bottom of the steep, narrow canyon. Today’s miners have more elbow room. With the glass-clear river running through a thick oak forest, the spot felt peaceful and serene—at least when the sluice pumps were turned off.

“Klondike” Mike LaBox (pronounced la-BOH), a white-bearded prospector who said he had been mining gold for more than 50 years, stood at a trough. Deftly swirling water over the dark sand pulled from the sluices, he quickly uncovered the heaviest materials in the pan: several sizable flakes and a .22 bullet. The gold went into a bucket to be shared by all the prospectors. The bullet went in his pocket.

LaBox said he has personally collected pounds of gold over the years, much of it in Alaska. Modern prospectors shouldn’t expect to get weighed down with their haul, he said. But if you want to find a little color for yourself, it’s not hard to get started. “The best thing to do is go to a gold-bearing area and ask questions,” he says. (Since others already claim many stretches of rivers in Western gold country, you can’t just wade into the first likely spot you see.) The miners at the Italian Bar near Columbia, Calif., will happily point out sections of the river where visitors can pan all day long. In Zortman, Mont., I found my gold with the help of John Kalal, owner of a local motel. For about $20, he’ll set up any guest with a pan and directions to his claim.

Eager novices should consider attending a Gold Prospectors’ association gathering. The group stages several outings each year in Western states as well as eastern outposts such as Georgia and North Carolina. Members expect to pay about $150 and don’t plan to come out ahead. LaBox says they’d be lucky to walk away with $50 worth of gold for several days’ worth of digging and panning.

Then again, gold isn’t just about money. In the end, I decided to keep my Montana bonanza. Even if it drops in value, it will never lose its luster.

Photography by Bettmann/Corbis

This article was first published in May 2010. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.