A Journey Into the Past

Richard Rubin
Attorney Richard Rubin has taught at the University of San Francisco, Berkeley and Golden Gate University, is a regular columnist for the Marin Independent Journal and was Chair of the California Commonwealth Club Board of Governors, 2017-2019.

California has always been a place for dreamers and as the state grows the dreams continue to grow bigger along with it.

Teeming concrete megalopolises were one result spurred on by four elements that were predictive of lightening growth: plenty of water, favorable climate and unlimited amounts of open space.

Another ingredient no less important was the opening of the Pacific railways which along with the gas-powered automobile would consign the horse-and-buggy to oblivion.

There was a fifth element no less critical, and perhaps a greater catalyst than all the others combined—the discovery of gold!

The tale of the Gold Rush begins in picturesque Amador County—to millions of unfamiliar Californians a dismissible backwater though with numerous quaint, tiny, invisible hamlets —relics of a fading era almost two centuries ago which you can miss if you drive through them too fast.

As you head deeper into Gold Country you might be forgiven if momentarily you were to lose all track of the ugly divisions cleaving the national politic circa 2019.

Talk among the natives is more about how Daffodil Hill—a must stop for tourists in Spring—disappointed with an anemic flowering this year because of an unusually harsh winter.

Or you might want to take in the “Great Sutter Creek Duck Race” held every April. 

Today the area boasts working farms and dozens of wineries which the old-timers claim can compete with some of the finest vintages in Sonoma and Napa Counties to the south. (Apologies to other counties also producing quality quaffs).

In their beginnings, as the early settlers arrived salivating at the thought of instant riches and well before the first rail spikes were even driven, little towns sprung up overnight along with saloons, hitching posts, churches, and a goodly number of brothels.

Prospectors with dreams of sudden wealth have been long since replaced by tourists looking for temporary escape from the urban jungles clogged with traffic that Californians have come to accept as normal.

Gold mining—old fashion style– pretty much dried up in California by the end of World War II but has seen some revival of late with new finds.

Gold continues to be mined today—Big Gold—such as the Sutter Gold Company which estimates there could be as much as $800 million still to be extracted in property it owns in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

And there is also the open-pit Mesquite Mine in Imperial County on the Mexican Border which has been continuously operating since its reopening in 2008.  

 It is joined by the Briggs and Lincoln Mines nearby where pick axes, jackasses and ore carts have given way to modern machinery that can dig much deeper and faster.

However the sleepy, abandoned towns where it all started remain today as if frozen in time.  

Speeding trains and rumbling cement-hauling trucks have never encroached on this sprawling region of country roads connecting villages that can appear almost deserted. 

Hopefully they never will.

An intact museum piece—birthplace of the once flourishing Miwok Indian tribe—this region forms the entryway to the lush and more remote Shenandoah Valley.

At the epicenter of what might be the largest collection of historical landmarks in the state is the town of Plymouth (perhaps a relation to its Eastern forbear- the Rock) just a short 45 miles or so from bustling Sacramento. 

Originally named Pokerville, with a population of 675 in 1849—a year before California claimed statehood— it features a squat town hall with little business to conduct, a wood frame library with seemingly few visitors and two restaurants, one of which Michelin gives five stars. It earns every one of them.

Not far from Plymouth is Volcano-with a population just over 100 depending on what month you are counting.  In its heyday it had thousands of residents, three breweries, sixteen hotels, 37 saloons and huge quantities of gold.

It is also site of the state’s first astronomical observatory, its first public law school and the state’s first amateur theatrical company which is still putting on productions.

There is no government but it has a “Mayor”, a likeable chap who apparently was given the title as the town’s most elderly citizen.

As gold fever mounted, Plymouth’s population along with neighboring gold-mining centers such as Volcano, Fiddletown, Jackson, Drytown, Ione, Amador City—and most famously Sutter Creek —exploded with arrivals from all over the globe panning for the precious metal. 

(For historical accuracy, the first recorded discovery of gold in California was in 1775-1780 in the so-called Potholes district of Imperial County. This was followed by a discovery in 1828 of small deposits in San Ysidro in San Diego County).

At its peak, John Sutter oversaw a dozen mines burrowing into the Mother Lode. When he commenced operations there were 200 townspeople. At the height of the gold rush the numbers swelled to well over 10,000. Some would become rich.

There was also an ugly side to this history which speaks of less savory developments in the midst of all this frenzied activity.

Legend has it that Sutter’s workers—average age 22— endured what amounted to slave conditions and he compensated them “with cheap pieces of tin that could only be redeemed at his store and punished them if they left camp.”

When he arrived there were 275,000 American Indians which were decimated after killing sprees in which many were raped and murdered by miners who saw them as competitors for the gold.  By 1900, the state’s entire Indian population had dwindled to 16,000.

They were given some redemption years later as Sutter saw much of his vas property holdings overrun by rapacious miners who looted his livestock for food.

The start of the massive Gold Rush on January 24, 1848 is actually credited to one James Marshall who spotted a gleaming object in the American River. 

Within months his accidental discovery triggered the “largest mass migration in the history of the Western Hemisphere.”

Sutter hired Marshall, a millwright with a 5th grade education, to build a sawmill for him in order to expand his empire. At the time, three-quarters of an ounce of the precious mineral was valued at $20.76 per ounce. 

 Today, an ounce of gold is selling at $1,412.59—a 300% jump over the past 15 years and rising.

Sutter spent his final years suing the federal government for compensation for his losses. He got nowhere and Marshall died in poverty.

California long ago eclipsed the dreams of the early pioneers by magnitudes that are unmeasurable. Giant skyscrapers dominate large stretches of our urban landscape and most of the goldmines have been shuttered since the 1940s.

Still, if you take a short stroll through one of these pastoral serene villages which seem like ghost towns, sharpen your senses and you may  conjure up the raucous bedlam of a bygone era. 

As the state continues its inevitable expansion in each new wave of migration people holding big dreams of their own will be pushing ever farther into unoccupied territory.  They will require new housing even as the state copes with the present housing crisis.

Let’s hope we make efforts to preserve these historic sanctums of yesteryear undisturbed by the pace of progress driven by incoming generations of dreamers!

The Wild West grew up on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco after the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906, went through adolescence in Hollywood and the ever bountiful harvests of the Central Valley, achieved adulthood and a new measure of respectability in Silicon Valley, and is still yearning for indisputable maturity.

But it was won on the well-trod dirt roads of Amador and its sister counties leaving  trophies that are worth keeping.

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