home Current Events Goldmining in California is Still a Thing

Goldmining in California is Still a Thing

Kevin Pine | kpine19@dtechhs.org | June 8, 2018

Photo compliments of Gary Thomas
A river sluice at work. Photo provided by Gary Thomas

It is midday in the mountains and several people are working in a cool California river. One man is digging into the river bank and loading what he has dug into a long metal channel he placed in the river. He takes brief breaks to remove large rocks that are obstructing the carefully created consistent water flow within. Another kneels at the riverbank methodically dipping a pan of dirt in and out of the water. After awhile, he stops moving his pan and uses tweezers to place a small metallic object from his pan into a glass vile.

What these people are doing is gold prospecting, but they are not  prospecting during the famous California gold rush of 1849, but rather right now in the twenty first century. Although many people are aware of the important role that gold extraction played in California’s history, many people are less aware that it’s still a common occurrence in the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Gold bearing Woods Creek. Photo provided by Gary Thomas

Unlike the original gold rush of 1849 however, many of today’s prospectors did not initially seek out gold prospecting, but instead found it circumstantially. Electrical engineer, Eric Verploo, describes discovering gold prospecting on family trips. “We used to go to a cabin that my family owned in Colorado every summer, and it was in gold bearing country” Verploo said.

Brad Mattson, current chairman of Siva Power and long time Silicon Valley entrepreneur, describes a similar experience saying, “It was somewhat accidental”. However, people don’t always stay excited about gold prospecting after trying it. Those who do stay excited are commonly said to have caught “gold fever” which in Mattson’s experience was “actually kind of real”.

Today, there are a variety of ways that people gold prospect including hard rock, metal detecting, and placer mining. Hard rock mining and metal detecting are much like the way they sound. In hard rock mining, prospectors dig in mine shafts looking for gold directly in veins. Metal detecting is when prospectors use metal detectors to find larger pieces of gold in gold bearing areas.

The most common type of gold prospecting in California is placer mining, where gold that has been moved from its source by natural erosion is recovered from material such as sand and gravel. Placer mining is most common in rivers, streams and their surrounding areas.

The primary way that gold is recovered is through the use of methods and equipment that utilize gold’s incredibly high density. For example, panning works by shaking gold to the bottom of the pan and gradually removing layers of lighter material. Sluices, which consist of a channel with riffles over which water flows, also utilize gold’s density by creating currents that wash away lighter material while the heavy gold sinks to the bottom.

Unlike during the 1849 gold rush, the vast majority of gold prospecting that happens in California today is not done to make a living, but rather, as a hobby. The main reason why this is the case is because gold prospecting on a small scale is not nearly as lucrative as it has been in the past due to the rivers having been worked heavily by prospectors for years.

Despite the fact that it is difficult to make a living off of the gold you can find prospecting, people still make a living off of gold prospecting in other ways. One person who is a great example of this is Gary Thomas, the owner of The California Gold Panning company in Jamestown, CA.

Thomas says he can “run anywhere from 300 groups a year” but when it comes to profiting off of the gold itself he says “honestly in this day and age you’d be better picking up aluminum cans.” Even though running gold tours can be lucrative, it is often challenging to obtain the required permits says Thomas.

Despite the fact there is less money to be made from gold in California then there has been in the past, prospectors still find gold dust and flakes and sometimes even sizable gold nuggets. Mattson describes a nugget as something that “has some three dimensional character to it.” Thomas finds nuggets relatively often, describing his biggest as “about the size of a dollar coin, kind of a jagged edge quartz rock with the gold peppered all through it”. Eric says that he even “found enough gold to make my wife’s wedding ring”

Similar to back in the day, it is not hard to get started gold prospecting.  Mattson recommends just starting out with a pan and some instruction. Companies such as Thomas’s also allow you to learn how to gold prospect and get experience without having to invest in property or equipment. Mattson also points out that gold prospecting clubs are a great way to gain experience and access to property without spending too much. He said, “The club is a pretty good way to move to the next level without having to make a huge commitment on property and equipment yourself”.

Despite the fact that the California gold country has been worked for over a century, gold prospecting in the state is not going to end any time soon. With more gold being eroded from hard rock sources replenishing the streams all the time and new prospectors “catching gold fever”, gold prospecting is going to remain present in California for many years to come.

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