There’s Still Gold in Them Thar’ Hills

In History

Many people may think the California Gold Rush ended in the 1850’s when prospectors gave up mining and turned to farming and other pursuits but they’d be wrong. California still has plenty of gold, if you know where to look.

Union Democrat: About six miles outside of Columbia, where the old Gold Rush is mimicked, down a pothole-ridden, cliff-side dirt road, lies a new Gold Rush camp along the banks of the South Fork of the Stanislaus River.

At the Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association’s Italian Bar Mine recently, RVs were scattered at riverside campsites. Mostly retired men with varying lengths of gray beards were playing cards, reading paperback novels or enjoying the surging river’s sounds.

But with gold hovering between $900 to $1,000 an ounce and unemployment soaring to double digits, don’t be fooled by the lackadaisical nature of these gold seekers. Once the river calms in the coming weeks, they will zip up their wetsuits, immerse themselves in the river and dredge the river’s rocky bottom for gold left behind by the original gold rushers.

“There were 75 people down here on Memorial Day weekend,” camp caretaker Gary Rhinerault said, adding that longtime visitors said it was the most they’d seen at the mine.

Suction dredge season on many California rivers opened on Memorial Day weekend and runs through the summer. This time frame was set in the early 1990s by the California Department of Fish and Game to avoid fall-run salmon spawning season, said Mark Stopher, Fish and Game environmental program manager.

But dredging rules could soon change, or the practice could be banned, depending on an ongoing environmental review of current regulations and legislation to ban the practice — both of which coincide with recent heightened concern over depleting salmon runs that have put many commercial fishermen out of work.

The controversial sport, hobby or livelihood of suction dredging for gold is the new gold miners’ chosen technique.

“Suctioning opens up areas that haven’t been mined,” Rhinerault said. “Some dredge in holes 20-feet deep.”

Rhinerault pointed to his suction dredge from the riverbank, which was tied to trees and rocks so it wouldn’t be swept downstream with the rushing rapids.

“The water is too fast right now,” he said. “I don’t want to go in.”

If he did get in, Rhinerault explained, the contraption would work like an underwater vacuum cleaner. He’d dive into the river’s depths, hooked to a breathing apparatus, and suck river rock through a long, wide hose powered by a gasoline generator. The rock would run through a sluice box, where the gold, because it’s heavy, would separate from other minerals.

He picked the spot, about a quarter-mile upstream from the camp along a narrow dirt trail, because the rock has signs of iron, and often where you find iron you find gold, he said.

Once the river slows, there will be about a dozen dredges on the 160 acres of deeded gold property that Lost Dutchman’s Mining Association members can utilize along the river. Also, up and down stream, people can work the river by getting a permit through the California Department of Fish and Game.

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