I read the newspaper differently now because I write historical fiction. Articles that I once would have skipped over intrigue me because of their connection to what I write.
On April 30, the Wall Street Journal carried a piece on gold mining in the riverbeds of California. The novel I am currently writing takes place during the California Gold Rush years of 1848-1850, and my protagonist is a miner. Some days I am lost in the roughness of the western frontier.
The Wall Street Journal article discussed “suction-dredge mining,” which uses engine-powered vacuums to suck up and separate the gold from the dirt. In 1848 when gold was first discovered in California, there were no vacuums, but the panning and rocking techniques of the 19th century operated under the same principle – gold is heavier than dirt, and motion can separate the two.
Like the man described in the Wall Street Journal article, the miners of 1848 believed there were millions of dollars in the creek beds – and a few of them even found their fortunes.
The rivers of California’s gold country – the American, the Yuba, the Klamath, and others – still contain the possibility of riches. And men still want to dig it out.
Today the issue is whether suction-dredge mining harms the fish and the water quality of the rivers. Nineteenth century miners didn’t worry about the Fish and Game Department or the Environmental Protection Agency. But writings from the period make it clear how much their mining changed the hillsides and rivers where gold was found.
Progress versus protection. Are the fish worth more than the gold? What of the property rights of a miner whose family has owned the land for almost eighty years? Weighty issues our nation has wrestled with throughout its history.