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An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859 by Horace Greeley (1860)


Sacramento, Aug. 7, 1859.

I have spent the last week mainly among the mines and miners of El Dorado, Placer, and Nevada counties, in the heart of the gold-producing region. There may be richer “diggings” north or south; but I believe no other three counties lying together have yielded in the aggregate, or are now producing, so much gold as those I have named. Of course, I have not been within sight of more than a fraction of the mines or placers of these counties, while I have not carefully studied even one of them; and yet the little information I have been able to glean, in the intervals of traveling, friendly greeting, and occasional speech-making, may have some value for those whose ignorance on the subject is yet more dense than mine.

The three counties I have named lie near the center of the state, at the base of the Sierra Nevada, between those mountains on the east and the valley of the Sacramento on the west. They are rugged in formation, being composed of innumerable hills (mainly spurs of the great chain), separated by narrow valleys, usually descending to the west, and gradually opening out into the broad, rich valley of the Sacramento. The three branches or “forks” of the American and those of the Yuba River come brawling down from the Sierra Nevada through very deep, narrow valleys or cañons, and unite respectively to run a very short course less rapidly ere they are lost in the Sacramento—the Yuba having previously formed a junction with the Feather. “Bear River,” “Wolf Creek,” “Deer Creek,” etc., are the names of still smaller streams, taking their rise among the foot-hills, and running a short course into some fork of the American or Yuba, their scanty waters, with a good portion of those of the rivers aforesaid, being mainly drawn off into canals or “ditches,” as they are inaccurately termed, by which the needful fluid is supplied to the miners.


These canals are a striking characteristic of the entire mining region. As you traverse a wild and broken district, perhaps miles from any human habitation or sign of present husbandry, they intersect your dusty, indifferent road, or are carried in flumes supported by a frame-work of timber twenty to sixty feet over your head. Some of these flumes or open aqueducts are carried across valleys each a mile or more in width; I have seen two of them thus crossing side by side. The canals range from ten to sixty or eighty miles in length, and are filled by damming the streams wherefrom they are severally fed, and taking out their water in a wide trench, which runs along the side of one bank, gradually gaining comparative altitude as the stream by its side falls lower and lower in its cañon, until it is at length on the crest of the headland or mountain promontory which projects into the plain, and may be conducted down either side of it in any direction deemed desirable. Several of these canals have cost nearly or quite half a million dollars each, having been enlarged and improved from year to year, as circumstances dictated and means could be obtained. One of them, originally constructed in defiance of sanguine prophecies of failure, returned to its owners the entire cost of its construction within three months from the date of its completion. Then it was found necessary to enlarge and every way improve it, and every dollar of its net earnings for the next four years was devoted to its perfection. In some instances, the projectors exhausted their own means and then resorted to borrowing on mortgage at California rates of interest; I learn without surprise that nearly or quite every such experiment resulted in absolute bankruptcy and a change of owners. Of late, the solvent and prosperous companies have turned their attention to damming the outlets of the little lakes which fill the hollows of the Sierra, in order to hold back the superabundant waters of the spring months for use in summer and autumn. This course is doubly beneficent, in that it diminishes the danger from floods to which this city is specially subject, but which is also serious in all the valleys or cañons of the mining region wherein there is anything that water can injure. I judge that the cost and present cash value of these mining canals throughout California must be many millions of dollars, paying in the average a fair income, while their supply of water is at this season, and from July to November, utterly inadequate. Water is sold by them by the cubic inch—a stream four inches deep and six wide, for instance, being twenty-four inches, for which, at fifty cents per inch, twelve dollars per day must be paid by the taker. A head of six inches—that is, six inches’ depth of water in the flume above the top of the aperture through which the water escapes into the miners’ private ditch or flume—is usually allowed. The price per day ranges from twenty cents to a dollar per inch, though I think it now seldom reaches the higher figure, which was once common. Were the supply twice as copious as it is, I presume it would all be required; if the price were somewhat lowered by the increase, I am sure it would be. Many works are now standing idle solely for want of water.


