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Extra! Extra! Hunting for Gold Leads to More Misery Than Happiness

The mill that changed California's destiny! (Sorry folks, it's just a replica)
As we approached the California border, Neda and I felt both great happiness at coming home and a little bit of, "We're back in smoggy, busy California - Blech!"

You can trace California's reputation as a great place to live for all kinds of people to the Gold Rush that started in 1848 when James Marshall saw a tiny shining fleck in the stream behind Sutter's Mill in the town of Coloma. I went to Coloma to see for myself the city that changed the West..

Before 1848, California was Spanish and didn't have a whole lot of people in it. It was mostly ranchers, and Indians. Even after the U.S. took it away form Mexico, no on really gave it much attention. It was just "that place waaaaaaaaaay out West."

That was until January 24, 1848.

I stared at the tiny rock at the Marshall Gold Discovery Park Museum, trying to understand how this little piece of mineral the size of my pinky fingernail could have sparked a worldwide stampede.

James Marshall and his partner John Sutter, who owned Sutter's Mill, tested the rock by pounding, smashing and weighing it. They kept the gold a secret, but one of Sutter's employees, Sam Brannan, went and told everyone in San Francisco. "Gold, gold, gold from the American River!" he shouted. In 1848, there were about 5,000 miners in California. By the next year, 1849, there would be 50,000 of them.

Check out my loot if you can see it!
I tried my luck at finding me some luscious gold loot. Randy, my instructor, told me to scoop up as much rock and soil as I could, dump it in the pan, and start shaking the pan back and forth. I was a complete failure. When I finally got the last of the dark soil to wash away, I only had 3 flecks of gold. I put the flakes in my vial as Randy explained to me that the amount of gold I had found probably would not even have bought me an egg in 1849.

The environment suffered at the hands of the 49ers. By 1860, when the population had skyrocketed to 360,000, most of the easy gold was gone and water cannons were used to blast away entire hillsides. You can still see piles of rubble today and rivers that have been shut down due to the mining. Hard-rock mining is even more destructive, as miners blow big holes in the earth. Mercury that was used to extract gold from ore has poisoned many a river and persons. Some experts think that the environmental costs of the gold rush far outweigh all the profits made from it.

The gold rush brought California from a rural territory, to a state with major cities, to one of the most powerful areas in the world.

Stay tuned to learn even more about the "Golden State"


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - A Toyota Tercel named Turkey on the trail of Lewis & Clark
Kevin - Oh say can you sing a 186 year old song?