By Mike “Mac” McNaney
Today when prospectors set out to find gold, first they must learn. Even if you have your own ancient Indian scroll, treasure map or “never miss” gold-fired intuition, you’ll need to get the lay of the land — the current one.
These days are far removed from the days of gold rush lore and so are today’s rules and regulations. Five years are all it takes to cover an old site in ground-cover foliage. And, after 10, you’ll need a sharp eye and a bit of imagination. Fifty years 100 later, forget about it.
I knew when I started out for northern California gold country that I would spend quite a bit of time doing my research. As it turns out, it wasn’t the gold that hooked me; it was the history and stories of the bygone era that were amazing.
By the standards and daily life of the miners in the 1850s, today’s prospectors (myself included) are a bunch of whiners — not miners.
I soon found out that I would need an extra month of vacation time to actually look for gold once I was engrossed in the history of the area I was in — Plumas County, California — specifically, the Feather River Canyon.
Plumas County was annexed from Butte County in 1854. Interestingly enough, this was the same year the San Francisco Mint was opened. Both events were related to the large influx of gold prospectors flocking to the area for buckets of gold. Yes, buckets.
One of the very first finds was in 1849 on an area of the east branch of the North Fork of the Feather River. A group of prospectors from San Francisco were wandering the forests in search of a rumored “gold” lake. At their wits’ end, they descended the mountain to the river below for a rest. Here, on a gravel bar, they found gold scattered everywhere. Within three days, every square inch of this gravel bar was claimed. They never found the golden lake or even gave it a second thought. So was the start of Rich Bar California on what is now the east branch of the North Fork of the Feather River — one of the richest strikes in California Gold Rush history.
The most charmed of the early miners was a man named “Bony” Van Dyke who holds the early record of finding a 56-ounce nugget and pulling 300 ounces a day from his claim for weeks on end. Charm is not smarts, however, and “Bony” was poor by the end of the 1860s — fleeced of his efforts by liquor and gambling.
There are only official numbers of what came through San Francisco and even these numbers vary depending on the source, but $19 million in gold at $16 per ounce is the ballpark for the first decade along the North Feather. After reading many accounts of the area, I’ll bet that number is much higher.
It’s important to know these types of things when starting out today in search of gold — where to look and why, or more specifically why not, can mean the difference between a satisfying vacation of gold discovery or a few months in the woods fighting mosquitoes and rattlers for fun.
Gold Rush areas in California are infinitely proud of their history and the Chambers of Commerce and libraries of these areas are rich deposits of information.
Making friends with the locals is an important step for the modern prospector. It’s true that many claim holders in these areas are founders. Claims have been passed down from generation to generation and are closely held. Many locals are still mining gold for a living or as a supplement to their wages and they know the areas well. The state suction dredge mining ban has really put a crimp in their lifestyle.
After you’ve done your research, you’ll find that not having your own claim or not buying into a local mining consort are not excuses here. Those options are available and make it a bit easier, but there are also thousands of acres of unclaimed land that formerly had productive mines.
There are granted lands that can’t be claimed for mineral rights that are open to foot travel and manual prospecting only. There is a surprising amount of claims that have not been renewed because of the dredging ban and many for sale for the same reason. Part-timer prospectors like myself used to make up a large chunk of the local economy in Plumas County, but now those days are as gone as the ’49 Gold Rush.
Vacationers, sportsmen and prospectors are welcome now more than ever and everyone loves to sit around a campfire or the local watering hole and reminisce or speculate about gold, mining artifacts and wildlife in the area.
As it turns out, there were four eras in mining for Northern California and to know the first three is to have the know-how to find gold today. Without this knowledge, I’d guess the average person would leave this area with less than a pennyweight and a bad attitude to boot. But, with a little knowledge and time, you may decide to call northern California home.
The first era was the famous California Gold Rush of 1849, which lasted through the 1860s. Gold nuggets were picked off the ground and under every rock. Rivers and streams were diverted and flumed. Shafts were drifted into every hillside. Quite literally, people were everywhere. Rich Bar, for instance, an area of less than 20 acres was home to 2,500 people in a makeshift town for many years. It’s hard to imagine when looking down on Rich Bar today. Less than 10 people call it home now and most of them are part-timers.
