Gold Fever

After settling on a white granite ledge, in the shadow of a stately Madrone tree, I noticed a couple lying in the shade, above the cascading waterfall of Oregon Creek. The water was cool, the day hot; California life in the Sierra’s couldn’t get much better. The afternoon certainly made up for those long cold winter days last February.

An hour later, the man strolled over and said hello. He was a tall, medium built man with large, hard-working hands, with the tips of his fingers and nails looking dangerously worn.

I returned the casual gesture, but he continued to stand expectant. After a few awkward moments, I took the conversation to the logical next step.

“You live close by?”

“Yes,” he said pointing upstream. “About ten miles to the east.”gold fever photo

“What do you do up there?”

I asked an innocent question and didn’t expect much of an answer, maybe; “oh nothing much”, or “I work on my farm.” He had the looks of a farmer or mechanic.

To my astonishment, my simple question opened a floodgate of verbiage and he launched into a one-hour monologue of an incredible story.

“I’m a gold miner,” he started, his face contorted into a winsome, far-off gaze.
In a careful, slow manner, as if not to scare me off, he told me about the history of gold mining, and a storehouse of knowledge on the subject he was. He overlaid the mining groundwork with how and where hardrock mines were located, where gold was found in the mines and what the geology of Western Nevada County consisted of.

The entire time he was talking, I got the feeling that there was something he wasn’t saying, like there was more to his story. I was relaxing in the shade, and I had no where to go, so I sat and listened, throwing in a question now and then to keep him talking.

He took a while to unravel the story, all the time gradually talking faster, getting more animated and excited.

“Most of my life I made good money as a heavy equipment operator in Los Angeles,” he said. “Ten years ago, I got the bug. I chucked family and friends to move up here. I got myself a five-inch dredge and I’d been sluicing the rivers for gold nuggets ever since.”

He had some stories about nuggets the size of. . . but then, like fish stories, most locals have nugget stories.

Although his wizened fifty year old, sun bleached face was slightly pinched, his smile, and he smiled often, was wide and cheerful. Whenever the word gold was mentioned, and he broached the subject often, his steel-blue eyes glazed, his bushy eyebrows leapt high on his forehead and he got a far away, apologetic expression.

“For years,” he said, “while working the river and during my short trips to town, I kept hearing stories about an old abandoned hardrock mine. Every time I heard about the mine, and I heard it from many different people, the story always ended with two buried ore cars filled with gold.”

Yes, maybe he’ll finally reveal the hidden secret.

“It happened in 1942,” he continued in a nervous, staccato delivery, incessantly looking around as if someone was listening. “The federal government came into the Sierras and closed down all gold mining operations.”

“The new federal law said that whatever gold was taken out of the mines had to be sold to the government at the going rate. One loophole was; as long as the gold remained in the mine, it didn’t have to be turned in.

“As they left, the story goes, the operators of the mine in question, blasted closed and hid every entrance with Egyptian pyramid efficiency. In one of hundreds of mine shafts they left two one-ton ore cars packed full of extremely high-grade gold. In 1942, the two tons of ore were estimated at 200,000 dollars. At today’s market, the cars could easily be worth twenty million.”

“Why,” I asked, “would someone leave that much ore in an abandoned mine?”

“Who knows? Maybe they planned to return once the government relaxed the restrictions. As the tale goes, no one has ever seen or heard of any of the miners since.”

“So, after all this time of dredging nuggets, you’re no longer a gold miner are you?”

“You’re right,” he said with a Cheshire smile and gleam in his eyes. “Now-days I’m hunting treasure!”

“And what a treasure it is,” I said.

He nodded and continued, “because there were so many stories, all leading to those two ore cars, I made an exhaustive search at the library and courthouse looking for some documentation on the mine. Although there were volumes of information on every other mine in the county, I could only find a single original document filed to open that mine back in the late 1800’s.

“My curiosity got the best of me and one day we hiked back into the forest to see for ourselves if the mine really existed. Although there were no obvious open shafts, we did find rotting buildings and remnants of a mining operation.

“The saga of the mine intrigued me,” he said, with another repentant grimace. “No. . .I guess the story kinda’ got me hooked. “A few years ago myself and three partners made a deal with the owner of the property.

“The first day we arrived as the new operators, two men happened to be walking around the property. Being a friendly sort, I started talking to them. They said they were planning on reopening the mine. I told them we had beaten them to the deal. Although he was disappointed, one of the men said that since we were serious about working the mine, that he had a gift for us.

“A few days later a package came in the mail. Inside was the original diary of the operations from the first day that the mine opened. In the diary, someone clearly wrote about how rich the mine was. One entry, and there were many, said a single pocket of fifty-fifty gold and ore was four feet by eight feet by a hundred feet long. Usually rich pockets are at the most a few feet in diameter.”

We talked a while about the diary and its entries. I knew not to broach any subject about how much gold he’d found so far. In general, miners would just as soon go to their grave than reveal anything about their gold.

He did tell me how they approached his mysterious mine. “The only way we were able to find any hidden shaft entrances at all, was to search out old artifacts among the rock ‘tailings’ piles dumped out of the mine. It took some time, because they hid the entrances so well, but we climbed the mountain above the piles, searching for signs of old openings. We have found some and we are looking for others.

“Often, the entrances were sealed with a single huge stone slab, then covered with dirt and planted. My partners and I have spent the last few years mucking out one shaft after another looking for those two ore cars.”

“Hell man, are you making a living?” I asked.

“Oh sure, we’ve found some gold in the process and we found a rusted Wells Fargo safe.”
He never said if the safe had anything in it.

“Some of the shafts are so old and dangerous that we started working from above the mine through one of the back filled air vents. We are down to sixty feet on one. We’ve had to pull every rock out one at a time. We’re getting down there though, and were going to find those two ore cars. When we do, we’ll split that twenty million.”

“Then are you going to Tahiti, or Hawaii and live in the lap of luxury?”
There was that far away grin again. His eye twitched. He looked around nervously and whispered, “No, I’ll take my part of the money and stake some other mine digs, then do it all over again.”

“I guess gold is in your blood?” I asked as I was gathering my things to leave.

His eyebrows lifted, glistening eyes brightened and he gave me one last apologetic smile, then said, “I never planned my life being this way, but I guess I got gold fever.”

Copyright 1999 by Nik C. Colyer.  All rights reserved.