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Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush

Art of the Gold Rush: Painters and Prospectors

Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the Gold Rush

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See the Exhibit - Giant Gold Machines

This QTVR gives a glimpse of the Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush exhibition as installed at the Oakland Museum of California. This shows just one of several rooms and a few of the 2000 objects that comprise the exhibition. Shown to best advantage are some spectacular specimens of native gold and the Giant Gold Machines.

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I have collected several singular and beautiful specimens of gold. One resembles a pendulous ear-drop. Another (is set in) a clear crystal of quartz. Nature never indulged in fancies more elegant and whimsical.
--Walter Colton

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Natures Golden Treasures

These are nature's golden treasures, formed deep with the earth millions of years ago. Gold rose in liquid forms from the fiery depths of the earth to the cooler surface layers of the earth's crust. As they cooled, crystals of gold formed in the crevices of the rocks. Delicate leaves of gold formed a filigree in the tiny cracks. Larger crystalline masses grew slowly in pockets in the rocks. Formless masses of "sponge" gold also emerged. The rarest form of native gold was wire gold. The crystallized gold specimens in this case are all from California. Miners called these rare and beautiful forms of gold "jewelry gold" and prized them highly.

Giant Gold Machines

There was still plenty of gold in California in the 1850s. It was simply a matter of getting to it. More and more earth had to be moved in order to retrieve less and less gold. Yankee ingenuity took over, accompanied by an attitude of man-versus-nature . . . and nature didn't stand a chance. Giant machines and massive operations took mining to a new level. Individual gold-seekers striking it rich became almost extinct. Now they were working for wages.

Gold Dredging

Early in the Gold Rush, miners used shovels and other simple tools to scoop up river gravels. The easy gold was soon picked clean. The challenge took on new proportions: millions of tons of earth had to be dug up and sifted.

The floating gold dredge was one answer. Early dredges had a single scoop; later ones had a whole chain of buckets, like the one in the photomural. 24 hours a day those buckets dropped deep below the surface, where they gouged cubic yard after cubic yard of gravel, rocks and mud--and a tiny bit of gold-- from the riverbed. The iron bucket displayed here is only medium-sized, and it weighs two-and-a-half tons--when empty!

The gold was separated on the barge. The waste, called tailings, was tossed out along the bank. Mountains of tailings piled up, sometimes as tall as a seven-story building. Today, you can still see these immense, barren mountains of waste rock as you drive through parts of the Sacramento Valley.

Hydralic Mining

An ancient Northern California river once laid down an immense bed of gold-bearing gravels. There had to be an easy way of getting down to the ancient stream beds now buried in the mountains. There was: hydraulic mining.

Water was diverted into ditches and wooden flumes at high elevations, and gravity did the rest. Channeled through heavy iron pipes, the water exploded from a nozzle far below with a force of 5000 pounds. When that awesome stream of water was focused and directed, the mountains were literally blasted away.

Look at the photo mural. One visitor to a massive hydraulic mining pit observed: Nature here reminds one of a princess fallen into the hands of robbers who cut off her fingers for the jewels she wears.

The large nozzle displayed here is called a hydraulic monitor. Giant monitors like this blasted through clay, rocks and gravels, and ripped through brush and trees, leaving huge craters. The gravels were washed through sluices, and the heavy gold settled behind riffle boards. The rest of the mountainside slid into the streams and rivers, which were deeply buried under rocks, sand, and mud. Fish and other animal life were killed. Mountain and river habitats were entombed. The mining debris soon reached the Central Valley, destroying tens of thousands of acres of valuable farmland. Hydraulicking may indeed have been an efficient mining method, but at what cost to the environment?

Hard Rock Mining

Much of the Sierra Nevada's gold is encased in quartz veins deep within the mountains. To reach these veins of gold-bearing quartz, hard rock miners tunneled and sank shafts deep into mountainsides. Imagine what it was like to work thousands of feet below the surface. Thousands of miles of tunnels were dug beneath the mountains and shored up with Sierran timber.

Hard rock miners had to excavate and mill, or crush the quartz ore. They worked stamp mills, like this five-stamp mill, to pulverize the ore to a powder. Early stamp mills had two to five stamps. Later, banks of forty or more were used. Gold was then separated from this fine powder by the use of mercury, or quicksilver as it was called. Tons of mercury were being washed down from the mountains, all the way to San Francisco Bay, and into food chain, where even today it remains a toxic legacy of the mining era.

Also Shown

Mementos of the miners' entertainment and a Wells Fargo stagecoach.

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