The original cemetery and piles of old mining debris are all that remain to offer a glimpse of the past. The east branch and the North Fork of the Feather River flow south and west. From American Valley to Oroville, California, a span of 100 miles, most of the dirt along the canyon walls, shelves and gravel beds has been flipped at least twice. Way up high, old-growth trees are the only indication of virgin areas.
Since 1850, there has always been mining along the river, but it slowed to a wide trickle from the 1870s to the 1920s. There were no roads or trains until the early 1900s. Everything was brought back and forth to this area by mule train and prices for stores and supplies in the canyon were expensive. Costs were in the neighborhood of today’s prices. Even though gold could be mined and panned, it didn’t pay for the strenuous work to get it and company-backed hardrock mining was the norm.
The Great Depression brought on the next boon era for gold in the Feather River region. The construction of the railroad and the construction of the electric power plants along the river and its tributaries combined with the new gold standard of $35 an ounce and “modern” mining techniques made it easier to live in the area. Once again, the area was teeming with miners — panning and highbanking, crevicing and sniping, diving and exploring further areas of wilderness.
As gold, again, got harder to find, exploration waned until modern dredging of the rivers started to pick up in the 1950s. This is the third era for gold in California. Initial dredging reports were off the charts and in the same category as the initial ’49 gold rush. A pound a day was not uncommon. I’ve talked with a local miner that is a modern-day legend in these parts and he reports that in the early 1970s, using modern dredging techniques, he averaged 10 pounds of gold every working day for three months while dredging the remote areas of the Middle Fork of the Feather River!
Dredging in the middle fork was legally stopped in the mid-1970s and it was deemed “Wild and Scenic.” Too wild to be tamed for transportation, it’s now one of the most secluded areas in the United States and holds wonders that few people have seen. Since dredging was banned throughout the state in 2009 — like it or not — we have entered the fourth era of gold mining in California. I think we can call ourselves ’09’ers.
The gold found here today is found by prospecting the history. Knowing how and why the miners did what they did can make you a successful ’09er miner. The ’49ers weren’t pros; they were shopkeepers, laborers, teachers and immigrants. They were pioneers of early prospecting with an “on-the-job” training program using primitive tools and they left a lot behind. Today, local professional snipers are locating up to two ounces in nuggets and pickers during weeklong wilderness camping trips — big nuggets too! A 6.5-ounce nugget was sniped a few years back not far from a popular mining area in the woods and one- to two-ounce nuggets are commonplace. History will tell you where to look.
One of the secrets of the past (that is not really a secret but has yet to be fully realized) is that up until the 1940s, miners didn’t care about fine gold. They collected it when it appeared, of course, but they only screened their paydirt down to an one-eighth of an inch and the sluices ran pretty fast. They didn’t have the machinery designed to sift for smaller flakes and fine gold.
It’s speculated that better than half of the fine gold, exited the sluices and were left in the tailings. The Chinese learned this early on and took advantage, but they left the area en masse before 1900. That literally leaves mountainsides of mine tailings containing handfuls of fine gold all over the place. And, I mean all over the place. These tailings were dumped all along the rivers and benches throughout the rivers length and these are what the dredgers have been sucking up from the rivers for the past 20 years. After every flood and high-water year along the river, there are stories of people who hit it big from the new deposits dragged from the banks.
Don’t like the water? A little research and a few new friends will get you into areas that are now unclaimed and have old mineshafts with small mountains of tailings nearby. These areas are perfect for a modern-day mining convenience — the drywasher.
Some locals speculate the state and federal government agencies are choking us out of these areas on purpose so as not to start another California Gold Rush. I don’t know about that, but luckily, some of the local sheriffs are skeptical of the current dredging laws.
“Vegas isn’t the only place where things can stay” and “unjust laws just make outlaws” are favorite local backwoods sentiments here. That said, a smile and a good attitude go a long way for any modern-day gold prospector.
If you want to be an ’09er, hurry up. The line forms behind me. I’m not finished, but I’ll save you a spot.
Mike “Mac” McNaney is a GPAA member, part-time resident of southern Utah and a full-time adventurer, outdoorsman and prospector. He can be reached at macztuff @gmail.com