How the early 49ers mined gold

Placer gold in black sand

The first miners needed only a shovel and a flat pan to find great quantities of gold along the rivers that flowed westward from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But more gold could be processed using devices like a rocker, a long tom or a sluice, each a longer variation of its predecessor. Ore was washed down a wooden box equipped with cleats or riffles nailed along the bottom to slow the water and let the heavy gold collect behind them.

A Rocker


After the surface gold was mined groups of men dammed rivers and flumed the water downstream so they could mine the river bottom. By 1853 men were using high-pressure hoses with nozzles called monitors to blast away ancient gravel beds on the hillsides before running many tons of ore through the sluices and back into the rivers. The process was an environmental nightmare, rapidly eroding hillsides and clogging streams with so much sediment that most aquatic life was killed.

The Monitor

By the 1890s, long after the gold rush, men were dredging the flat river bottoms, looking for the gold that had settled in the slow moving water of California’s valleys. But the longest lasting and most productive gold recovery method was hard rock mining. It began early in places like Sutter Creek and Amador County and continued into the middle of the 20th century. Digging shafts deep into the earth, blasting rock first with black powder then nitroglycerin, was hard and terribly dangerous work. At the surface the ore was crushed and the gold separated from the rock, often by using arsenic or mercury and causing still more environmental problems for California’s already burdened streams.

Empire mine, by Beej71


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