Go where you will, in the mining region, you are seldom a mile distant from past or present “diggings.” Speaking generally, every ravine, gully, or water-course has been prospected; each has, at some point, been dug open to the “bed-rock,” and the overlaying earth or gravel run through a “rocker,” “tom,” or “sluice,” in the hope of making it yield the shining dust. Many of these water-courses have been deeply and widely dug up for miles in extent. If any are left entirely undisturbed, the presumption is strong that the subjacent rock is so near the surface, that gold has had no chance to deposit itself thereon. In some instances, basins or depressions in the rock have been gradually filled up with earth—probably auriferous—through thousands of years, and the gold which might otherwise have been strown down the valley for miles is here collected, so that it would be sheer waste to mine throughout those miles. But the more general opinion seems to be, that gold is diffused throughout the soil of the entire mining region, especially upon, and just above the surface of; the bed-rock, though only in certain localities is it sufficiently abundant to justify efforts to extract it. I find no one seeming to cherish any apprehensions that California will cease to produce gold abundantly, at least within the next quarter of a century. On the contrary, the current belief seems to be, that the influx of population will in time so reduce the wages of labor, or the progress of invention and discovery so increase its efficiency, that extensive districts will ultimately be mined with profit, which are now necessarily avoided. If the amount of available water were doubled, with a considerable reduction of price, the gold product of California would thereupon be increased several millions per annum. At present, milling enterprises of considerable promise and indefinite magnitude remain in abeyance, simply because the price of labor, the rate of interest, and other elements of the cost of mining, are deemed too high to justify their prosecution.


In the course of a week’s travel through a portion of the mining district, I did not see a single miner engaged with pick and pan in prospecting. Higher up in the mountains, or further to the north, I might have found such. Nor do I remember having seen white men, save, perhaps, in a single instance, engaged in digging and washing the gravel or earth in the bed of any water-course, whether river, creek, or dry gulch. But Chinese bands, of six to twelve, were often hard at work in these water-courses—Bear River, the south fork of the Yuba, etc.—digging, and washing with rocker, sluice, and a sort of wheel-and-flume arrangement, which I did not get the hang of.

The Chinese are hardly used here. In the first place, they are taxed four dollars each per month for the naked privilege of mining at all. Next, they are not allowed to mine anywhere but in diggings which white men have worked out and abandoned, or which no white man considers worth working. Thirdly, if these rejected diggings, happen, in Chinese hands, to prove better than their reputation, and to begin yielding liberally, a mob of white sovereigns soon drive the Chinese out of them, neck and heels. “John” does not seem to be a very bad fellow, but he is treated worse than though he were. He is not malignant nor sanguinary, and seldom harms any but his own tribe. But he is thoroughly sensual, and intent on the fullest gratification of his carnal appetites, and on nothing else. He eats and drinks the best he can get, and as much as he can hold; but he is never so devoid of self-respect as to be seen drunk in a public place; even for an opium debauch, he secludes himself where none but a friendly eye can reach him. His “particular wanity” in the eating line is rice, whereof he will have the best only, if the best is to be had; he likes a fat chicken also, and will pay his last dollar for one, rather than go without. Lacking the dollar, it is charged that he will rob hen-roosts; at all events, hen-roosts are sometimes robbed, and “John” has to bear the blame. He is popularly held to spend nothing, but carry all his gains out of the country and home to his native land—a charge disproved by the fact that he is an inveterate gambler, an opium-smoker, a habitual rum-drinker, and a devotee of every sensual vice. But he is weak in body, and not allowed to vote, so it is safe to trample on him; he does not write English, and so cannot tell the story of his wrongs; he has no family here (the few Chinese women brought to this country being utterly shameless and abandoned), so that he forms no domestic ties, and enjoys no social standing. Even the wretched Indians of California repel with scorn the suggestion that there is any kinship between their race and the Chinese. “John” has traits which I can neither praise nor justify; yet I suspect that, if other men’s faults were punished as severely as his, a good many Californians would be less comfortable than they are.

As to quartz-mining—or the reduction to powder of the vein-stone wherein gold is contained, and the extraction of the gold from the powder, by means of water, quick-silver, etc.—I judge that the time has not even yet arrived for its profitable prosecution. There are conspicuous instances of its success, that of the concern known as “Allison’s Ranche,” in Grass Valley, for example—but I am confident that fully three out of every four quartz-mining enterprises have proved failures, or have at best achieved no positive success. The current estimates of the yield of gold by quartz rock, are grossly exaggerated. I judge that the average yield of gold by quartz vein-stone is less than twenty dollars per ton—barely one cent per pound—and that this yield will not pay the average cost of sinking shafts, running drifts or adits, pumping out water, raising ore (and an immense aggregate of dead rock with it), crushing it, and extracting the gold, in a country where common labor costs two and a half to three dollars per day. At forty dollars per ton of vein-stone, quartz-mining might pay; but where one vein yields forty dollars per ton, there are many which yield less than twenty dollars. There are some instances of profitable quartz-mining by men on the spot who thoroughly understand the business; but I have not heard of an instance in which money has been invested in quartz-mining, by persons out of California, who have not lost every farthing of it.

