"Played Out?" (Part 2)
There was a singular descriptive term used by the old timers to describe a gold area they considered no longer economically viable from a gold standpoint. "Played out." Quite often this assessment on their part was accurate within the context of the day, but in a general sense ground that was "played out" wasn't that at all.
Eon Upon Eon
The term "played out" was born in the days of the California Gold Rush (1849-1855) when tens of thousands of gold-seeking aspirants headed West to seek their unique version of what it meant to strike it rich. There was no doubt that the goldfields of Northern California were rich. In fact, they presented some of the richest gold ground ever discovered anywhere...before or since. The Sierra Nevada batholith was approximately 150 miles long and at points, 75 miles wide. This entire region was riddled with lode veins that had been eroding out for millenia and all that gold had found its way downward into the gullies, washes, creeks, streams, and rivers of the western slopes of the Sierras where it accumulated day after day, year after year, century after century, and eon upon eon. During the entire time the Egyptian Pharaohs built their monuments and pyramids that gold continued to accrue, and it went on accumulating long after Egypt's decline. While Rome's armies marched forward to conquer much of the known world that gold kept tumbling down the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas and it continued to do so long after Rome had disappeared as a world power. It just kept coming. Civilizations grew and died, kings and queens waged fruitless wars, and America itself fought for, and won, its independence.
(Satellite view of the Sierra Nevadas.)
On a Good Day...
All the while that California gold was swept ever downward where it came to rest wherever the water slowed or obstructions blocked its downstream path. Ultimately it settled atop unyielding bedrock where it packed into cracks and crevices in staggering amounts. Sometimes it was mixed in amazing quantities into the rocks and dirt of well-positioned gravel bars. Gold was everywhere. You could take a shovelful of dirt from nearly any spot and turn up color...sometimes ounces and yes, even pounds of the glowing yellow metal. Those lucky few who first arrived on scene could pry large nuggets out of crevices and cracks with their pocketknives. And when the Goodyear brothers arrived to claim the large North Yuba River gravel bar that now bears their name, their average take in placer gold per wheelbarrow of gravel processed was $2,000. Not in today's money...but in theirs. On a good day the Goodyear boys put as much as $30,000 into their gold pokes. And that was when their gold could only be sold for $16.00-$18.00 a troy ounce! Yes, the California gold fields were rich beyond belief and those Argonauts who first arrived on scene with a modicum of mining knowledge had the potential to have their golden dreams not only realized, but transformed into wealth that boggled the mind.
(This memorial plaque says it all.)
The Largest Crap Shoot
But despite all the gold that lay buried beneath their feet or in the streams and rivers they worked, most early miners in California barely recovered enough gold to feed and clothe themselves. Lack of mining knowledge afflicted some of these poor souls while others simply lacked the will to make things happen or to endure the hard work and harsh living conditions. Some were just plain unlucky, standing silently by on a claim that was barely producing while their neighbors whooped and hollered and slapped their hats against their thighs each time they did a clean up from their rocker boxes. You see, all that richness wasn't scattered about in equal proportions throughout the Motherlode but deposited in pockets and paystreaks that could be erratic at times. Where one gravel bar was rich beyond belief its neighbor could be nearly barren. Where one section of bedrock produced only a few ounces the section just upstream or downstream from it turned out troy pounds. One level of ancient stream gravels resting atop a clay layer might make King Midas green with envy while another wasn't worth the time it took to process it. It was the largest crap shoot in history but the gold was there. And it was there in unbelievable quantity. A person just had to get at it.
When things went south on a claim, when the so-called easy to get gold petered out, or when their golden dreams were dashed, these old timers sat down on a large rock, wiped a sweaty forehead with a kerchief, lit their pipes, and declared the ground "played out." When their pards nodded in assent or a general consensus was taken from miners on adjoining claims who agreed with this assessment, the claim was abandoned. Left fallow, as it were. For the old timers of this period, the "played out" designation had real and true meaning, and they avoided claims or areas where this qualifier was in effect much the same way they avoided contact with their fellow Argonauts stricken with cholera or typhus. The "played out" locations were left to the second-class citizens of the day...the Chinese or the Mexicans or anyone else who didn't fit the bill as an Anglo-Saxon type. Interestingly enough, the black miners of the day fared better in many instances than the Hispanics and Asians. In fact, there are old tintypes showing blacks working right alongside white miners on joint claims. Anyway, it was the Chinese who most often occupied "played out" ground once it had been abandoned. This was true all through the American West and Southwest long after the California Gold Rush was over. In just about any mining context any time and anywhere, lode or placer; mountains or deserts, the Chinese were there to work that "played out" ground.
(Chinese placer miners working "played out" ground.)
So how could that ground be "played out?" Therein lies the crux of this series of posts...
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
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