California’s Mother Lode country presents itself today as a tranquil, low-key place of rolling oak-covered hills, placid streams, stately rivers and picturesque villages that seem caught in some kind of time warp. Although there are still Argonauts searching for gold, there are far more visitors in search of antiques or good wine. It is definitely a far cry from the heady days of the mid-1800s when farmers, tradesmen, businessmen, soldiers and even preachers abandoned their homes and careers in a mad rush to the Sierra foothills. The docks of San Francisco were cluttered with abandoned ships; passengers and crew alike had left them behind without a backward glance as they raced eastward toward their personal Eden.
A few, able to free themselves of the mad insanity of dashing from strike to strike while never quite getting there in time to score, realized there were other ways to make their fortune. Miners needed tools, shelter and food. Shovels, gold pans, tents all jumped in price, if you could find them at all. Eggs sold for a dollar apiece; potatoes and onions for a dollar and a half a pound. Some Argonauts were making do with flour mixed with water and baked over an open fire. Before long, entrepreneurs set up shop peddling everything from vegetables to whiskey. Teamsters contracted to haul food products from the farms in California’s Central Valley. Hardware merchants equipped the still-eager gold seekers with shovels and pans. Rough-hewn buildings were slapped together to serve as lodging for the intrepid miners.
The initial surge only lasted a short time. In fact, the folks who got there in 1849 were already too late. The best and easiest pickings had been claimed in 1848, the year John Marshall saw that bright speck in the millrace of John Sutter’s lumber mill. The gold was still there, but no longer could you find an unoccupied sandbar and scoop up your fortune. Every river bend and sand bar from Downieville to Mariposa had been scoured and scoured again. As the search grew more desperate, miners organized themselves into companies and built ditches far into the Sierra highlands to tap the abundant water there. The water was then channeled to large iron nozzles called monitors that shot the water at high pressure against hillsides that might hide placer gold. The resultant slurry was then run through lengthy sluice boxes to capture the gold. At Malakoff Diggins and Gold Run, acre after acre was washed away until silt threatened to clog rivers. Farmers in California’s Central Valley, who provided the essential food to the miners, watched their irrigation waters become increasingly fouled by the runoff. Their protests eventually forced the state legislature to close down the hydraulic mines. The scars of their operations, denuded hillsides and creek beds filled with sterile dirt, are still visible today.
Mines Become Big Business
The Mother Lode you visit now is not representative of that initial mad rush, but of the time when the search for gold forced miners to go deep into the ground. Whereas that 1848 gold seeker could find his fortune with a gold pan, a rocker or the more sophisticated long tom, the equipment necessary to seek gold deep within the earth required dollars—lots of dollars. Shafts had to be driven with iron and steel headframes to lift the ore out of the earth and transport the miners down to the ore bodies. The ore had to be broken up by enormous stamp mills, then treated with a variety of reagents to free the gold from the complex mineral combinations in which it was found.
Some of these mines produced profits well into the 20th century, but in 1942, when the United States found itself engaged in a two-front World War, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared gold mining a non-essential industry to the war effort. The mines were forced to close. Frequently, the surface equipment was hauled off to be recast as tanks, airplanes or armaments. Few mines reopened after the war. In many Mother Lode communities, all that is left is a few concrete foundations that once held the hoisting machinery and historical markers that explain that at one time this was the site of such and such mine.
There are a few places in Mother Lode country where the structures necessary to wrest the gold ore from the ground still stand. One can be found in the town of Jackson, in the southern portion of the Mother Lode. Jackson is both a modern shopping hub and a vintage gold rush community. Just north of town, a giant headframe and a white mine headquarters building mark the site of the Kennedy mine—one of the deepest mines in the world. Its main shaft reached a depth of 5,912 feet, over a mile, into the earth. Its headframe, which stands over the shaft, towers 125 feet above the ground.
Hard rock mining changed the very nature of gold country. Miners were no longer independent; they were now employees working for daily wages for faceless and frequently far away owners. The ore they dug was processed in carefully guarded facilities and many of the workers never saw the final golden product. In Jackson, many were foreign, often Italian or Serbian. They spoke little or no English. Their work day would begin with 17 men at a time climbing into a skip, a metal container five feet square and 12 feet high, that suddenly plunged 2,000 feet a minute down a pitch black shaft to the workings below.