I think the most popular form of mining at present is that of sinking or drifting into hills which have a stratum of gravel at or near their base, directly overlying the bed-rock. Many of these hills would seem to have been piled, in some far-off, antediluvian period, upon a bed or basin of solid granite, which often hollows or dips toward its center like a saucer. If, then, a tunnel can be run in through the “rim rock” or side of this saucer so happily as to strike the level of the bottom, thereby draining off the water, and affording the utmost facility for extracting the gold-bearing gravel, the fortune of the operator may be made by one lucky, or better than lucky, operation. In a few instances, these subterranean gravel-basins would seem to have formed parts of the beds of ancient rivers, and so to be extra-ordinarily rich in the precious dust. In some cases, the “pay dirt” is hauled by steam up an inclined plane, or even raised perpendicularly by windlass; but it is easier to extract it by a horizontal drift or tunnel, wherever possible. Many mines of this order are worked night and day on the “three-shift” plan, and are paying very handsomely.

But the newest, most efficient, most uniformly profitable mode of operation is that termed hydraulic mining—that is, the washing down and washing away of large deposits of auriferous earth by means of a current of water so directed as to fall on the right spot, or (better still) projected through a hose and pipe with the force generated by a heavy fall. The former of these methods is exhibited in perfection at Nevada, the latter at North San Juan, as, doubtless, at many other places. At North San Juan, near the middle fork of the Yuba, streams at least three inches in diameter, and probably containing twenty measured inches of water, are directed against the remaining half of a high hill, which they strike with such force that bowlders of the size of cannon-balls are started from their beds and hurled five to ten feet into the air. By this process, one man will wash away a bank of earth sooner than a hundred men could do it by old-fashioned sluicing. I believe earth yielding a bare cent’s worth of gold to the pan may be profitably washed by this process, paying a reasonable price for the water. As much as one hundred dollars per day is profitably paid for the water thrown through one pipe. The stream thus thrown will knock a man as lifeless as though it were a grape-shot. As the bank, over a hundred feet high, is undermined by this battery, it frequently caves from the top downward, reaching and burying the careless operator. Three men have been thus killed at San Juan within the last month, until at length greater caution is exercised, and the operator stands twice as far away as he formerly did. Very long sluices—as long as may be—conduct the discharged water away; and I am told that it is no matter how thick with earth the water may run, provided the sluice be long enough. It is of course so arranged as to present riffles, crevices, etc., to arrest the gold at first borne along by the turbid flood. I believe there are companies operating by this method whose gross receipts from a single sluice have reached a thousand dollars per day.

One of the novelties (to me) of this region is the presence of soft granite—putty-granite, if I may coin a name for it. Unlike most soft rocks, this seems not to harden by exposure to the atmosphere. It is found at various depths, and I know no way of accounting for it. It seems to me that one-fourth of the granite I saw at the base of recent excavations appeared soft as cheese. Is not this peculiar to California?

Mining is a necessary art, but it does not tend to beautify the face of nature. On the contrary, earth distorted into all manner of ungainly heaps and ridges, hills half torn or washed away, and the residue left in as repulsive shape as can well be conceived, roads intersected and often turned to mire by ditches, water-courses torn up and gouged out, and rivers, once pure as crystal, now dense and opaque with pulverized rock—such is the spectacle presented throughout the mining region. Not a stream of any size is allowed to escape the pollution—even the bountiful and naturally pure Sacramento is yellow with it, and flows turbid and uninviting to the Pacific. (The people of this city have to drink it, nevertheless.) Despite the intense heat and drouth always prevalent at this season, the country is full of springs, which are bright and clear as need be; but wherever three or four of these have joined to form a little rill, some gold-seeker is sharp on their track, converting them into liquid mud. California, in giving up her hoarded wealth, surrenders much of her beauty also.

Worse, still, is the general devastation of timber. The whole mining region appears to have been excellently timbered—so much of it as I have traversed was eminently so. Yellow, pitch, and sugar (white) pine (and what is here called pitch pine is a large, tall, and graceful tree), white, black, and live-oak, with stately cedars, once overspread the whole country; not densely, as in eastern forests, but with reasonable spaces between the noble trunks-the oaks often presenting the general appearance of a thrifty apple-orchard, undergrown with grass and bushes. But timber is wanted for flumes, for sluices, for drifts or tunnels, for dwellings, for running steam-engines, etc., and, as most of the land has no owner, everybody cuts and slashes as if he cared for nobody but himself, and no time but to-day. Patriarchal oaks are cut down merely to convert their limbs into fuel, leaving the trunks to rot; noble pines are pitched this way and that, merely to take a log or two from the butt for sawing or splitting, leaving the residue a cumberer of the ground; trees fit for the noblest uses are made to subserve the paltriest, merely because they are handy, and it is nobody’s business to preserve them. There was timber enough here ten years ago to satisfy every legitimate need for a century; yet ten years more will not elapse before the millers will be sending far up into the mountains at a heavy cost for logs that might still have been abundant at their doors, had the timber of this region been husbanded as it ought. Remonstrance were idle, but I must be permitted to deplore.

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