Working A Mountain Of Gold

The want of water was the great obstacle in the way of gold mining at Mokelumne Hill. As it stood so much higher than the surrounding country, there were no streams which could be introduced, and the only means of getting a constant supply was to bring the water from the Mokelumne River, which flowed past, three or four thousand feet below the diggings. In order to get the requisite elevation to raise the waters so far above their natural channel, it was found necessary to commence the canal some fifty or sixty miles up the river. The idea had been projected, but the execution of such a piece of work required more capital than could be raised at the moment; but the diggings at Mokelumne Hill were known to be so rich, as was also the tract of country through which the canal would pass, that the speculation was considered sure to be successful; and a company was not long after formed for the purpose of carrying out the undertaking, which amply repaid those embarked in it, and opened up a vast extent of new field for mining operations, by supplying water in places which otherwise could only have been worked for two or three months of the year. This was only one of many such undertakings in California, some of which were even on a larger scale.

The engineering difficulties were very great, from the rocky and mountainous nature of the country through which the canals were brought. Hollows and valleys were spanned at a great height by aqueducts, supported on graceful scaffoldings of pine logs, and precipitous mountains were girded by wooden flumes projecting from their rocky sides. Throughout the course of a canal, wherever water was wanted by the gold miners, it was supplied to them at so much an inch, a sufficient quantity for a party of five or six men costing about seven dollars a day.



I remained a few days at Mokelumne Hill in a holey old canvas hotel, which freely admitted both wind and water; but in this respect it was not much worse than its neighbors. A French physician resided on the opposite side of the street in a tent not much larger than a sentry-box, on the front of which appeared the following promiscuous announcement, in letters as large as the space admitted


From Mokelumne I went over to Volcano Diggings, a distance of eighteen miles, but which I lengthened to nearly thirty by losing my way in crossing an unfrequented part of the country where the trails were very indistinct. The principal diggings at Volcano are in the banks of a gulch, called Soldiers' Gulch, from its having been first worked by United States' soldiers, and were of a peculiar nature, differing from any other diggings I had seen, inasmuch as, though they had been worked to a depth of forty or fifty feet from the surface, they had been equally rich from top to bottom, and as yet no bed-rock had been reached.

It was seldom such a depth of pay-dirt was found. The gold was usually only found within a few feet of the bottom, but in this case the stiff clay soil may have retained the gold, and prevented its settling down so readily as through sand or gravel. The clay was so stiff that it was with difficulty it could be washed, and lately the miners had taken to boiling it in large boilers, which was found to dissolve it very quickly. To mineralogists I should think that this is the most interesting spot in the mines, from the great variety of curious stones found in large quantities in the diggings. One kind is found, about the size of a man's head, which when broken appears veined with successive brightly-colored layers round a beautifully crystallized cavity in the center, the whole being enveloped in a rough outside crust an inch in thickness. The colors are more various and the veins closer together than those of a Scotch pebble, and the stone itself is more flinty and opaque. Quantities of lava were also found here, and masses of limestone rock appeared above the surface of the ground. This place lay north of Mokelumne Hill, and might be called the most southern point of the northern mines.

Between the scenery of the northern mines and that of the south there is a very marked difference, both in the exterior formation of the country, and in the kind of trees with which it is wooded. In both the surface of the country is smooth that is to say, there is an absence of ruggedness of detail the mountains appear to have been smoothed down by the action of water; but, both north and south, the country as a whole is rough in the extreme, the mountain sides, as well as the table-lands, being covered with swellings, and deeply indented by ravines. An acre of level land is hardly to be found. The difference, however, exists in this, that in the north the mountains themselves, and every little swelling upon them, are of a conical form, while in the south they are all more circular. The mountains spread themselves out in hemispherical projections one beyond another; and in many parts of the country are found groups of eminences of the same form, and as symmetrical as if they had been shaped by artificial means. There is just as much symmetry in the conical forms of the northern mines, but they appear more natural, and the pyramidal tops of the pine trees are quite in keeping with the outlines of the country which they cover; and it is remarkable that where the conical formation ceases, there also the pine ceases to be the principal tree of the country. There are pines, and plenty of them, in the southern mines, but the country is chiefly wooded with various kinds of oaks, and other trees of still more rounded shape, with only here and there a solitary pine towering above them to break the monotony of the curvilinear outline. As might be expected from this circular formation, the rivers in the south do not follow such a sharp zig-zag pattern.



Besides this great change in the appearance of the country, one could not fail to observe also, in traveling south, the equally marked difference in the inhabitants. In the north, one saw occasionally some straggling Frenchmen and other European foreigners, here and there a party of Chinamen, and a few Mexicans engaged in driving mules, but the total number of foreigners was very small: the population was almost entirely composed of Americans, and of these the Missourians and other western men formed a large proportion. The southern mines, however, were full of all sorts of people. There were many villages peopled nearly altogether by Mexicans, others by Frenchmen; in some places there were parties of two or three hundred Chilians forming a community of their own. The Chinese camps were very numerous; and besides all such distinct colonies of foreigners, every town of the southern mines contained a very large foreign population. The Americans, however, were of course greatly the majority, but even among them one remarked the comparatively small number of Missourians and such men, who are so conspicuous in the north.

There was still another difference in a very important feature in fact, the most important of all the gold. The gold of the northern mines is generally flaky, in exceedingly small thin scales; that of the south is coarse gold, round and "chunky." The rivers of the north afford very rich diggings, while in the south they are comparatively poor, and the richest deposits are found in the flats and other surface-diggings on the highlands. In the north there were no such canvas towns as Mokelumne Hill. Log cabins and frame houses were the rule, and canvas the exception; while in the southern mines the reverse was the case, excepting in some of the larger towns.

Return To: California Gold Rush: True Tales of the 49ers



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