In the early days of the Kennedy mine, the only light the miners had was candlelight. Later, carbide lamps helped cut the gloom. Danger lurked everywhere. Men were killed when they accidentally made contact with the walls of the shaft as the skip descended. A misstep in the dark tunnels could send a man tumbling down a vertical shaft. Misfired explosives could go off when muckers were shoveling the ore into ore cars. Dust from the constant drilling and blasting played havoc with miners’ lungs. And worst of all, fire could break out. In 1922, a fire in the neighboring Argonaut mine claimed the lives of 47 men.
The Kennedy mine operated from 1860 to 1942. Like most deep mines, water intrusion was a constant problem, and massive pumps had to be operated day and night to keep the shafts from filling with water. With the 1942 closure, efforts to remove the water ceased. When the executive order closing the mines was rescinded in 1945, the owners elected not to attempt to reopen the Kennedy. There was simply too much water intrusion in the deep shafts. Yet during its life span, over $28 million in gold had been taken out at a price of a little over $20 an ounce.
Take a Tour
On weekends, from March through October, you can get a feel of what life was like in hard rock mines. Volunteers will guide you through the surface features of the Kennedy mine, now owned by the non-profit Kennedy Mine Foundation. The two-hour tour provides a detailed explanation of how the ore was mined and processed. The mine office is full of exhibits that go beyond the process of getting the ore out of the ground, even to the company’s care in insuring that workers could not get away with high grade ore secluded in their clothes. Included in the tour is a six-minute movie filmed in 1914 when the mine was in full operation.
In 1914, the Kennedy mine faced legal challenges over the disposition of its tailings, which had been affecting the agriculture that used the nearby creeks and the Mokelumne River. The company was forced to build a huge dam where the slurry of rock and water from the stamp mills could be contained. Unfortunately, the only location where they could do this was across two low ridges from the stamp mills. To solve the problem, they erected four mammoth water wheels. The slurry would be fed by means of a flume to the bottom of the wheel, which would carry the slurry up and dump it into another flume near the top of the wheel. It took two wheels to cross each ridge so that the slurry could be dumped behind the dam. The wheels are not part of the mine tour, although the volunteers tell you how they operated. They can be seen after an easy walk from Jackson Gate Road, a north extension of Main Street.
The Amador County Museum offers another window onto the operations of the Kennedy mine, but unfortunately the museum has been closed temporarily for repairs, and a reopening date is uncertain. The museum, located in a house built in 1859, has a working model of the mine that transforms the on-site views of deteriorating equipment into understandable models of how the raw ore was transformed into gold. Among other facets of life in Jackson, the museum is bluntly honest about the role gambling and prostitution once played. It seems Jackson was rather well known for the ability of residents and visitors to take part in the “seamier sides of life” up into the mid-1900s when a crusading California governor made it his personal mission to shut down the brothels and gaming halls. One suspects he didn’t win many votes for re-election in Jackson.
The town of Jackson offers other inducements along with the Kennedy mine. Many colorful and historical buildings grace the downtown. The National Hotel has catered to visitors since 1852. John Wayne is reputed to have lost a bundle in a poker game at the famed hostelry. Several other buildings in the old downtown area date back to the mid and late 1800s. While our nation has prided itself on being a racial melting pot, ethnic groups in Jackson lived, worshipped and died in separate neighborhoods as ethnic churches and four separate graveyards attest. As a modern shopping and governmental hub, Jackson offers more alternatives to visitors than many of the smaller Mother Lode towns. Yet at the same time, there is the aura of unbelievable fortune that permeates all of the Mother Lode.
Gerald C. Hammon is a full-time RVer who has recently been spending time as a work camper at state parks.
IF YOU GO:
Jackson is at the intersection of state highways 49 and 88. Jackson is 46 miles east of Stockton via Highway 88. Nearby Jackson Rancheria offers an RV park in addition to Indian gaming.
The Kennedy mine is open every Saturday, Sunday and holiday from March to October. Tours are offered between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Admission is $9 for adults, $5 for children 6 through 12 and free for those under 6. For information, visit www.kennedygoldmine.com.
The Amador County Museum is at 225 Church Street. The museum was closed for repairs last July and work has been stalled by lack of funding. Although the grounds are open, the building cannot be entered until repairs are made. For updated information, visit www.co.amador.ca.us/depts./museum/index.cfm or call (209) 223-6375.
From Jackson it’s only a short drive to neighboring Sutter Creek with an abundance of shops and restaurants. Near Plymouth, a few more miles north along Highway 49, you can explore one of California’s premier wine producing areas. The Fiddletown and Shenandoah regions are renowned for their red wines. The Far Horizons 49er Village RV Resort in Plymouth offers Good Sam rates.