Go for the Gold
Discover the rich history of Southern California's mining days on a tour in the San Bernardino Mountains.
By MICHEL NOLAN, Staff Writer: San Bernadino County Sun
Gold. The promise of it fueled dreams and built cities. Elusive gold. Glittering and illusory, it broke men and shattered lives.
We'll never know how many gold-fevered dreams lay discarded, half-buried in the dust of time.
Nothing is left now but silence. You can hear it, broken only by breezes whispering through the ancient pinyon pines that scratch a cobalt sky.
"The Gold Rush here was a series of booms and busts," said our naturalist guide, splintering the silence. "It was hard work to eke out a living. Few got rich; fewer got rich quick."
Nearly 150 years ago, barely more than a decade after bonanza-seekers thronged to Sutter's Mill for the great California Gold Rush of 1849, gold was discovered here in our own San Bernardino Mountains.
No, not the Mother Lode of wealth recovered further north, but enough gold to attract a frenzy of prospectors and trigger the biggest Gold Rush in Southern California.
Big Bear Discovery Center now opens the book on the historic gold country of the San Bernardino National Forest with a series of Holcomb Valley Gold Rush Tours. The tours shed light on this revealing, but little-known chapter of mountain history, bringing to life the way the early miners wrestled gold from earth and rock.
For five consecutive Saturdays, the Discovery Center's lead naturalist, Rob Whipple, narrates a van tour of the Gold Fever Trail along 25 miles of dirt roads, past the spectacular scenery and historic sites of Gold Mountain.
Along the way, adventurers get to meet modern-day prospectors working the old mines and wonder if panning for gold has really changed all that much.
Crumbling ore-loading shoots, mounded tailings and yawning "glory holes" are all that's left to bear witness to the rough and tumble days of the gold rush of the 1860s. Gone are the noisy mining camps and the bustling "boom towns" that sprang up around them.
"Miners are still looking for the Mother Lode," Whipple said. "There is still a big source of gold out there."
From the van window I could see a panoramic vista overlooking a broad swath of the valley. Framing the view were the jagged and decaying timbers of an ore shoot, a more recent attempt to tap the wealth of Gold Mountain.
Timbered skeletal remains marked the nearby entrance to the Lucky Baldwin Mine, owned and developed by the San Francisco multimillionaire who was not "lucky" on Gold Mountain.
We emerged from the 4-wheel drive van, along with our driver, Doug Walton of Big Bear Off-Road Adventures, and gathered around the naturalist. In all, there were a dozen of us, out for adventure on a glorious Saturday morning.
Intrepid adventurers included three part-time residents of Big Bear Valley, seeking historical background on the area … a sense of the past.
Elyse and Russ Crane, who divide their time between San Clemente and Big Bear City, said they were looking for something interesting to do. "We love adventure and wanted to get a little history," Elyse Crane said.
"This tour is a great way to see the forest as well as learn about one of our major historical events," Whipple said.
According to some accounts, William Holcomb was hunting grizzly bear in spring 1860 and discovered gold instead. The news spread rapidly and by July the valley was "swarming" with prospectors.
More gold was discovered, claims were staked, mines were worked over the years but no one struck it rich. In 1873 the last major gold strike was made by Charley and Barney Carter. An 1873 newspaper proclaimed, "Charley Carter Discovers a Mountain of Gold!"
The Carter brothers sold their claim to the mountain of gold ore to Lucky Baldwin for $30,000 and by 1876, Baldwin had 180 men working his mines. Unfortunately, because the mines did not return much profit, Baldwin shut his Gold Mountain operation down within a few years.
Selling claims was the easiest way to make money, Whipple said.
Back on the road again, bottles of cool water were passed around and we trekked along the Forest Service road past pannin' and diggin' sites; a gravesite, and the notorious Hangman's Tree, where as many as four outlaws were reportedly hanged at once.
In what had once been the bustling town of Belleville, a lone cabin of rough-hewn logs sits in a grassy meadow. Today, nothing is left of Belleville, the first town settled in Holcomb Valley, where, in 1861 at the peak of the gold rush, about 1,500 people lived. Named after Belle Van Dusen, the young daughter of blacksmith Jed Van Dusen, Belleville missed taking the county seat from San Bernardino by only two votes.
Belleville's population was typical of any boisterous mining town of the period, with good men and hard workers who had come to seek their fortunes, as well as outlaws, horse thieves, claim jumpers and other no-good varmints.
Names of the places alone evoke images of Holcomb Valley's colorful past: Last Chance Placer, Hangman's Tree, Two-Gun Bill's Saloon, Starvation Flats, Gold Mountain City.
Against this backdrop came the characters: Lucky Baldwin, Bill Holcomb, Barney and Charley Carter … a true-life Western production that would have inspired John Ford.
But not all of the valley's industrious miners are names from the past. Some live in the mountains now, bending their backs in the blazing sun, working their claims as if time has stood still.
"Gold mining still goes on today," Whipple said. "You can stake up to 20 acres but you have to work the claim to keep it, or it lapses back into public ownership. When you stake a claim, you own just the mineral rights. You can't build on the land.
"You can talk about mining history all you want, but to meet someone who is actually mining for gold now, that helps bring history to life," Whipple said.
Just then, out of the pages of an Old West history book, strolled Eddie Davison, a modern day miner. His rugged face, fringed with a sandy beard, nearly matched the color of his leather hat. Even though he wore the prerequisite suspenders, his jeans were most likely held up by a wide leather belt, into which were tucked a 44 Magnum revolver and a bone-handled knife.
Davison smiled as he offered us samples from his collection of rocks and explained the process of separating dirt and gravel from the gold. Handing some prize quartz samples to two children in our group, he told them that "the children are our future." His wife, Laurie, meanwhile, gave us a panning demonstration.
The family has a home in Big Bear Valley, but heads for the high country, camping out in their motorhome for several months each year to look for gold, Laurie Davison said.
"We do it the old way but still make use of the technology," Eddie Davison said.
"It hasn't changed much. We still do it the same way the old miners did," George Erhart said later. A fellow tour member and part time resident of Big Bear Lake, Erhart has his own gold mine in Northern California. The tour, he said, taught him a lot about local mining methods, flora and fauna.
"I do have gold fever," Erhart said. "I'm always looking."
"We started out panning for gold; today we are still panning for gold … even after 130 years. Mining has changed so much, yet it's still the same," said Whipple as we lunched in the shade of junipers and pines overlooking a panorama of desert and sky.
Here on the Gold Fever Trail, nature has reclaimed the land. Only the ghostly breezes stir the trees.
"Gold, gold, gold."
What: Holcomb Valley Gold Rush Tours
When: 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Saturdays, through Sept. 4
Where: From the Big Bear Discovery Center, Highway 38, Fawnskin
Cost: $35 adults; $25 kids 3-16 (includes lunch overlooking the desert)
Call: (909) 382-2790 for information, reservations
Article Published: Monday, August 02, 2004
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