Unlike Captain Slater, who bilked the miners of Downieville out of their gold with a simple confidence scheme, miners across the gold country invested and lost huge sums of money and time in many and varied undertakings promoted as a way for them to make even more money with less effort. One of these events happened in 1851 when a man called Dr. Rodgers led the people of Nevada City on a wild goose chase that at the time caused a huge amount of excitement in the gold country. This was not a case of fraud but instead Dr. Rodgers truly believed what he said and most likely fooled himself as much as anyone else.
There had been extensive discoveries of gold bearing quartz veins in the area and thus much talk and speculation as to the best way to extract the gold from the rock. Dr. Rodgers professed to be an expert on the subject. He spoke artfully and eloquently if not pompously until almost everyone around believed him. Quartz, he believed, was made of a porous cellular structure but the spaces between the crystals were not big enough at normal temperature to allow the gold to drop out. But with the addition of heat to the quartz the pores would open and the gold would flow out, first as minute grains and then, with more heat, as a steady melted current of wealth. All that was needed was a device for applying the heat.
To the good people of Nevada City this seemed reasonable enough and there was no problem raising the money needed. Everyone who invested in the venture rejoiced in the idea that they would soon be rolling in gold. On Deer Creek, about a mile below town, a mammoth wheel was built and connected to a huge furnace and chimney, and all at a tremendous cost. Alternate layers of fuel and quartz were piled high in the furnace and lit, and as the mass burned down more fuel and rock were added. Under the furnace was a large reservoir filled with water to catch and cool the molten gold as it flowed from the rock. Dr. Rodgers, who had been given a healthy salary for his efforts, rode around the site shouting orders, while the shareholders waited eagerly for the first fruits of their investment to appear.
When at last it seemed to most that the reservoir should by then be nearly full, the decision was made to halt the operation and take out a few million dollars in gold so as to make room for more. But when the ashes were hauled away and the reservoir brought out there was no more gold in it than when they had begun. Not a pore of quartz had opened nor had an ounce of gold flowed from it. The investors were humiliated, Rodgers left town in disgust, quartz was pronounced a humbug, and property values in Nevada City, which had risen during the excitement, dropped sharply.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.