The great variety in mining gear

Because of the vast scope of the gold country and the wide variety of conditions in which gold would be found, there could be no standard methods or equipment for mining. What worked in Mokelumne Hill might not work in Nevada City. But the 49ers were a creative and ambitious lot and adapted well. A long tom or sluice could be longer or wider than necessary to fit the situation and the fancy of the operator. A rocker or long tom for very fine gold was much different from one for coarse gold. Instead of a metal gold pan miners from Spanish America used a wooden dish called a batea. Local Indians used woven reed baskets. In tough, gold bearing clay that needed to be soaked and stirred a puddling box was used. Some six to ten feet square and a foot deep, the box had a plug near the bottom to let out the muddy water after the gold had settled to the bottom.

While the long tom, sluice and rocker worked well in all most every situation a number of devices, sometimes brought at great expense and effort by wagon across the continent or by boat from the east, didn’t work at all. In 1849 the docks of San Francisco and Sacramento were littered with them. A writer dubbed one of these contraptions “the patent California centrifugal gold washer and chrysolite” and said so many were piled up on the beach they could be bought “as cheap as stinking mackeral.” A dredging machine, sent from New York, was too deep to float in the Yuba River and the clay and gravel of the riverbed was too tough to be dredged. A suit of diving armor was tried several times on the American River but the operator came up more dead than alive and the idea was abandoned.

Disabled gold dredge in Alaska, 1908

Whatever the mining equipment and methods the work was hard, with men often standing for hours in steams fed by melting snow under a blazing hot sun. In April 1849 a writer near the sawmill where gold was first discovered noted how men with shovels worked beside large rocks and never raised their eyes for an instant from their labor. Other men dug into riverbanks and under roots with trowel and when a small nugget was found their eyes shone brighter for a moment but they immediately resumed their search sometimes standing waist deep in the ice-cold water, totally absorbed by the thirst for gold.


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