Prospectors still prowl the hills in gold fever's grip
By Mareva Brown
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998
Photo: Annie and Don Robinson are avid gold miners -- as anyone who drives behind them can tell. "It's been a great life," he says.
Annie and Don Robinson are avid gold miners -- as anyone who drives behind them can tell. "It's been a great life," he says.
Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt
They came in droves, pans in hand, hoping to find a gleaming spot of yellow beneath the dirt. A few flakes of gold bought dinner and a place to sleep; a strike could set them up for life.
And that was just last summer.
Unlike the forty-niners who rode covered wagons or came by ship or on foot 150 years ago, today's prospectors drive motor homes, wear wet suits and suck up river bottoms with $3,500 gas-fueled dredges.
The miners of old are legendary: Fortune seekers who sold family farms in Missouri and Kansas, they expected to find untold fortunes in gold-lined banks of the American and Yuba rivers.
Today's gold diggers typically are a more realistic lot. The vast majority are escaping "real" jobs in the cities for a weekend of panning or are retirees who need a new passion to fill their free time.
"I don't fish that much. I don't hike but a little, so people like me get in the mountains and set up camp and say, "What now?'" said Bill Collins, who got the gold bug after retiring from a civilian Air Force job. "You can always go mining."
What he finds, he keeps stuffed in a wooden box. The price of gold is hardly worth the effort it takes him to unearth it.
Official estimates place the number of hobby prospectors like Collins at more than 50,000. Many are members of prospecting clubs that own large stakes and sponsor monthly camp-outs. Members work the rivers and mountains in groups, looking as much for camaraderie as for riches.
Nobody knows for sure how many full-time miners there are, although officials with California's largest prospecting club estimate the number at 5,000.
Some live in tents along creek beds, jealously guarding their claims and subsisting much as their predecessors did. Others, like Jim Eakin of Roseville, subsidize their mining by selling nugget jewelry and running tours for amateur panners.
For those who can find it, the gold is plentiful. It was mostly knocked loose from prehistoric riverbeds by flooding and swept into Northern California rivers, where it lodged on the bottom, buried beneath lighter sand and debris. Some was hammered from the walls of mines tunneled into the hillsides.
What the old-timers left, they believed, was too hard to get. But modern technology is changing that.
Many prospectors now use metal detectors that emit a specific sound when they sense gold, enabling people to search for veins that are invisible at the surface.
Scuba diving equipment allows gold miners to "snipe" the rivers by scanning beneath the water for deep crevices that hide caches of the heavy metal.
Bill Forsyth pans for gold in the north fork of the American River near Iowa Hill.
Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt
Sluice boxes and gold pans have been modified to collect finer pieces of gold, and chemical processing procedures have been refined so miners can now collect bits of gold dust too fine to see.
"The old mining methods were notoriously inefficient," said Jake Hartwick, who mined in Alaska and Northern California before becoming vice president of the Gold Prospectors Association of America.
"They basically captured the bigger nuggets and that's all. The finer gold was lost."
There still is a chance to strike it rich. And that is why, even though much about gold prospecting has changed over time, one constant remains.
"It's kind of like euphoria," Chris Stathos said of hitting a strike. "Your blood starts to run. You can feel your pulse quicken. I don't know if I've broken out into a sweat yet, but I've seen people with gold fever get light-headed and dizzy."
One day last July, two men stood knee-deep in the north fork of the American River near Colfax swirling sandy pans. They were gleeful as they pointed to tiny glints of metal.
"Every pan is showing gold here," said Adan Zamudio, who took off from Redondo Beach with a buddy to try his luck at gold panning. Both men were between jobs. The venture cost them more than it netted.
Eakin, the Roseville prospector, said he's waiting for permission to dredge two stretches of river that he discovered on maps in the state archives and believes have never been harvested.
He dreams of finding "a pocket that everyone else has missed (with) enough gold to retire on," he said. "It does happen."
Those who work in the industry say that kind of blind faith is much rarer among today's prospectors than it was during the Gold Rush.
Adan Zamudio scans for gold flakes in a vial of river water.
Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt
"Occasionally we'll get calls, people will see something on TV and they'll want to drop everything and move out west," said Stathos, assistant manager at the Mother Lode Dive Shop in Sacramento. "We'll say, "Come for a vacation.'"
But there are still people who get a taste of the outdoors, spend a few weekends knee-deep in the cool, clear American River and decide they can't bear to sit in another traffic jam.
Two decades ago, Don Robinson sold his computer programming business in the Bay Area after being bitten by the gold bug on weekend trips and vacations.
"I had to get away from the rat race," he said.
He and his wife, Annie, bought 35 acres near Foresthill and began mining a vein beneath their home. For 12 years, it sustained them. When the vein ran out, Robinson began taking jobs as a consultant to other gold miners.
Today, he is vice president of the Liberty Hill Mine, a privately run enterprise near Gold Run off Interstate 80. He doesn't regret the career move, although he said would have made much more money had he kept his computer business.
"We got enough gold to pay for our land and our house," he said. "Sometimes we didn't have hardly anything; sometimes we did well. But it's been a great life."
Copyright © The Sacramento Bee